NATIONAL NEWS - The Presidency has defended the existence of the Covid-19 National Command Council (NCC) and its alleged excessive power, saying the members are part of the Cabinet and are doing their work.
The Presidency said there were no rules dictating how the Cabinet should organise its work to ensure the best coordination of its members and ideal means of fulfilling their function.
The statement was issued by the Presidency director-general and Cabinet secretary Dr Cassius Lubisi, in response to advocates who questioned the excessive powers wielded by the NCC that appeared to undermine the functions of the existing legislative and statutory structures.
Earlier, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter that the overriding objective of doing things in the way they were as the NCC, was the preservation of life and to ensure the dignity of South Africans in the light of the devastation wrought by Covid-19.
Although the lawyers did not explain exactly who was the party with interest to litigate in the matter, they said it appeared the state power was moved from the Cabinet to a select few members, including the president.
They cited the fact that there were only nine Cabinet members, including Ramaphosa, in the NCC, when the rest were not part of the group.
The advocates, Nazeer Cassim and Erin Richards, acting at the instruction of RHK Attorneys in Johannesburg, argued that they were concerned this arrangement risked rendering the country’s constitution and democracy malfunctioning. It also had the potential to undermined parliament’s oversight function over the executive.
It appeared that the NCC wielded massive powers and that the government was not transparent about the structure.
It was concerning that the NCC appeared to have usurped the constitutional and statutory powers of the Cabinet and statutory functionaries operating in terms of the Disaster Management Act (DMA).
They gave Ramaphosa an ultimatum to reply to the letter or they would take him to court.
Lubisi, in a letter responding to the advocates’ claims that the NCC interfered with powers of some ministers, said the Cabinet acted as a collective, therefore – in the case of a communicable disease disaster – the responsibilities of numerous Cabinet members may be affected by the actions of the minister responsible to administer the Disaster Management Act.
He said that Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had consulted and factored the view of other ministers before finalising the regulations was no interference.
“It is collective work from a collectively accountable body. No Cabinet member works in isolation,” Lusibi said.
The NCC had accounted to parliament for its decisions and actions.
He cited Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and other ministers’ various meetings with the parliamentary portfolio committees.
“Parliament duly had relevant Cabinet members account to relevant structures such as portfolio committees on the work that has been done, choices made, in short, on the exercise of their powers and functions as required by the Constitution. So far, 17 such briefings have already taken place as is apparent from the publicly available parliamentary programme,” Lubisi said.
Although Cassim described the response from the Presidency as “wishy-washy”, he said he was not intending to litigate.
“My objective was not to litigate but I wanted to ensure the president is not autocratic. I am happy that the president undertook to confer with the Cabinet on the matter,” Cassim said.
In his earlier statement, Ramaphosa said the lockdown regulations were informed by empirical evidence, scientific and economic data and international best practice.
“The regulations we have put in place are founded on that commitment to life and dignity, and which justify – in these extreme circumstances – temporary restrictions on other rights, like freedom of movement and association. In doing this, South Africa is not unlike many other countries,” Ramaphosa said.
He cited a 1995 judgment by the Constitutional Court in which former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson wrote: “The rights to life and dignity are the most important of all human rights and the source of all other personal rights. By committing ourselves to a society founded on the recognition of human rights we are required to value these two rights above all others.”