Groups protest unemployment and low wages, as CSO faults regulations on COVID-19 disinformation

Peaceful Assembly

On 14th February 2020, a day after the South African president issued the state of the nation address, residents of Botshabelo in the Free State province took to the streets to protest the high rate of unemployment in the township, and also called for the eradication of informal ablution systems in the area, which they claimed had been neglected by the municipal council. They petitioned the government to fast-track the launch of industrial businesses to address unemployment in the township. The police monitored the protests as the protesters sang revolutionary songs in the streets while carrying pamphlets.

In his state of the nation address, President Ramaphosa acknowledged that fundamental change was needed in changing things around in South Africa.  

Separately, in February 2020, hospital workers at Entabeni hospital went on strike to demand a wage increase of at least 7%. The workers took to the streets after negotiations facilitated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) failed to reach a mutual agreement. In a similar incident, in early February 2020, members of staff at the University of South Africa (UNISA) went on strike to demand a salary increase. The strike followed a failure by the parties to reach an agreement as the workers demanded an 8.9 to 9% increase, while the university counter offered at only 6%. The institution later resorted to hiring an independent negotiator to try and reach a settlement with the employees.

Expression

In March 2020, amid the corona virus (COVID-19) outbreak, civil society expressed concern about newly published regulations which criminalise disinformation about the corona virus, stating that the regulations could be abused and could also lead to the limitation of vital information. The new regulations criminalise statements intended to deceive any person about COVID-19 or the government's response to the pandemic.

CPJ Africa programme coordinator Angela Quintal said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic must be taken seriously, but passing laws that emphasise criminalising disinformation over educating the public and encouraging fact-checking present a slippery slope and send the wrong message to other countries that may be less measured in drafting such laws… South Africa’s post-apartheid commitment not to criminalise information has been a beacon for press freedom across Africa, but these new regulations have the potential to dim that light, opening up the possibility of abuse and limitations on vital information and facts.”

South African media lawyer, Dario Milo, however said that while criminalising disinformation was generally undesirable, the regulations in question, which allow prosecution only of malicious falsehoods, were likely to be legally defensible.