Today is meant to be a celebration of our hard-won human rights, but the reality is that many of these human rights were eroded more in the past year than in any other time in the history of our democracy. If we’re honest with ourselves, South Africa has very little to celebrate on this Human Rights Day.

It is now almost exactly one year since South Africa was first placed under lockdown following the arrival of the coronavirus in March last year. And during this time, under cover of the ever-extended Disaster Management Act, South Africans have been forced to forfeit right after right as government’s failure to respond to the pandemic in a meaningful, scientific way opened the door for petty authoritarianism and even brutality.

A recent report published by the Institute for Security Studies and titled “How to reduce police brutality in South Africa” reveals some shocking statistics recorded by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). In the first 40 days of lockdown, 32 South Africans were killed and 25 allegedly tortured at the hands of the police. This 40 day period saw 589 complaints of assault filed against the police, 141 complaints relating to the discharge of an official firearm, and eight alleged rapes by police officers.

With no parliamentary oversight and no other mechanisms to question its rationality, the Disaster Management Act also enabled government to curtail citizens’ rights to earn a living, their right to free movement, and the rights of children to receive an education. Month after month, for an entire year, this Act has been extended to allow a small group of the Executive to circumvent our country’s checks and balances and crush the rights of its citizens.

But undoubtedly the biggest violation of the human rights of South Africans has been government’s failure to procure Covid-19 vaccines, and its failure to put in place a rollout plan for when it might one day purchase meaningful amounts of the vaccine. This has been the ANC government’s single worst failure in the 27 years of our democracy.

Its inexplicable failure to procure vaccines timeously, when these vaccines were available to it, is a violation of people’s rights, in terms of Section 27(1) of the Constitution, to have access to healthcare services, as well as a violation of government’s obligation in terms of Section 27(2) to take reasonable measures to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to access healthcare. Furthermore it is a violation of every citizen’s right to life, as enshrined in Section 11 of the Bill of Rights.

As part of the DA’s effort to hold government to account on its vaccine programme, we have just launched a vaccination tracker to monitor South Africa’s vaccine procurement and nationwide rollout. The tracker can be found at This data will be used to keep tabs on our progress and will help protect the rights of each and every South African.

The fact that South Africa has only managed to get hold of a couple of tiny test batches of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and are now vaccinating at a paltry 7,000 people a day, while our comparable peers like Chile or Rwanda are doing ten to twenty times more than this, should be a source of great shame for our government. We are already seeing the devastating effect of this as South Africa is now the most travel-restricted country in the world, as other economies are opening up to business and tourism. Elsewhere in the world one could expect cabinet resignations for such a shambolic performance.

This failure is not, as President Ramaphosa tried to tell us, a result of “vaccine nationalism” where other countries hoarded all the stocks so we could not order them. His government had exactly the same opportunities to enter into negotiations and place orders back in June and July of last year, when these other countries were doing so. But they didn’t. Instead they waited until January this year before the Health Department even applied to National Treasury for deviation from the regular procurement process so that vaccines could be bought. This has left us in the position we are today, where we have to scrape and beg for leftovers, and where our vaccination programme will only begin when other countries are already concluding theirs. This is an unforgivable dereliction of government’s sworn duties and obligations.

Nothing the government has offered in the way of explanation has provided any satisfactory answers on this issue. Their assurances of having “secured” tens of millions of vaccines by different suppliers for delivery at undisclosed dates “in the second quarter” or “in the second half of the year” are clearly dishonest, as the Health Minister himself has admitted their vaccination target would likely be missed as these stocks might not be available. In this context, the word “secured” is entirely meaningless.

Equally unforgivable is government’s refusal to administer the one million AstraZeneca vaccines it bought at a five-times inflated price back in January, and which have since been lying in a Johannesburg warehouse as their expiry date creeps ever closer. This vaccine has been proven safe and effective against the dominant strain of the virus, and has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), as well as our own leading vaccinology expert, Professor Shabir Madhi. With winter and the prospect of a third wave looming, government’s willingness to let R75 million of precious vaccines expire is criminal.

We cannot celebrate Human Rights Day today and not reflect on this terrible violation of the rights of South Africans to healthcare and the protection they should be afforded by a large-scale vaccine rollout. The DA will not let government off the hook, and we will not rest until every South African who wants the vaccine has received it.

Our only hope to realise the rights of all our citizens – whether this is the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to work or any of the civil liberties that have gradually been eroded under the Disaster Management Act – lies in the immediate rollout of a large-scale vaccination programme. If this ANC government claims to care about human rights at all, that is where they should start.

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John Steenhuisen

John Steenhuisen is federal leader of the Democratic Alliance, opposition party of the Republic of South Africa.

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