Opinionista Geoff Hill 1 April 2020

Essentials? How do you define that?

There’s so much the state could do to make life better during lockdown.

Air? No problem. Water? Until the council shuts it off for non-payment. Food is still on sale but millions live hand-to-mouth in South Africa, and they’re not earning.

Every Thursday night, we put our dustbin out for the Friday pick-up. Around 5am, a Lesotho man, Andries, comes past, spreads a plastic sheet on the ground and takes out all the contents, harvesting bottles, cans and anything he can recycle.

Having done the suburb, Andries wheels away his haul in a set of bags mounted on a homemade trolley.

I’m an early riser and, when he comes past, I take him a cup of tea and a bun. We chat and I’ve come to know he has a wife and three children in Maseru, and shares a shack in Tembisa with four other men. And he has no bank account.

Last Friday, the start of our lockdown, he didn’t come. And presumably, he and his roomies are meant to stay indoors at their shack the size of my kitchen.

So how does the government help him? And if the landlord evicts the five men for not paying rent, will police go door to door making sure everyone has a place to live? Or beat them for sleeping in the street?

Compared with Andries, my life is easy. As a journalist, I have a permit to move about, and can work from home.

But when I need paper for my printer? If you can’t eat it, you can’t buy it, so the stationery shops are closed. And that part of Checkers or Pick n Pay is sealed off. 

Printer ink? Sorry.

And the government has left us in the dark on what to do when a light bulb dies. 

And if it storms, raincoats are classified as clothes. I kid you not!

When the gas runs out in my stove, the hardware store is shut. And if there’s a leak in the bathroom, you can’t buy a washer. Presumably the council will forgive the extra water bill. 

Chlorine keeps the pool water from being infected with all kinds of goggas. Well, you should have bought it before the lockdown.

Eskom has given no pledge to halt disconnections, and you can’t buy a generator. Or a spark plug for the one you have.

Back to Andries. He smokes despite me running through the horror of watching both my parents die of throat cancer. Does he have enough cigarettes? While dagga is still on sale near my local Spar … well, you know the rest. 

And adding to the generally pissed-off mood everywhere at a government banning all kinds of goods that have no effect on the virus, we can’t ease off with a dop.

How many people will die if I put a bottle of wine in my trolley instead of milk?

By all means limit the number of people in a liquor store, given these shops are smaller than a supermarket and can get a bit crushed. And enforce a one-metre space in the queue. In Africa we all talk so loud, distance won’t stop the tradition of chatting with a queue of people you don’t know.

There’s so much the state could do to make life better:

  • Lift the ban on booze and tobacco. It makes no sense.
  • Open stationery and hardware shops. Keeping busy should include putting up shelves, or other work on your home.
  • Keep the entire supermarket open. Stock in the non-food section can be vital when something goes wrong.
  • Set a three-month grace for disconnections by council and Eskom. Same extension on the TV licence.
  • Ask banks to lower the obscene interest rate on credit cards, given the fees they charge and how little they pay on savings.
  • Allow people to go for a run, with or without their dogs. By all means ban walking in groups, but with gyms closed exercise is vital for mental health.
  • If soldiers are needed to help the police, no rifles! The cops are already armed and soldiers should not be when dealing with the public.

Any act of violence by the forces must lead to an immediate charge of assault. 

Be warned: if people keep getting pushed about, we will have a new “Marikana”.

Finally, let the rubbish recyclers do their job. It’s green, safe because they work alone and, most of all, compassionate. 

And compassion should be the president’s keyword in drafting new rules in line with South Africa’s hard-won freedom. DM

Zimbabwean author Geoff Hill is chief Africa correspondent for The Washington Times.

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