EDITORIAL

The government, of the people, by the people and for the people?

By Daily Maverick 2 May 2020
Caption
A quotation from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. (Photo by Buchmann/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A wise man once said some infinitely deep words at a long-gone consecration event that immortalised the days of carnage and unspeakable horrors. Never since has the essence and the meaning of a good, meaningful democracy been captured better than in that eternal sentence. Our government ministers should tattoo the words on their wrists.

All over the country, in cities and towns, in townships, suburbs and farms, South Africans have been good about the lockdown. Armed with information from the government since January, the country and its people have done well to prepare. Compliance levels are high, most times even without being policed.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa first announced the national state of disaster on March 15, the country welcomed it in the great majority. When, a week later, he upgraded lockdown-lite to lockdown hard, people understood again that it was the right thing to do.

His manner of persuasion and of sharing information was a lesson in fortifying leadership in frightening times. And so South Africans gave up their freedom of movement, of choice and of much else to fight the pandemic. We were not stupid – we knew how dangerous it is and we also knew that we all must work, together.

As the lockdown hardened, it exposed South Africa’s fault lines – high unemployment, chilling inequality, poverty; government inefficiencies and downright incompetence of the ten lost years Zuma inflicted upon this nation.  

As people lost wages for March and the informal economy died and the formal economy was put to sleep, it emerged just how closely most South Africans live to the breadline.

Hunger stalked fellow South Africans almost immediately, and it still does. We can dwell for a long time on what this says about policies, systems and fairness in our country, but we won’t, for now.

Another story also emerged in the slipstream – solidarity, caring and living ubuntu as people established hundreds of community action networks (CAN).  These CANs mobilised to feed compatriots in communities where government efforts fell short, while other pledges totalling many billions of Rands were freed to help the unemployed and the small and medium-sized businesses which have taken most of the brunt of Covid-19’s hard knocks.

The good news was that the viral curve began to flatten, taking South Africa into the company of countries like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, where Covid-19 is now regarded as manageable, secondary infection waves notwithstanding. 

But to keep going in that direction and because the lockdown was declared early here (some would say too early), the government must keep going.

And here’s where the news gets less good. A lot less good. While the purpose of the lockdown can’t be faulted and much is laudable in what a relatively small and under-resourced government has done, there are some in positions of power who are indulging in their fanciful dreams, all of it in the worst of times.

In some way, Level 4 feels worse than Level 5. The curfew declared as part of a Level 4 is a step way too far – a military manoeuvre in the dark and one for which there is no justification. In a national disaster like Covid-19, rights are limited, not suspended; the curfew is an emergency measure associated with the suspension of rights. 

The police have behaved appallingly through the lockdown, earning a humiliating smackdown from the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights office along with 18 other countries with heavy-handed enforcers. A measure like a curfew could see officers continue to act more like a police force than a service – something people of this country have hoped to have banished forever to the evil past.

The freedom of choice that has been stripped away is in some cases so arbitrary and ideological, that it cannot stand in a constitutional democracy. Alcohol and cigarettes sales bans are likely to now fall into that category. It is true that there is plenty of evidence that the alcohol ban has emptied out trauma units in hospitals where most admissions are alcohol-related. Cigarette smoking is not advised by the World Health Organisation at any time but especially during a viral crisis where the lungs are the most vulnerable parts of us.

But people are adults and information and persuasion are democratic instruments while a continued ban is not. Where does the constitutional state stop and the dictatorship starts? When does a limitation on rights stop being justifiable? 

There’s more. From May 1, the government has opened up more lines of retail to begin to slowly reopen the economy but bureaucrats are controlling way too many lines here as well: you can’t tell people what kind of clothes they can buy, nor is it justifiable to open up the sale of the certain type of books and not the others. What the big but incapable state Ramaphosa presides over has left many questions unanswered as it over-eggs some puddings and fails to bake others. There are significant dilemmas about how schools will start teaching again and a thousand and two small questions of life that have been left unclear. 

It is crucial for the government to understand that the outrage over control of exercise, alcohol and cigarettes is just a visible symptom of a greater malaise that is not so quietly building up.

Our government deserves generous praise for its planning and management of the Covid-19 outbreak but if more care is not taken with how the lockdown is managed, it will squander the enormous goodwill it has deposited from the start.

The moves this government is making appear to be guided more by the individual whims of certain ministers, borne out of ideology or rank incompetence, than to the true needs of people. Bureaucratic incursions into every aspect of private lives, entirely disconnected from the need to fight the spread of coronavirus are creating a wide gap between South Africa and those who are supposed to govern with people’s consent.

They should also read and re-read the ending of the already quoted Abraham Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address, especially the ending of the last sentence: 

…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1965) is portrayed with a quotation from his Gettysburg Address of 1863. (Photo by Buchmann/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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