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Covid-19 and the dreams of our petty tyrants


Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and the co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and the End of Banks (with Simon Dingle).

Something scared me more than the virus last week. It was the language used by a few ANC politicians, no matter how conditionally phrased. Like ‘skop, skiet and donder’ and other gentle reminders of what additional force and violence can be brought to bear on citizens now stripped of their incomes.  Language used by Police Minister Bheki Cele and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

It seems to me that at a time where there is fear and confusion among us all, threats of violence on citizens is about as far from inspired leadership as you can get. It seems more to be an expression of the secret desires of Duterte and Putin-wannabees, drunk with the prospect of power without accountability. 

We already have reports of police shooting at shoppers, arrests of individuals caught at the wrong place at the wrong time and bundled into police cars. No warning. No discussion. And from one or two videos I have seen, naked aggression and rudeness from the enforcers.

Throngs of police and army regulars, happy to carry out vague orders with extreme bias, with prospects of kudos and promotions awaiting at the other side. Do you imagine that in the few seconds that the defence minister had time to prepare the soldiers for this mission they were treated to citizen sensitivity training programmes? I expect not. They were told to go out and arrest people. And shoot if they must. 

The stuff of embryonic dictatorships.

At the time the president articulately and sensitively announced the lockdown and the reasons for it (followed by near-unanimous approval and swelling patriotism for those who had seen it), I felt a small prickle of alarm at the back of my neck. This government has had decades to attempt the correction and fixing of far, far smaller matters, and has not ever shown the competence to do so. 

And now they were about to shut down an entire country and its economy, after a few days of planning? With its labyrinthine and ill-understood complexities, interconnections and interdependencies? Cluster-f, I said to myself. This is going to be a cluster-f. And then I said it out loud. Unsurprisingly, I was roundly booed by those who had heard.

But a cluster-f this is going to be.

One can argue that there is no country that has the means to properly plan this; All will stagger blindly into walls they did not foresee. Yes, of course. But we have some very specific problems here.

Like hunger and food insecurity. Like high rates of domestic violence. Like substandard housing. All powder-keg stuff when politicians self-importantly announce that everyone will stay home at the risk of a baton over the head, or imprisonment, or even a bullet. This government, I suspect, is going to find out the limitations of its power, and paucity of its proclamations, and the attendant opprobrium at the ballot boxes.

If you are a single mother in a shack (or even a one-room cinderblock home) with four hungry kids, you aren’t going to stay home. Period. No army or police force in the world is going to make you. Hungry kids trump national disasters. 

If you are a woman under physical threat from a man at home (pissed off and possibly drunk, or worse, alcohol-deprived), you will surely flee, and so you should. Because jail is preferable.

If you are a mother who needs a clinic for your child and there are other toddlers in the house, you are all going to seek a doctor. No one will be staying home. You will travel together. And you will not wait for the taxi curfew. You will find a way. 

And if you are simply too poor for broadband, for books, for board games, for a comfortable choice of well-furnished rooms in which to find solace, for cookbooks and their fun ingredients, then no. You will not, and should not stay home. It would be a prison cell.

I could go on, but the use-cases are nearly infinite. Home lockdown is simply inappropriate, cruel and dangerous for large segments of our society. You may well argue that the virus is more dangerous. I do not agree. 

And what of after, later, when the virus has run its course? I have read sober estimates of 70% unemployment. Does the government have a plan for 70% unemployment? 60%? Even 50? Of course not, because they also didn’t have a plan for 25% unemployment or whatever their figures were in February. 

Because a country with 70% unemployment is not a country in any reasonable definition of the word. It is a fuse, burning fast toward a massive pile of C4 explosive. 

So what would I propose? On the larger economic collapse, I have no idea, besides the biggest government public works programme in history. 

But on the ground, perhaps a dollop of empathy and civility and flexibility and humility from the ministers and their thousands of enforcers.

“What are you doing on the street ma’am? Can I help? Your children are hungry? Let me escort you and the little ones to the store, the clinic. Please stay this far from the person in front of you in the queue. Please try to stay indoors when you can. Please wash your hands often, and your children’s. Please stay safe. Here is a number to call if you need to get out of your home for an emergency, they will advise, help and most of all, listen.”

With the arrogant and terrifying bluster and snarling threats from petty tyrants above, can one imagine this, here, ever? DM



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