The future was a verb in hibernation
– Villanelle for an Anniversary: Seamus Heaney
These are strange times. Across the world, countries are in a race to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The way we live our lives has been drastically curtailed and the news cycle seems filled only with endless tales of disease, unease and death.
The virus spares no one, whether Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, Sophie Trudeau or Tom Hanks. It also does not spare the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the nationwide lockdown which commenced on Friday, many questions swirled about how exactly this was going to be effected. South Africa is a deeply divided country straining at its seams in just about every way. A pandemic could not have come at a worse time. In the midst of it came a downgrade from Moody’s, which will almost certainly mean greater economic hardship when we eventually get to the other side of lockdown.
Ramaphosa deployed the SANDF to assist in enforcing the lockdown. He sent them out somewhat optimistically to serve South Africans with “respect and responsibility”. Above all, Ramaphosa urged the SANDF to be “kind”.
“This is a mercy mission, this is a life-restoration mission, this is a life-saving mission, this is a life-giving mission. Go out and save the lives of South Africans.”
The president hit all the right notes as he spoke to SANDF troops that night. The deployment of troops was necessary to act as a “pressure valve” and support for emergency services and the SAPS. What is predictable, however, is that the SANDF will carry out its mandate in a patchy manner. Some members will be kind, others brutal. There may well be a thin line between the two, as we have already seen.
Ramaphosa has been focused in his handling of the pandemic, as has Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. Mkhize’s briefings have been clear, factual and without the unnecessary waffle which some of his Cabinet colleagues seem to enjoy. There’s nothing like a crisis to show up the underperformers in a government. We should not be surprised by this either. Ramaphosa’s Cabinet is a combination of slackers, the corrupt and then those who genuinely want to serve with dignity and diligence.
Despite Ramaphosa’s clear understanding of the pandemic and what needs to be done to “flatten the curve”, there were bound to be hiccups in implementation. It’s the old chestnut in South Africa. We know well how to write policy, but implementation has always been a challenge for the many complex reasons that are familiar to us. These range from a lack of skill and capacity to sheer disregard by public servants and of course corruption and maladministration. In addition, South Africans are not a rule-bound people. It is no surprise too that the lockdown has laid bare the divisions in our society.
As the privileged middle classes raced to food stores, bought yoga mats and home gym equipment, talked about catching up on reading and working online; in other parts of our country, the news of the pandemic was only just trickling through. Those living in townships, squeezed cheek by jowl into intolerable living spaces, do not consume news in the way the privileged class does. Survival means living from one month to the next if you are fortunate enough to have a job.
It was therefore inevitable that those who were paid on the 25th of a month or at month-end were going to flock to supermarkets in panic. The same will happen when social grants are paid out in the next few days.
One hopes that proper preparation has been made for the inevitability of snaking queues and a lack of social distancing. Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu inspires very little confidence. She seems preoccupied with sartorial inelegance and one gets the sense that she lacks the commitment and empathy to manage this portfolio. At this point, we can only hope that she has a handle on what she has promised in terms of early access to social grant queues for the most vulnerable.
The pandemic also continues to show up the spatial divisions within our society. It is far easier to instruct someone to remain locked down in a home but it is not so easy for someone in an overcrowded shack without any access to water and electricity to do the same.
In townships across our country, life is lived in the open, on the streets and in a community in much more vivid ways than in the suburbs. It is also what makes social distancing tricky for people to practise. In the past days, the poor have been unhelpfully demonised as they have tried to go about their lives mostly genuinely oblivious to the danger of the pandemic. Alongside that there has also been the usual wilful intent to break the law among some.
Minister of Police Bheki Cele’s incoherent communication and threats of a kind of “kragdadigheid” ring hollow. They also provide a chilling message to the police to act in heavy-handed ways. The progression of the virus will not be stopped by brute force. As UCT’s Kathy Powell has said, “rules cannot be enforced by might but rather with people’s consent”.
How one gains the trust and consent of the citizenry is the salient and urgent question at this point.
The government had to act with speed, which has been commendable and it has admitted to shortcomings in the first days of lockdown. What is clear is that there is an urgent need for better government communication regarding the dangers of the pandemic.
This is going to require creativity from the government in relation to the messaging across various platforms and in the 11 official languages. It’s a tall order but not an impossible one if civil society and business are roped in to assist.
During elections, political parties seem able to assiduously mobilise people to vote. There can be no crowds now, but there are ways and means of getting messages to people via mobile phones, the national broadcaster, and radio, which remains the most-used medium in South Africa, and through leaflet drops.
Now is also the time for perennially absent ward councillors to start doing the jobs they are paid to do and connect with their constituencies creatively. Community policing forums could also contribute to improved messaging. The South African Human Rights Commission has started to play its part and this can and should be expanded in terms of public education. A cross-party effort is also needed to spread the message across communities.
The lockdown has to have the buy-in of the citizenry if we are going to be successful in “flattening the curve”.
Compliance will take time and further effort. The positive sign is that suburbs and cities have been all but shut down. This will make a major difference.
The lockdown has also laid bare the prejudices in our society. The outrage on social media after a suburbanite was arrested for cycling on a freeway stood in sharp contrast to the scorn and dismay expressed towards the poor for not maintaining social distancing and flooding supermarkets at month-end. The very different response to breaches of regulations was eye-opening if not sadly predictable. The trope is a familiar one of “them” and “us” and goes something like this: the law should apply to “them”, the “unwashed masses”, but not to “us”, the privileged needing exercise, surely? For what harm can a quick cycle really do?
Yet, our futures are inextricably linked and the coronavirus pandemic does not discriminate. What we do in the suburbs affects someone in the township and vice versa. All breaches are equally problematic.
So this really is South Africa’s moment of social solidarity. But it is also our moment to ponder the neglect of the constitutionally enshrined notion of participatory democracy.
The Constitution envisages our democracy as an ongoing conversation between citizens and elected representatives. The careless disregard of the past years has resulted in the breaking down of participatory democracy and links between those in power and citizens. Much government and citizen interaction between elections has been abandoned as councillors and local government authorities have failed to deliver basic services. After all, only 18 of the 257 municipalities received clean audits, and irregular expenditure by municipalities sits at around R20-billion a year, according to the auditor-general.
Mostly, the social protest has been the way in which angry citizens have managed to gain the attention of elected officials. In towns like Harrismith, residents have given up on the local government and black and white, rich and poor, are taking to the streets not to protest but instead to fix taps and potholes. These citizens recognise that their government has failed them dismally and they need to do it themselves.
Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, stood before the country in the past days and announced emergency measures to provide water to areas where there is no water provision. She did so without even a hint of irony, saying, “The threat and risk of coronavirus in our informal settlements is real and again we have to make haste so that we don’t find ourselves overwhelmed”. Why wait for a pandemic to “make haste” and deliver basic services, one wonders?
There has been very little listening in our democracy. Trust has also been broken down after years of looting. It has made communication regarding the pandemic even more difficult.
Let us not blame the poor for being poor or for not having the facts they need to make wise decisions at this time.
The media can and has played an important role in disseminating information about the pandemic in South Africa. Fake news has complicated matters as it has around the world. What has not been helpful has been reports such as the one filed by BBC World, describing the South African lockdown as characteristic of the “apartheid era”.
The report talked about citizens being “stripped” of their rights and of Ramaphosa deploying the SANDF “without parliamentary approval”. The latter was untrue and the former sensationalistic. The report fell back on predictable tropes about South Africa, race and apartheid. After an outcry, the BBC was forced to amend the piece.
We may have an imperfect lockdown (who has done it perfectly?) but what is clear is that we have bought some time to communicate better and reduce the infection rate. We have a sensible president, leading from the front. He won’t always get it right but Ramaphosa is no autocrat in the making and he is not interested in “apartheid-era” clampdowns as the BBC suggested initially. Besides, South African citizens will guard the Constitution as we have done repeatedly over the past years.
There’s fake news and then there is lazy reporting. We need neither in this country.
As South Africa enters day four of lockdown, the 21-day period seems a painfully long prospect. Resilience is what it is all about now and ensuring that the poor are not affected in disproportionate ways.
There is still time for the government to learn from its initial mistakes in this lockdown. Our democracy allows the space for us to do so despite severe restrictions on our movements. DM
Donald Trump is the first American president not to own a dog since William McKinley in 1901.