South Africa's parliament has passed a bill that would expunge the criminal records of individuals convicted of violating Covid-19 lockdown laws. The country had implemented some of the strictest restrictions in the world, resulting in over 340,000 convictions for offenses such as not wearing masks, breaking curfew, and consuming alcohol.
Under the new bill, individuals who admitted guilt and paid fines will have their records cleared. This development has been largely welcomed by South Africans, who have raised concerns about the negative impact of criminal records on employment prospects. Many individuals were finding it difficult to secure jobs due to their previous convictions.
Before becoming law, the bill must be approved by the National Council of Provinces and signed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. However, there is little doubt that it will receive the necessary support and become legislation. The Judicial Matters Amendment Bill garnered broad political backing during its parliamentary debate.
While the bill has been embraced by most, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) expressed partial support but ultimately withheld full endorsement. EFF MP Veronica Mente raised concerns about the potential abuse of the judiciary system during the pandemic, stating that the regulations stemming from the Disaster Management Act had limited individuals' rights. Mente emphasized the need to prevent similar abuses of power in the future.
South Africa only fully lifted its Covid restrictions in April 2022, as evidence emerged of widespread job losses and significant economic losses during the pandemic. The expungement of criminal records for Covid-related offenses is seen as a step towards addressing the negative consequences faced by individuals as a result of the strict lockdown measures.
Overall, the passing of this bill reflects a broader effort by South Africa to reconcile the need for public health measures during the pandemic with the recognition of individual rights and the importance of offering second chances to those who have paid their fines and admitted guilt.