South Africa to expunge criminal records of Covid-19 lawbreakers

More than 400,000 South Africans were arrested for offences including not wearing masks and breaking curfew
More than 400,000 South Africans were arrested for offences including not wearing masks and breaking curfew - MARCO LONGARI/AFP

South Africa’s parliament has voted to expunge criminal records for those convicted of breaching the country’s severe Covid-19 lockdown laws.

The country of 60 million people imposed some of the world’s toughest restrictions to stop the spread of infections, after Cyril Ramaphosa, the  president, declared a national state of disaster in March 2020

Measures included curfews, a ban on alcohol and the deployment of more than 70,000 troops.

More than 400,000 people were arrested for offences including not wearing masks, consuming alcohol and breaking curfew. Many had to pay fines.

The measures were criticised for disproportionately harming the poor who needed to work to survive and criminalising large numbers who were only trying to earn a livelihood.

Widespread backing

Criminal records also threatened to harm people’s chances of finding work, activists said.

Those who admitted guilt and paid fines will now have their records cleared, said Bulelani Magwanishe, the justice committee chairman.

The wide-ranging Judicial Matters Amendment Bill must be approved by the National Council of Provinces, and then signed into law by Mr Ramaphosa, but with widespread backing among MPs, it is expected to become law.

“May we never again have such irrational regulations which were passed without parliamentary intervention or oversight,” said Steven Swart, an MP for the opposition African Christian Democratic Party, which supported the bill.

Veronica Mente, an MPP for the Economic Freedom Fighters party, said: “The prosecutions and persecutions that came about as a result of the regulations flowing from the Disaster Management Act during the pandemic demonstrated the depth into which our judiciary system could be used to severely limit the rights of individuals.”

“May the law never again be used in pursuit of sinister motives such as what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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