As a result of the impact the COVID-19 virus had on South Africa thus far, the President announced a nationwide lockdown for South Africa from midnight 26 March 2020 until midnight 16 April 2020.
During the lockdown, all South Africans must stay home, except in circumstances that are strictly controlled, such as to seek medical care, to go to the supermarket for food, to buy medicine or to collect a social grant.
The President further announced that certain categories of people will be exempted from the lockdown, such as health workers and emergency personnel, security services, those involved with the distribution of food and basic goods, essential banking services, the maintenance of power, water and telecommunication services and laboratory services. The President also announced that all shops must be closed, except pharmacies, banks, supermarkets, petrol stations and health care providers. All other business that can continue their operations remotely must do so.
During this time, some may feel that they will have limited access to justice and feel unsure as to how their pending disputes at courts or other alternative forums will be dealt with, however, it is important to follow the measures that have already been put into place.
On 20 March 2020, it was announced that no member of the public will be allowed to enter the premises of a court, unless s/he is an essential party to a matter. For example, an accused, witnesses, a litigant (such as plaintiff or defendant), adults accompanying children and so on. It was also announced that postponements of matters where an accused person is in custody, must be made through the use of audio-visual equipment and other electronic measures.
On 17 March 2020, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (“CCMA”), which deals with labour disputes, announced that all matters between 18 March 2020 and 14 April 2020 will be postponed. These dates may be adjusted to be brought in line with the national lockdown. The CCMA also announced that they will only attend to matters that are being referred through electronic methods, such as e-mails and everyone is encouraged to make use of these methods. Measures are also put in place to ensure that conciliations continue telephonically (if agreed to by all relevant parties).
In light of the above, it is clear that courts and alternative dispute resolution forums are taking every possible factor into account to ensure continuous access to justice with the least amount of disruption of pending matters and new matters. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving rise to unprecedented situations and it is important for everyone to stay informed and to ensure that they verify their sources of information to avoid fake news.
“I call on all of us, one and all to play our part. To be courageous, to be patient, and above all, to show compassion.” – President Cyril Ramaphosa