Defend Truth


We are citizens, not subjects of South Africa, even during a global pandemic

Gavin Davis is CEO of Resolve Communications and a former Member of Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.

Let's be under no illusions here. The human cost of the lockdown will be devastating. As responsible citizens, we should carefully consider its impact on our economy, our social fabric and our constitutional order.

When news of a coronavirus emerged out of China at the end of 2019, many South Africans dismissed it as one of those occasional and exotic outbreaks that doesn’t happen here. Talk of bats, pangolins and wet markets underscored how far removed the coronavirus was from our lives. 

Fast forward three months to Day 3 of the South African Covid-19 lockdown. The National State of Disaster invoked in terms of section 27 of the Disaster Management Act gives the government wide-ranging and far-reaching powers with strict sanctions for non-compliance. 

Schools have been shut down, along with the nutrition schemes that 9-million children depend upon. People cannot leave their homes except to buy essential goods and seek medical care. Jogging and dog-walking is expressly forbidden. Businesses have been forced to close their doors, causing many to go under. The sale of alcohol is prohibited.  

The president has deployed the army to make sure everybody complies with the rules. Government has instructed all epidemiologists, virologists and infectious disease specialists not to talk publicly on Covid-19. And there are worrying reports that government has expropriated privately-owned cellphone data to track people’s movements.

Politically, we have entered dangerous and unprecedented territory. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to don combat fatigues when deploying the army signalled South Africa’s transition from a civilian-led country to a military-led one. There is no provision for parliamentary oversight of the emergency regulations and the implementation of them. Opposition parties, in reading the national mood, have chosen the path of cautious acquiescence. It is, for better or for worse, rule by decree. 

The media, with key exceptions, have been strongly supportive of the new regime. Ramaphosa has been widely lauded as a visionary leader, a man who stepped up to the plate when his country needed him. The heavy-handedness of some Cabinet ministers has been met with journalistic murmurings, but the general feeling is that Ramaphosa will make sure they don’t step too far out of line.

Residents of informal settlements, facing 21 days confined to small shacks, ponder how they are going to obey the rules while sharing a communal tap with thousands of others. Many people don’t seem to be aware of the new rules, or don’t seem to care. Visuals of youngsters partying well into the night on the first day of lockdown sparked outrage and the inevitable clampdown. Evidence of police and army brutality is dismissed by some as the security forces just doing their jobs. Meanwhile, suburban curtain twitchers stand ready to snitch on errant joggers and dog-walkers.

The economy, which had already entered into a technical recession on 3 March 2020, is now truly in tatters. On 27 March 2020, the rating agency Moody’s cut South Africa’s credit rating to junk status. The unemployment numbers – at about 30% before the lockdown – are surging, with 1-million more people expected to lose their jobs. While the state and the banks have offered some financial relief to small businesses, our fiscus doesn’t have the reserves to cushion the poor and newly-unemployed. 

The prevailing view is that we must do whatever it takes to smooth out the infection rate to allow our hospitals to cope. The word “exponential” has entered into everyday parlance as people post scary-looking epidemiological projections on Facebook and Twitter. In South Africa, there is added worry at the vulnerability of our health system and the fragility of peoples’ immune systems due to HIV, Tuberculosis and malnutrition. All these concerns are valid. 

But equally, concerns over the impact of the lockdown on our economy, our social fabric and our constitutional order cannot be dismissed. Let’s be under no illusions here: The human cost of the lockdown will be devastating. If it goes on too long, we may never recover.

As responsible members of society, we are duty-bound to ask the difficult questions: Will the lockdown actually work to halt the spread of Covid-19? What if, in our haste to “flatten the curve”, we end up flattening everything else? Will the lockdown really end after 21 days? Will government willingly hand back all the civil liberties it has withdrawn?  

It’s not easy to think clearly and rationally in a climate of panic and fear. History has shown that, at times like this, many of us tend to find comfort in strong leaders and blithely follow them. Others, terrified of state power and community censure, meekly accept the draconian restrictions on their liberties and the destruction of their livelihoods. 

We need to remember that – even during a global pandemic – we are citizens, not subjects. We have to find a way of rising above our fears, of engaging critically with what is happening around us and interrogating the wisdom of the path we are on. Nobody has all the answers, but that doesn’t mean we should stop asking questions. After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. DM




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