Editor’s note September 2020

By MYRLE VANDERSTRAETEN, Published in Editor's Note

A country made up of a disparate people, Heritage Day is a day to celebrate both individual cultural heritage and the wider diversity of all those living in a nation that was intended to belong to all its people.

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Google Heritage Day and government's website about the public holiday appears not to have been updated since a document was posted on 24 September 2013. It reads, in part, 'The Department of Arts and Culture in partnership with the Eastern Cape Provincial Government will host the 2013 National Heritage Day celebration under the theme, Reclaiming, Restoring and Celebrating Our Living Heritage'. It describes the day as being one on which 'South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people'.

Instead, our nation has become increasingly fractured. Twenty-five years after democracy, xenophobia is an ever-present problem and there is concern about the gender violence and violence against those whose diversity often enriches the country.

In these uncertain times when the lockdown, on top of a severe economic downturn, has seen many people out of work, there is growing anger about the lack of accountability. We have yet to see anyone prosecuted for the billions that have enriched a few and citizens are incredulous that some continue to hold positions of power while various state entities, including Eskom, battle to keep the lights on. And people now question the strength of our legal system.

We carry two articles on questionable decisions made by government during lockdown – the ban on alcohol and the tobacco ban. These bans may have been lifted, but it has been made clear that they can be re-imposed at any stage. Badly thought through, these bans saw individuals out of work and the economy hard hit at a time when the revenue was sorely needed. Instead, the black market thrived and thousands were prosecuted for disobeying lockdown regulations. As Jonathan Witts-Hewinson comments in his article, 'If there is the potential for everyone to become a criminal because their conduct is not regarded by general society as wrong or reprehensible, then the state is inviting disobedience from its citizens'.

Now Transport Minister Mbalula said that new legislation on drinking and driving will be introduced by December. Drivers will not be able to drink at all. While we all applaud efforts to make our roads safer, I wonder what measures will be introduced to curb bribery and corruption by Metro Police?

Currently, in stark contrast, lesser lockdown crimes are swiftly brought to book. Between April and June, 298 252 people were arrested for violating lockdown regulations and, while some 181 000 were released with a warning to appear before court, 28 000 were found guilty of offences relating to liquor, gatherings, transport, business and border violations. They will have criminal records. To be fair, Police Minister Bheki Cele did say, 'Unfortunately, most of the people arrested will come out with criminal records and it is not our aim to criminalise South Africans. This is why the Minister of Justice and Correctional services is looking at this issue". But he was unable to indicate whether this meant Minister Lamola would entertain a plan to expunge the criminal records of those violating the lockdown regulations.

Most South Africans have been sickened by reports of local government official hoarding or selling food donations. And it is said that the Special Investigating Unit is looking into corruption by 160 companies related PPE. I doubt anyone has said it better than WHO director-general Tedros who was asked to comment on corruption in the PPE area in South Africa, 'Any type of corruption is unacceptable. 'However, corruption related to PPE ... for me it's actually murder and it has to stop'.

It is little wonder that 'the people' are less than impressed. Government has appointed ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule to root out and review corruption allegations against party members. Apparently, legal experts will guide the process. It is all fraught with challenges, since Secretary-General Magashule is himself associated with several issues requiring investigation. Was there not someone 'squeaky clean' government could have appointed, or was that too dangerous?

The environment too is our heritage. South Africa is a beautiful country; its diverse landscapes attract thousands of visitors both local and foreign. This month's environmental feature on the role played by the law in our country is fascinating. It is our challenge to ensure that what we have is maintained. The legislation promulgated has to ensure that it achieves what is intended; too often it fails. Some of the articles paint a graphic, and depressing picture.

The Ford Wildlife Foundation published an interesting article related to women's month in August and the role played by women in the areas of conservation and restoration. The Global Gender Gap Index produced by The World Economic Forum indicates that it will take 99.5 years for gender parity to be achieved. However, in the environmental space in South Africa more and more women are playing a vital role. Foundation CEO, Yolan Friedmann comments that the Minister for the Environment is a woman, as is the chair of the SANParks Board and that the majority of applications for recruitment the Foundation receives are from women. The Foundation supports projects to ensure the sustainability of threatened and endangered animals, plant species and habitats.

The cover artwork that we are publishing courtesy of the Constitutional Court Trust is particularly striking and uplifting – something so badly needed. As is always said, with freedom comes great responsibility. It is to be hoped that this artwork makes a great impact at this time.

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