Defend Truth


Excessive force during the lockdown will fuel civic disobedience


Jordan Griffiths is the acting chief of staff in the mayor’s office in Tshwane; he writes in his personal capacity.

South Africa needs to restore trust in public institutions if the country is to properly contain the spread of the coronavirus.

With the president’s announcement on Sunday 15 March imploring South Africans to be proactive about protecting themselves against the coronavirus, it is worth reflecting on our civic culture as a people and how South Africans mobilise as a nation. One of the challenges in getting South Africans to mobilise is that a weakness in our civic culture involves an inherent distrust and disregard for authority. 

This comes as a result of the high levels of corruption in government and the lack of accountability, failing and underperforming public service institutions, crime which plagues society and erodes faith in the police, along with persistently high levels of unemployment and low or even negative economic growth. All of this creates disregard for the government and erodes public trust.

This drives a culture of civil disobedience. A prime example is that of e-tolls and the crippling levels of non-compliance that have plagued this system since its introduction. From the very day of its inception, there was a payment revolt against e-tolls and it continues to this day. The government has been unable to respond to this civil disobedience and has largely given up on getting people to pay e-tolls.

However, in highlighting this example of civil disobedience it is worth examining the management of Day Zero in the City of Cape Town as a case study of how South Africans can mobilise. The Day Zero campaign is interesting for a number of reasons because for months the City of Cape Town had been communicating that there was a need to save and conserve water and yet water usage behaviour in the city was not changing. 

It was only when the city became far stricter in its approach by significantly increasing the price of water and essentially indicating a hard date as to when taps would run dry that societal behaviour changed significantly. When this matter was communicated as a crisis it created the momentum to drive the necessary change in water usage behaviour.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell presents the case study of the 1997 Guam airline crash and presents the theory that one of the causes of the crash relates to the interaction between the pilot and co-pilot, both South Korean. Culture in South Korea is exceptionally respectful of rank and authority and there is an ingrained deference to hierarchy. Gladwell unpacks how the pilot makes an error while flying and his co-pilot fails to correct him due to these cultural norms and his respect for authority. Gladwell believes this communication failure is why the plane crashed. 

In another example, he looks at the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in New York flown by Colombian pilots. The plane crashed because it ran out of fuel while circling John F Kennedy airport. In examining the exchanges between the pilots and the flight controllers Gladwell assesses that at no point did the pilots assert authority over the flight controller and highlight their dire situation and the need for a prioritised landing. They allowed the flight controllers to continuously delay them without question. The result was that the plane ran out of fuel. Gladwell argues that in Colombian society, cultural norms often dictate that one doesn’t question authority. 

One of the matrices that Gladwell deploys is the measures deployed by Geert Hofstede, who attempts to measure societal norms and cultural values across four categories: individualism-collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance (strength of social hierarchy) and masculinity-femininity. Gladwell focuses in particular on the Power Distance Index (PDI), which measures a society’s attitude towards authority and hierarchy.

At the time of the publication of Outliers the PDI in South Korea was high, indicating South Koreans were very respectful of authority and the hierarchy of society, reinforcing Gladwell’s argument. However, one of the countries that scored low on the Power Distance Index was South Africa. In this particular argument, South African pilots were considered some of the best in the world because of their assertiveness.

It’s worth examining this contrast in relation to how countries respond to the spread of the coronavirus. The South Koreans have been praised for their robust response; the government is able to test thousands of people a day and has encouraged people to get tested. It has also moved quickly to ensure that as far as possible people work from home. South Korea at one point had the highest number of cases outside of China.

The government’s response is assisted by the fact that South Koreans have a high level of trust in their government, well above the global average. Because they trust their government, South Koreans are quick to obey the directives it issues. This culture of respect for authority assists the government in its response to combating the spread of the coronavirus as there is a reasonable expectation of compliance from all citizens.

In South Africa, the levels of public trust are well below the global average and this poses a challenge for the government to ensure adequate compliance with the responses it has requested from citizens. South Africans, by and large, have wavering levels of trust in their government and key public institutions. This level of cynicism might be healthy on one front when it comes to protecting one’s constitutional rights and holding the government to account, but it becomes problematic when faced with a serious crisis where the government attempts to provide leadership.

The drought in Cape Town and the response by citizens is indicative of this: only when the situation became dire was there a strong civic mobilisation. However, this same approach cannot be what happens when South Africans respond to coronavirus. The president’s announcement is welcomed in this regard because an early response is far more appropriate than a delayed one. It will likely also allow time for the government to adequately prepare for the outbreak and increase awareness of the need for South Africans to take it seriously.

Nonetheless, it is critical that the national government is able to instil the public with confidence in its ability to manage the outbreak; failure to do so is likely to see citizens taking matters in their own hands. We must restore trust in public institutions if the country is to properly prepare and respond to the spread of the coronavirus.

This is not helped by police or soldiers violating their mandate or using excessive levels of force in trying to get South Africans to obey the rules of lockdown. It will only increase hostility towards these institutions and further deepen disregard for the authority of the state. It is critical that both the SAPS and the SANDF are able to enforce the rules of the lockdown without resorting to excessive force.  DM


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