News analysis

    A turned-over turtle.
    • South Africa's national state of disaster around the coronavirus is now 666 days old.
    • During that time, the government has ruled by decree, granting itself that power on a month-to-month basis.
    • The state of disaster must be renewed again this week, or it will lapse automatically.
    • It can still be reimposed at any time.
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    South Africa's national state of disaster around the coronavirus pandemic is 666 days old as of Monday.

    For nearly 22 months, since 15 March 2020, the government has kept up that state of disaster – and the sweeping powers it gives the executive branch to rule many parts of daily life by decree – on the basis of the "need to continue augmenting the existing legislation and contingency arrangements undertaken by organs of state to address the impact of the disaster."

    The official state of disaster must be renewed again this week, by Saturday, or it will lapse at the end of its latest month-to-month extension – which is required if a state of disaster is to last for more than three months. It can, at any time, be revoked, and can also be re-imposed, all by a simple gazetted declaration from co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

    In November, Cabinet said the state of disaster would be extended into December because measures taken under it "continue to assist in the country’s fight to stop the spread of Covid-19."

    By 9 December, Cabinet was describing the aim of the national state of disaster as "responding to the special circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic".

    South Africa has since then overtly moved away from a focus on reducing transmission, relaxing long-standing restrictions even while stressing  "the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant", on the basis of a low rate of hospitalisation.

    The state of disaster is currently used as the legal underpinning for the regulations that require masks to be worn, and that ban drinking in public, and that limit indoor gatherings to a thousand people. 

    Those rules have previously also been used to ban the sale of roast chickensand cigarettesand haircuts, to set strict conditions for visiting Gauteng, and to decree exactly what kinds of winter clothing shoppers could buy.

    At no point in the last 95 weeks has the government showed any intention of creating a legislative framework that would allow it to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions such as mandatory masks with the input of Parliament, or without holding on to the power to instantaneously change rules that limit the free movement of people and goods. 

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