Mandatory vaccinations were thrust under the spotlight on Friday when President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared before parliamentarians for a question and answer session.
The leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, told the president that mandatory vaccinations for Covid-19 were unconstitutional and a breach of the rights of citizens to decline medical experimentation without their consent.
“Will you help prevent a new form of apartheid where unvaccinated people are being discriminated against and excluded from some places and will you defend their constitutional rights of those South Africans who choose not to get vaccinated?” he asked.
Ramaphosa said, “Nobody in the end should be forced to take the vaccine,” but added that constitutional rights were not absolute.
He said that influential people like Meshoe were contributing to vaccine hesitancy through their public comments and undermining efforts to bring Covid-19 under control.
“For me it is bizarre, it’s absolutely bizarre that when we are dealing with a pandemic that is killing people more directly in our eyes and faces, that we encourage people not to take the vaccine when it has been proven to save lives.”
He compared last year’s hard Covid-19 lockdown restrictions imposed on the country as a form of curtailment on people’s rights to free movement, and the right to buy alcohol and cigarettes.
“It was incumbent on the government to embark on that action that curtailed everyone’s rights — to save lives,” he said.
In June, the labour department published guidelines for companies planning to implement mandatory vaccination.
Last month, Business Leadership South Africa warned that more businesses were going to introduce mandatory vaccinations for employees.
“Those who refuse to be vaccinated may well proclaim that is their right, but it is also the right of the rest of us to protect ourselves from the risks posed by unvaccinated people and to do whatever we can to reach the overall vaccination rates necessary for life to go back to normal,” chief executive Busi Mavuso said in the organisation’s weekly letter.
Ramaphosa assured MPs that the labour department’s guidelines encourage employers to come up with alternatives for employees refusing to take the vaccine, such as working from home or working in a place where interaction with others was limited.
“The directive from the labour department takes into account a number of conditionalities that are in line with the constitutional architecture, that we respect the rights of others but at the same time ensuring the rights of the entire population are upheld.”
The implementation of mandatory vaccination policies must be based on mutual respect for the rights of people and achieve a balance between public health imperatives, the constitutional rights of employees and the rights of an employer’s business, he said.
“Quite a delicate balance that needs to be struck,” Ramaphosa emphasised.
The president said employees may refuse vaccination based on constitutional or medical grounds. “In such instances the employer should counsel the employee and encourage them to consult labour unions and health practitioners.”
MPs said the government had failed to educate the public and to counter disinformation.
Ramaphosa said a communication drive would get underway to deal with vaccine hesitancy.
“The Covid-19 vaccine is the most effective instrument that we have to prevent deaths, reduce infections and restore the economy,” he said. “No one should be forced to be vaccinated. Instead, we need to use the available scientific evidence to encourage people to be vaccinated to protect themselves and people around them.”
During the session, Ramaphosa also committed to going to Marikana. More than nine years after 44 people were killed during the August 2012 platinum strike, the president has yet to fulfill his campaign promises of facing people on the platinum belt.
“It has always been my intention to go and to speak to the widows of the deceased workers because this is a complex matter and has various complex issues to it,” he said on Friday, adding that claims totalling more than R174.4-million had been paid to the families of those who died and to workers who were injured or detained.
Ramaphosa was a non-executive director of Lonmin at the time when the massacre occurred.
“There are still several claims that are not yet resolved and are still subject to negotiation and the exploration of offers of settlements. This includes claims from 36 families for general and constitutional damages,” he said on Friday.
“The lack of progress in the prosecution of those responsible for the deaths of all those killed is indeed a cause of concern and distress. I am informed that the prosecution team is in ongoing meetings with the Ipid [Independent Police Investigative Directorate] investigators as part of the prosecution lead investigations that gives effect to the Farlam commission’s recommendations.”
He said the director for public prosecutions was expected to give a report on the progress of the investigations.