Between April and May 2020, SERI has participated in a series of panel discussions looking at how Covid-19 is effecting South African society. The discussions, hosted by The Forge, are aimed at exploring and expanding our understanding of the socio-political issues being highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. SERI has facilitated three discussions on police brutality, illegal evictions and de-densification during the COVID-19 lockdown and participated as a panelist on another discussion exploring the meaning of a state of disaster.
In the first discussion, SERI's Nomzamo Zondo joined Musawenkosi Cabe, a journalist at New Frame and Vuyo Mntonintshi, a candidate attorney at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) to discuss what exactly it means to be in a state of disaster and how it impacts on people's rights. The discussion highlighted the difficulties faced by communities in attempting to assert their rights against police brutality, illegal evictions and a general disregard for human rights during the lockdown. The discussion also grappled with some of the challenges faced by people seeking legal assistance during the lockdown and the challenges of litigating during the lockdown. In relation to the evictions carried out by local municipalities in violation of the national directions, Nomzamo argued that, "if national government cannot make local municiplities to toe the line, it is going to be very difficult to convince private parties to do so. If we all agree that this is a national disaster and that we all need to bring our resources to try and fight against, that means that everybody must be willing to comply and toe the line."
In the discussion on police brutality during the COVID-19 lockdown, SERI's Thato Masiangoako was joined by Elisha Kunene, a candidate attorney at Richard Spoor Inc. Attorneys and Daneel Knoetze, a journalist and the editor of Viewfinder. Elisha Kunene and Daneel Knoetze discussed some of the contemporary and historical reasons behind the reported incidents of police brutality and misuse of force. They also unpacked some of the particular vulnerabilities of poor and marginal communities during the lockdown. Knoetze argued that "poor communities that often challenge the status quo are often subject to extreme and excessive uses of force by the police more often and that their avenues for reporting and for holding the police accountable, whether it be in their own communities or in the broader systemic sense, is hampered and curtailed by the fact that these avenues are inaccessible often and this is something that has been aggravated during lockdown." Knoetze also urged that members of the public continue to insist that the state and security forces be held accountable especially during the lockdown where the public is confined to their homes.
In the discussion on forced removals and evictions, SERI's Edward Molopi was joined by S'bu Zikode, the founding president of Abahlali baseMjondolo and Kelly Kropman of Kropman Attorneys. The discussion traced illegal evictions in South Africa to a long history of various modes of forced removals. The participants noted a distressful trend of a growing list of private owners and municipalities showing little regard for the ban on evictions laid down as part of the COVID-19 response package. Centrally, the discussion highlighted individual and collective rights that people have and how they can go about enforcing those rights. Kropman argued that, in eviction cases, the interest of justice should always take precedence over whether or not someone has paid for their occupation, "we shouldn't view people's values, around evictions, as purely as that of an economic story", she added. Zikode argued for a more equitable distribution and access to land through "realising the right to land" and "the removal of land as a commodity."
In the discussion on the de-densification of dense settlements, SERI's Edward Molopi was joined by Marie Huchzermeyer, a Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University where she convenes the Master of Urban Studies degree and Axolile Notywala, an activist and General Secretary of the Social Justice Coalition. The discussion considers the use of de-densification of dense settlements as mitigation and a preventative strategy against COVID-19 and explores the social, political, economic and technical impact of de-densification and the disruption it is likely to cause. The discussion further considered the historically justified mistrust of government-sponsored temporary removal and how people respond to this state-sanctioned form of forced removal. Lastly, the discussion considered the importance of a planned approach to informal settlements. Notjwala argued against the perception of informal settlements as temporary"informal settlements have for a number of years been seen as temporary [by the state] which leads to a lack of prioritisation in investing in informal settlements and the reactionary approach when disasters arrive. We need to start recognising that informal settlements, as informal as they are, are permanent. We need to start seeing people living in informal settlements as part of our cities, they are residents belonging to our cities. When we start recognising that we will start treating people as people and involving them in planning processes." Huchzermeyer argued for a more coordinated state involvement in informal settlements "in addition to recognising the settlements as permanent the state needs to coordinate its involvement in these settlements. It needs to know those who live in these settlements and how they are organised."