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Covid-19 and the shrinking democratic space in SADC



The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus is SADC in early March 2020 saw most governments pass
emergency laws or declared states of emergency, decisions which have far-reaching
consequences for political participation and inclusion, risking a new crisis of democracy.

State security institutions were activated and deployed to help enforce the lockdown, stay at home and
social distancing policy measures. The Corona virus has provided a perfectly fine accident, which
autocrats used to trample upon citizens’ basic freedoms and rights, silence critics, muzzle the
media and clamp on civil society organisations especially those involved in advocacy, democracy,
and human rights.

While governments in the SADC region have authority to pass laws imposing lock down regulations when necessary to contain a contagious disease outbreak, the more salient question is how those laws are implemented. However, these powers are not unbounded. The individual’s right to liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression are enshrined in constitutions to constrain government action.

The lock down regulations in South Africa and Malawi were challenged and deemed unconstitutional as the measures were deemed not to meet the objectives of curbing the virus. On the other hand, it
should be noted that the legal rules developed in times of emergency may be protected by the
judiciary through the status quo bias built into the legislative system or by the formation of
bureaucracies and interest groups that coalesce around the new measures and block subsequent
efforts to repeal them.

To enforce the lockdown most SADC governments deployed officials and security services in
SADC who perpetrated violence against their own citizens. Allegations of abuses committed by
the police and soldiers range from forcing people to do physical exercises, arbitrary arrests, assault
and in some instances murder in the name of enforcing lockdown regulations.

The preferences to deploy the police and the military by SADC countries draws on ‘law and order’ traditionalism and connect in a reciprocal way with the crony orientation of accumulation and a grip onto power. In addition, another indicator that points to the shrinking democratic space was the used of the pandemic ban many aspects of political and electoral life including modification, postponement,
or cancellation of elections in light of the health risks posed by the pandemic.

The right to peaceful assembly was persistently under attack even before the advent of Covid-19 in Southern Africa. The pandemic created a convenient excuse for governments to ban public gatherings and demonstrations on the arguments of enforcing social distance and avoiding the spread of
infections. Public health interest was advanced, despite that governments and ruling party officials
having shown to have acted above the law and being immune from these restrictions.

Another example of the shrinking democratic space in SADC during the COVID-19 pandemic is
reflected in the attempted or successful bypassing or suspension of effective democratic controls
on government. It should be noted that the emergency regulations were made by the executive
branch and therefore did not proceed through the regular primary legislative process where
democratic scrutiny is maximized.

While this form of enacting delegated legislation is ex ante approved by Parliament, it evades rigorous parliamentary scrutiny at the point of enactment. Democracy can be suppressed not only in the postponement and cancellation of elections and referenda, but in censorship and the stifling of a free media.

State officials in SADC have been accused of suppressing narratives about their responsibility in failing to contain the outbreak in their own countries and the hyper-politicization of COVID-19, combined with the devastating consequences of lockdown measures, also created a fertile breeding ground for domestic disinformation activities. Providing transparency and access to information assists in securing proper political accountability and observance of the rule of law, and for the better advancement of measures to contain and slow the spread of COVID-19.

The adoption of excessive and disproportionate emergency measures during the lockdown period
was unnecessary as they infringed and still pose a grave danger to human rights and civil liberties
in the SADC region. The insistence on a centralized control of the COVID-19 narrative, and the
adoption of a disciplinarian approach to enforcement of viral control measures, are themselves
generators of fear and increased reliance on, and deference toward, the emphatic authority of the

These measures are clearly excessive and disproportionate, and there is a grave danger for
these emergency measures to persist for future repurposing. It is common cause that policy
choices have long-run consequences and the challenge is to contest the drive towards a
permanent centralisation of state power under the cover of Covid-19 and advocate for reforms
that would redistribute power to citizen.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, the largest city in Central China in December 2019,
the Southern African Development Community (SADC) recorded its first case in early March 2020. Thirteen of the Sixteen SADC countries responded to the pandemic by passing declarations of a state of emergency, which envisaged various measures that included locking down the economy, imposing curfews, restricting international travel, instituting, and imposing quarantine measures, and issuing stay at home orders.

Such measures were reinforced by threats of criminal sanction. The police and the military were deployed to enforce the lock down regulations. Reports on allegations of human right abuse committed by the police and soldiers within the SADC region have been documented and these range from forcing people to do physical exercises, arbitrary arrests, bribes, rape assault and in some instances murder.

The pandemic provided a perfect context to curtail fundamental human rights under the legal veil of
emergency measures. Rights including the right to privacy, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression,
freedom of movement and association were disregarded in ways that were overly excessive and

Some political elites took advantage of the panic and pandemonium caused by the Covid19 pandemic and converted it into a tool to abuse of power, censorship, weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health. In some instances, the lock down regulations were used as a pretext to undermine the oversight role of parliament and to disregard the fundamental constitutional and political values in representative democracies.

To make the situation more precarious, the Covid-19 pandemic became a catalyst to a worsening
democratic space in the region inundated by restrictive laws and policies coupled with funding restrictions, administrative hurdles, general hostility towards civil society organisations; fuelled by populist rhetoric, media reports, legal persecution and physical attacks on individuals and political interference in the work of Non-Governmental Organisations. It is conceivable that lock down policy measures adopted by most countries in the SADC region were decontextualized, ignored a broader macro perspective, were sunk in cost fallacy, power relationships, as well as the inadequacy of voice and democratic governance.

A Wuhan-inspired all-or-nothing approach to viral containment set a dangerous precedent for future
pandemics and disasters, with the global copycat response indicating an impending ‘pandemic’ of a
different sort, that is authoritarianist. It should be noted that desperate measures usually have a way of
enduring beyond the life of the situations that created them.

The adoption and implementation of the emergency measures was to a greater extent excessive and disproportionate, and there is a grave danger for these emergency measures to persist for future repurposing. The ratchet effect has been well documented in policy making in times of crisis, where emergency power originally described as temporary, have been made permanent.

Therefore, a de jure state of emergency can become de facto when measures are extended beyond the
stipulated timeframe of a declared state of emergency which is the case for most SADC counties. Hence,
the impact of the epidemic in relation to shrinking democratic space is inseparable from the abuse and
distribution of power.

This article is an executive summary of report compiled by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition titled: The Southern Africa Power Matrix: Covid-19 and the shrinking democratic space in Sadc

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