This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za
“There has indeed never been a time like this.
“A time when a third of the world’s population is imprisoned in their homes; when industrial machines are quiet the world over; when the arts and the sports have ground to a halt; and when visiting family and friends is a prosecutable crime…
“A commentator on one of the international channels remarked the other day that this lockdown period must be the first time in human history that billions of people in different parts of the planet are having exactly the same experience.
“There has never been a time – except in war – when citizens of democracies all over the world willingly give up their rights, and when those who never bow to authority tell governments that it is okay to take away their freedom.” – Mondli Makhanya – Never been a time like this.
The lockdown Regulations, initially for 21 days and renewed for a further two weeks, are drastic, akin to those in a state of emergency or war and unprecedented for South Africa – though variations of these regulations are currently in force in many parts of the world.
Nevertheless, one has the impression that the lockdown has the support of the majority of the South African population, who believed firm action was needed in order to curb spread of the coronavirus and Covid-19. Health department officials and advisers have assisted laypeople in understanding the character of the disease and the strategy being adopted to phase the onset of large-scale infection and to contain the spread of the virus when it reaches its peak and this is an important interview by Mark Heywood with Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
The reasoning behind the lockdown is to prevent or slow down further contact with those infected and limit contaminations, even though it is believed that there will ultimately be a far greater number of detected infections than recorded up to now.
The lockdown is seen as a breathing space, providing health officials with more time to acquire the necessary equipment and train the necessary personnel to track down more of those infected and their contacts and also to prepare the necessary facilities for quarantine and treatment on a large scale, which they believe will be necessary.
Caution expressed by Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, in suggesting that there will be far higher numbers infected, is vital to keep the public from having illusions but also to meet the challenge when it arises. In this period, the minister and officials involved in the medical response have engendered a sense of trust since their messages are sober and there has been no attempt to overstate or understate the effect of the measures the health officials have taken.
The public response to the lockdown has been important in so fractured a society as South Africa. It has evoked a rare sense of unity (despite the difficulties that many have in complying because of their living conditions). This unity is not something to be taken lightly because many continue to cherish the hope that we will, one day, relate to one another based on mutual solidarity and caring. That was the sentiment that drew many people into the struggle for freedom, a repugnance towards dehumanising treatment and a commitment to work together to bring apartheid to an end.
But what we do now, wherever we are located, will determine what this period will mean after the virus has been contained or eliminated. What we now experience is different for all of us, situated as we are in diverse places of confinement, with distinct opportunities and constraints.
When we consented to a lockdown, we agreed to put our normal freedoms on hold for a national purpose in order to serve the interest of all. In that context, it was necessary to monitor observance and to ensure that its purpose was not undermined by actions that could enhance the spread of the virus.
Those charged with enforcing the lockdown – primarily security services, national police and defence as well as local municipal policing arms – were entrusted with a duty towards a population which had voluntarily agreed to comply with a denial of their freedom.
Insofar as the security forces were charged with ensuring compliance, this was not action against an enemy (as the President made clear). The security services were told to treat the population with respect. It was a task that had to be conducted in a way that was as far as possible compatible with the (albeit imperfect) democratic character of our state.
It need not have been spelt out that the use of violence against the population is a very last resort, possibly when facing armed resistance, but a very remote situation. Instead, we have seen what amounts to authoritarian policing, acts of aggression and killing of people, who have for one or other reason remained on the streets, sometimes for legitimate reasons that have not been interrogated by the law enforcement officers, sometimes technically for reasons that do not conform with the regulations.
I say technically not complying since government itself acknowledges that some communities cannot comply with the requirements of the lockdown because of their living conditions. (See statement of McIntosh Polela, spokesperson for Department of Human Settlements).
Many police come from, or have relatives or friends who live in, these conditions. They know how difficult it is to comply with the regulations. What is the state of mind of a person who inflicts whippings and rubber bullets and live ammunition on people who are on the streets (because of conditions that are a result of government failing in its constitutional duty to provide people with decent housing, sanitation and water)?
What makes matters worse is that while the Minister of Defence has expressed regret and repugnance towards acts of violence by the SANDF, which have, however, continued, the Minister of Police has condoned and purported to justify acts of humiliation and violence against the population.
When a man died, allegedly from being beaten and tasered (with an electrical weapon or stun gun) by police, Bheki Cele said police aggression was not responsible as a post-mortem revealed a heart attack as the cause of death.
As far as I am aware from reading news reports, Cele did not deny the police had attacked this man, whether or not that was the final cause of his death. If someone has a heart condition, clearly being beaten can provoke cardiac failure.
Likewise, police are reported sometimes to make those breaking or allegedly breaking the regulations to frog-march (to force someone unwilling to move forward by holding their arms behind the back and pushing). Thus, Cele said: “I hear there is a complaint that police, together with soldiers, are frog-marching people. Now, I don’t think there is anyone who can be frog-marched in his bedroom. Where were you when you were frog-marched?
“Police and soldiers are being blamed while the people who are breaking the law are not being criticised. I have not seen a police officer or soldier going to people’s homes saying they must frog-march. I see only people being frog-marched to their homes.”
In other words, Cele does not deny that police force individuals to perform demeaning, humiliating conduct. He condones it because the victims were allegedly in breach of the regulations.
This pattern of police conduct – enforcing compliance through the use of force and abusive conduct – continues, in Masiphumelele, Alexandra and other places, as reported mainly on social media, with video footage.
Despite a proclaimed moratorium on evictions, these have been conducted in eThekwini and Khayelitsha – with violence. The poor and the homeless have been treated like hardened criminals as police and private security demolish shacks and often deploy considerable violence.
We are going to emerge from this lockdown at some stage, possibly later rather than sooner. But we need to prepare for that and ensure the infringement of liberties currently being perpetrated by security forces is halted and allowed no space for the future. The security forces need to understand that they are not there to impose summary “justice” or punishment.
That these patterns of conduct have re-emerged is not simply a security force phenomenon, but part of the macho attitudes that still hold sway among South African men and the women who work within these violent patriarchal structures.
When people agreed to the lockdown, it was not through any formal process; saying yes or no. It could be deduced from the statements of people and the general compliance with the regulations. They gave consent to combat a threat to the wellbeing of the whole of South African society. They did this as part of a residual commitment to a shared future.
It is important for the President to take steps to prevent security forces from undermining these resources of goodwill. For a start, he should dismiss or shift Minister of Police Bheki Cele, whose callous and arrogant sentiments do not match what is needed in a society that wants to live in peace. That commitment to peace is an essential component in building the society for which many, many people sacrificed greatly. DM
Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.