South Africa


As Covid-19 cases climb to 274, can SA defiance give way to discipline?

As Covid-19 cases climb to 274, can SA defiance give way to discipline?
A view of an empty Claremont bus terminus on 20 March 2020 in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Ziyaad Douglas)

South Africa has been schooled in ungovernability and built on the foundation of defiance – can we trade these in for the discipline now required in the face of the Coronavirus?

As South Africans, we are being asked to do something alien to the political DNA of the country – to trade defiance for discipline.

South Africa’s Defiance Campaign by liberation movements in the 1950s instilled in that generation and the next two generations the practice of civil disobedience, of sticking a chin out at authority, of mass protest and of being sceptical of power and authority.

Usually, this national political culture is an asset, but as Covid-19 bites, we are being called upon to do something so different it is almost alien.

The State of National Disaster declared a week ago has put the country into lockdown-lite with a formal policy of social distance declared and stringent laws against when and how alcohol is served put into practice. 

The alcohol restrictions are a way of getting people to stay home and not eat out, go to clubs or gather in groups of more than 100 people. 

But, as infections climbed rapidly to 274 (at 22 March 2020) as testing was ramped up, is it working? There are now 132 infections in Gauteng and 88 in the Western Cape, making the two provinces the viral hot spots. They are also the provinces with the highest numbers of informal settlements, which are recognised as the most at-risk for a runaway outbreak. There are 36 infections in KwaZulu-Natal and single-digit numbers in each of the other provinces. Until now, several provinces had been coronavirus-free; now that honour goes only to the Northern Cape and North West. 

The Department of Health now puts out the numbers Patient 1 to Patient 274 in rows and the scroll to get through is taking longer and longer as South Africa gets to the point where the track and trace model of containment is no longer possible. This is where trackers physically map a patient’s network and test that group. 

In an interview in the Sunday Times, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the next two weeks are critical to ensure the country does not get to the turning point to mass infection where containment is no longer possible. 

From there, Covid-19 becomes a case of test and treat, where the pressure on the health system can mean serious trouble. The way of ensuring it does not get there is through popular discipline and adherence to proper social distance, but the jury is out on whether South Africans can do this. How has it gone so far?

Bheki Cele: It’s a good start

“Police Minister General Bheki Cele has noted with appreciation the overwhelmingly positive response in terms of the public adhering to the Covid-19 regulations on social distancing. Businesses in the greater majority have thus far been compliant with the regulations,” said spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters.

She said the police hotline had received tip-offs about establishments which did not comply and police were rapidly dispatched to them. The police expected to make a consolidated report with data in the week.

The data on infections may mean that good enough is not good enough. While the majority of infections are still related to overseas travel (and largely to Europe, now the global centre of Covid-19), local transmissions are growing, as the first Free State infections revealed. At a provincial prayer session on March 10 and 11 by Angus Buchan, a popular charismatic church leader, five evangelists from the US, Israel and France who attended later tested positive. 

ACDP leader Kenneth Meshoe attended that meeting and was later at a meeting of political parties with President Cyril Ramaphosa. Meshoe is being tested for Covid-19, while Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, said the president would be tested if medical protocols indicated he should be. 

It’s working in some places

I live near one of Johannesburg’s most sociable strips in Parkhurst. It’s usually a playhouse all week through, but especially on the weekend – a destination for Johannesburg’s Instagram crowd. This weekend, it was a ghost-town as restaurants and pubs stuck to the rules to stop selling alcohol at 6pm on weekdays and at 1pm on weekends. By Sunday, March 22, many restaurants had closed until further notice as the regulations began to bite. 

It was the same in Melville, another social suburb. At the weekend, many restaurants and bars closed and those that were open had either a single or two small tables of clients each. Across Johannesburg the picture is mixed.

I asked on social media and it feels as if Johannesburg is doing better at complying with social distance than Cape Town is – although Fourways in the Big Smoke was said to be oblivious. 

In parts of the Eastern Cape, people said Covid-19 still felt distant (the province has two infections as at March 22), as did a resident of the Northern Cape (zero infections).  

Many people said that their experience in food shops was mixed. Spar got a shout-out for good space between customers and for even having “aisle prefects”. Pick n Pay got mixed reviews depending on where shoppers were, while Woolworths did not get as many mentions as other retailers for distancing at check-out, sanitiser availability and the disinfection of trolleys.

Vilakazi Street in Soweto got big ups for largely shutting down, but party-goers in Hammanskraal created impromptu street gigs which had to be dispersed by the police after their regular haunts closed in compliance with the Covid-19 laws. 

But in my other community of Mayfair and Fordsburg, home to a high number of foreign communities (more than 30 according to the local councillor), there was reportedly little social distancing and the many taverns went about business as usual, said community leaders. Because it’s a migrant community, wide infection is a threat. 

In Limpopo (which has a single infection) Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba in a report on Sunday 22 March said “…we have seen people gathering in large crowds as if it is still business as usual. This is indicative that some of our community members have still not internalised the veracity of the challenges”. 

Economy versus Emergency

In addition to finding the right balance between defiance and discipline, there is another tightrope that Ramaphosa and the National Command Council (the political structure overseeing how Covid-19 is managed) must walk and that is between declaring an emergency and keeping the embers of the economy burning.

While the SA Reserve Bank, on March 19, used monetary policy to put money back into indebted consumers’ pockets through a 100-basis point reduction in interest rates, economists are reducing growth forecasts to zero percent, a recession. Declaring a State of Emergency, which could close down all but emergency services, would be disastrous for the economy. But an Italian-type runaway infection and death rates could be dangerous for a country with one of the highest rates in the world of people living with HIV, AIDS and tuberculosis. 

Churches and party branches can help

To get South Africans to abide and comply, the churches are going to be key. Temples, mosques and shuls are now closed in line with the decisions of the leaders of the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish religious authority directives.

Most major churches have said physical congregations will give way to online sermons, but several charismatic churches (a growing and popular part of religious life in South Africa) are still defying the prohibition on gatherings of more than 100 people. Churches have always been the most influential moral authorities. Under apartheid, many preached liberation theology, which advocated standing up against injustice. This time, their task is different. 

The other grassroots structures which will be key are political party branches – the ANC, DA and EFF have rooted structures and can play a big role in building consensus and compliance in the fight against Covid-19, a battle quickly shaping as the most formative one of the 21st century. DM

NB: Daily Maverick is reflecting what various consumers told us. It is not a survey or a data-driven report and is not presented as such. 


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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