South Africa as a constitutional democracy has been tested to the extent possible thus far. Photo: SAPS/Twitter
South Africa as a constitutional democracy has been tested to the extent possible thus far. Photo: SAPS/Twitter

The balancing act between lives and livelihoods amid Covid-19

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published May 21, 2020

Share this article:

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa as a constitutional democracy has been tested to the extent possible thus far. Right at the beginning of the fledgling democracy, Dr Louis Luyt challenged the government and then president Nelson Mandela was hauled to appear before the courts of Law in March 1998.

Madiba had just led a successful campaign of Rugby World Cup three years earlier and the spirits of the nation were fever high as South Africa emerged both in Rugby and Soccer as sporting champions.

Madiba’s defence “insisted that he alone had made the decision to form a commission and that a sport, which had played such a huge role in nation building, could not be seen as a private matter, particularly when a cloud of suspicion hung over those who ran it".

He said that the South African Rugby Union could not be left to regulate itself when internal democracy seemed lacking. 

"The feeling is that Louis is a pitiless dictator,"  South Africa's first democratically elected president told the court. "No one can stand up to him." 

By so doing and saying, Madiba demonstrated that no one is above scrutiny or law.  He thus set a clear principle that South Africa’s democracy aspires to and should live by.  

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s government faced serious litigation on many fronts as regards realisation of rights, one of which was about treatment of HIV / Aids.  Aspects of the HIV / Aids stance by the government then are actually important to revisit in the context of the race for a vaccine for coronavirus.  

The contestation of profits over health would have not been as vexed today. Perhaps it is because of the global nature of how coronavirus manifested itself versus how HIV / Aids was predominantly an African challenge with South Africa as the epicentre.

The question is whether the South African stance of ultimately succeeding in forcing adoption of generics and lowering the cost of care and treatment for HIV / Aids does not set the lessons for how pharmaceutical industries should position themselves for coronavirus.

Fast forward to former president Jacob Zuma, he had a fair share of being in and out of the courts of law and this included a judgement against legislators whom Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng found them very wanting in holding the executive to account.

He found them to have been captured while very scathing on the conduct of Zuma, who was expected to not only protect the constitution, but represented the constitution itself.

We do not only face state capture consequences, but we are readying ourselves for the eye of the coronavirus storm.  

Here again as litigation on state capture is yet to start and thanks to the robustness of our constitutional democracy that empowered the Public Protector’s Office even in the dying days of her tenure to pursue this important historical moment. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa in hardly in the second year of his term in office has become a beneficiary of the biggest challenge not only in his life but in known history.  High Court and Constitutional court filings are coming thick and fast as coronavirus manifestation becomes a human rights issue and at the centre is the inextricable umbilical cord between lives and livelihoods.

As a young boy growing up in Lesotho I have seen how when a cat is faced with the decision between lives and livelihoods, it makes the difficult choice of devouring its kittens.

May it be that under the circumstances the weaker do not become the victims of the balancing act between lives and livelihoods.

The message of how society in the post coronavirus cannot tolerate the haves and the have nots living comfortably side by side because the have nots remain in danger of being the real meal.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.  Meet him at and @palilj01


Share this article:

Related Articles