The pandemic and power

By Anton Katz SC

Whenever individuals band together, whether as a family, a social or sports club, a home-owners or sectional-title block, a street, a suburb, a village, township, a city, province, region, continent or the world they need administrators or governors to run the group’s affairs.

The administration/governance requirement applies both to the internal dynamics of the group as well as its external relationship with other individuals and other groups. And it is humans, and only humans, who can play the role. But which persons are to manage the concerns of the collection of individuals? Is it those who volunteer? Those who are oldest in the group? Those who have accumulated the greatest wealth? The prettiest, the tallest, the strongest, the fastest or the fiercest? What about the wise in the group or the smartest — i.e. those with the IQ? What about the sons or daughters of the previous governor? And who is to decide who is to do the job?

Many different theories about the nature of humans abound. Some say that without proper rules, laws and effective leaders, life will be short, nasty and brutish. Others disagree — humans are good and care for each other. Not only that, but we are all affected by each other’s conduct. If one does a good deed for others, it will be repaid many times over. The theories result in ideas like karma (for every action there is a corresponding result); what you reap you will sow; live a good life and heaven will be the reward. Whatever the truth is about the nature of the human spirit, there are numerous neutral and simple administrative issues which require governance. An obvious example is which side of the road drivers are to use. It makes no difference morally or ethically whether we drive on the left or the right. But what is important is that there is uniformity, proper rules and enforcement of those rules. Or else chaos would occur and that is not in anybody’s interest. So there needs to be a set of rules made by those who administer and govern.

Conventional wisdom holds that of the many different ways of determining who is to govern, the best is by way of democracy. And democracy is furthered by elections. Interestingly, even despots and totalitarian regimes will hold elections. They do this so that they can say that the people have chosen them to rule. Even dictators recognise or pretend to respect the conventional wisdom that electing leaders is the best method for administrators. So elections are important.

Recognising that elections are crucial for a fair society, two elements are at stake. The one is that elections must be held regularly. And regularly can mean different things. So, for the synagogue or a church committee, ‘regular’ means that elections should be at least once a year. But an election for a city council or national parliament may appropriately occur “regularly” every 4 or 5 years. The second is that an election must be free and fair. It is of no value to hold an election regularly, if it is not free and fair. The choice of the leaders would not be respected by the people if the election is not free and fair. So what happens, if for whatever reason, it is impossible to hold a regular election which is free and fair? May an election be postponed, and if so for how long?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this challenge into sharp relief. Governments all over the world have struggled with the challenge of organising free and fair elections which were due, because to do so may have created super-spreader events leading to many unnecessary deaths and health emergencies. Health safety is paramount. It is all well and good to protect the right to vote and the right to choose one’s leaders, but at what expense? There is no point in voting only to get seriously ill and possibly lose one’s life because you stood in a long queue to register as a voter, attended an election rally or voted on an election day. Another conundrum is whether, in the interests of people’s safety, it is lawful (free and fair) to permit only those who are fully vaccinated to register and vote.

And if there is to be postponement of the regular election, how long should it be for? Until after the pandemic? Until after the next wave? These medical predictions are wholly unknown even to the best scientists and medical experts. Yet someone has to make these tough decisions. And the people in power are the ones making the decisions. It cannot be ignored that they have vested (corrupt?) interest in delaying elections for as long as possible. The longer the postponement, the longer those elected stay in office and enjoy the power. So, if a shul’s AGM is postponed because of the pandemic or another reason, those elected onto the shul committee remain in office after their regular term has lapsed.

The coronavirus pandemic has been really tough for many all over the world. But it cannot be denied that in many ways the pandemic and its consequences have been useful to some. Certain industries, such a mask manufacturers, may have benefited financially by the pandemic. But what needs to be considered carefully is how power, that corrupts so easily, can be abused and skillfully played with during the life and after-life of a pandemic. And a postponement of a constitutionally and lawfully mandated regular election is as good as any place to start for those hungry for extended power.

Anton Katz is a practising Senior Counsel, former United Nations special rapporteur on mercenaries and human rights, former Acting High Court Judge, and an admitted attorney in New York. He was born and raised in Sea Point.

• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Get the PDF here.

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