On Sunday, City Press carried a piece by South Africa’s former finance minister Trevor Manuel, in which he warned that we should not allow our freedoms to be removed during the national lockdown. Rather movingly, he described the plight of a taxi driver who was in the same cell as he was in the 1980s, and how he ended up in jail simply because he had questioned the actions of a police officer. Manuel’s point was that the Constitution is not suspended during this time, and that people should not accept any loss of their rights.
On Monday morning he was invited onto SAfm and asked about the case of Collins Khoza, a man who was killed, allegedly by soldiers, in Alexandra during the early days of the lockdown. It emerged in court last week that none of the soldiers involved have been suspended for their alleged role in the killing, even though police officers present at the scene have been taken off duty.
Manuel said: “The view that you shouldn’t provoke soldiers is just wrong … soldiers are meant to be trained to resist provocation.” When asked specifically about the situation involving Khoza he went further, “Nowhere, under apartheid emergency regulations, would we have tolerated that kind of thing. In fact, the voices that spoke out against apartheid were largely about the abuse by soldiers … we saw policemen suspended for acting violently against communities under apartheid, under the state of emergency, so why should we tolerate misbehaviour here?”
This, so far, is possibly the strongest condemnation of SANDF involvement in the incident from any public figure of political substance.
Manuel was asked about the lockdown generally, and whether he had a view on whether it should continue in its current form. He spoke at some length about preventing infections and how it was up to everyone to protect themselves and their communities.
There is an echo here of a document published later in the day by President Cyril Ramaphosa. In his weekly newsletter, Ramaphosa said, “Our success in overcoming the coronavirus will ultimately be determined by the changes we make in our behaviour. Even after lockdown – especially after lockdown – we will still need to observe social distancing, wear face masks, wash hands regularly, and avoid contact with other people. We will need to reorganise workplaces, schools, universities, colleges and other public places to limit transmission.”
In his interview, Manuel also spoke about the economy. “We must ensure that the economic rules are rational and I think that a lot of the decisions that have been taken don’t pass the test of rationality, what you can buy, what you can’t buy, doesn’t work. And then I think the third part is the general appeal for reasonable conduct that extends to the police and army. Also, the idea that you can only exercise for three hours a day … none of this passes the test of rationality and I think we need voices to speak to the National Command Council and ask them that rationality be the order of the day, the objective being to prevent the spread of the infection and illness.”
It was clear that Manuel felt the lockdown was not working towards its stated aim of improving the health situation. In particular, his call for “voices to speak to the National Command Council” appears to be strongly encouraging people to speak out about the current situation.
This may also place a burden on the NCCC to explain its decisions. So far it has refused to do this, saying the discussions that led to the decision to maintain the ban on the sale of cigarettes is “classified”.
While Manuel is no longer in government, and no longer holds any high office in the ANC, his opinions still carry weight. He has a veteran leadership role, and understands the economy and our society.
For the moment, those who would normally speak up for the business constituency have been quiet. Business Unity SA has not said very much. The group was an important part of the process of drawing up government’s economic response to the crisis. Another organisation which may have more legitimacy in some circles is the Black Business Council. They, too, have not campaigned in public for the restrictions to be relaxed in any meaningful way. They may well see Manuel’s comments as a green light to raise their voices now.
However, their silence in public doesn’t mean they are not campaigning or lobbying behind the scenes. And there have been hints that there is a process going on. Last week, British American Tobacco said it was not going to continue with legal action over the ban on the sale of cigarettes, instead hoping for consultations on the issue.
The alcohol industry, which is losing huge amounts of money on a daily basis, has yet to threaten any court action. It emerged at the weekend that South African Breweries would need to destroy around four hundred million bottles of beer, since its brewing processes couldn’t be easily stopped. It would be odd if, faced with that prospect, the industry has not consulted its lawyers.
What is important here is that Manuel may well give other figures, in business and other parts of society, political cover to push for restrictions to be eased. If someone had made this point over the weekend, they might have been accused of being a supporter of the DA (after the opposition party said on Friday the lockdown wasn’t working). Now, they can point to Manuel. Certainly, it will make it harder for people to dismiss the argument from the get-go.
It is normal for many people to feel frustrated at the moment. President Ramaphosa made this point himself in his weekly letter on Monday. He pointed to other countries saying that, “Like our citizens, their populations are restive and frustrated with the curtailment of personal freedoms.”
This suggests that the number of people who oppose the restrictions will grow. On the other hand, it is interesting that there are increasingly few voices insisting that the current lockdown must remain. The only political party that is doing so is the Economic Freedom Fighters. Apart from them, there appear to be few others making this case.
In the absence of anyone making the argument for the lockdown to stay in its current form, the pressure to lift it will only rise. And that, in turn, is likely to make it harder to justify and maintain. DM