Opinionista Siya Khumalo 3 April 2020

Covid-19 lockdown: Democracy is in the emergency room

South Africa is in danger of lurching from the Covid-19 crisis to the self-inflicted crisis of authoritarianism.

From numerous court cases in the public record, we know government officials have habitually neglected to manage what was within their sphere of control. The cost of this negligence is being externalised as the irrational and disproportionate reduction of citizens’ self-determination over the lockdown.

If the rule of law worked, if the scarcity of time weren’t on rogue office-bearers’ side, that cost would be recovered from government officials who’ve undermined the law and redirected to managing this pandemic.  Otherwise, the country may lurch from the Covid-19 crisis to the self-inflicted crisis of authoritarianism. 

Of all the questions that could be asked about the lockdown, those highlighted by advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi on Eusebius McKaiser’s show are the ones we should all be asking. Arguing from the principle that the suspension of constitutional rights must be proportional and rational to the purpose at hand (ie, managing the Covid-19 pandemic), McKaiser and Ngcukaitobi show that the reasons given by the Health Department and the security cluster for some lockdown measures are “sledgehammers”. 

Has banning alcohol and cigarette sales anywhere been proven a proportionate, rational, efficient and effective way to limit the spread of this virus? Couldn’t controlling substance quantities have sliced closer to favouring individual freedom over restrictions? The show is really worth listening to. 

That we don’t know much about this virus causes many to advance arguments for shifting on to citizens the burden of government’s failure to hitherto observe the rule of law. The danger with such arguments is they take sensitive and emotive truths (eg, alcohol is often involved in gender-based violence, which fills up hospital beds that should be spared for the pandemic) and misapply those to measures in the State of Disaster, making you look bad for saying that alcohol-related gender-based violence should merit a solution independent of the solution to the pandemic. 

In its leadership role and management of tax funds, the government should have demonstrably, rationally done everything in its power before broaching the subject of how citizens could complement the government’s efforts.

“This is no time to point fingers,” some say, forgiving a multitude of sins and the conflation of different solutions to interrelated social challenges.  But this inadvertently empowers government officials to point fingers at us and our freedoms as though the social conditions that make this pandemic such a big national threat were the effects of our sins instead of theirs. This opportunism isn’t the fault of those who call it out; it’s the fault of those who rely on it. This all sets a precedent for blurring very fine lines of accountability — lines we may need one day if David Mabuza takes Cyril Ramaphosa’s place as president.

In a Radio 702 discussion that touched on the recent drop in casualties reporting in at emergency rooms, one of the questions raised was whether it’s desirable for the state to generally ban or limit the availability of adult substances, or perhaps “educate” users on the risks of cigarettes and alcohol.

But if police were selected, trained, managed and paid properly, the drunk driver would never try bribing traffic officers. Over time, the consistency of consequences for drunk driving would decrease along with the number of people who land up in hospital for drunken driving. As things are now, people generally prefer paying the bribe to better planning their debaucheries. 

We can’t solve the symptoms of lawlessness through illiberalism, or worse, wrongly interpret whatever good emerges from illiberal measures as justification for making it permanent. Doing so would mistake adaptation for intent, the way society and government adjust their mutual interactions for the way those interactions ought to be.

The suggestion on “educating” the general public about the risks of substance abuse is yet another problematic storey built onto the unstable foundation of a dehumanising education regime. If teachers were selected, trained, managed and paid accordingly, if children were looked after, there’d be no need to educate adults on every possible risk of every conceivable choice. 

It should be enough that suppliers publish warning labels on the packages of their products. And if labour practices were rational, just, non-exploitative and operated in a conducive environment, if corruption and maladministration were dealt with in the private and public sectors, the likelihood of people coping with noxious working spaces or economic and social pressures through substance abuse would be lessened.  

“If B-BBEE were implemented as intended,” said Lee du Preez, the MD of transformation consultancy BEE Novation, “it would solve numerous social ills.” 

At the Daily Maverick Gathering, former Absa Group CEO Maria Ramos said if it had been implemented non-opportunistically, BEE would have grown South Africa’s economy.

If government officials set examples on presenting healthy gender and sexual identities (with male-identifying officials modelling holistic masculinity instead of bigmanship, populism be damned), the odds of toxic, reckless masculinity expressing itself through alcohol abuse would also drop. We can’t solve these social crises by stacking the odds against substance abusers’ domestic abuse victims, which happens when withdrawal rage sets in. 

Because of lockdown restrictions, there may be very few people in emergency rooms right now. But democracy is in the emergency room and that, sight unseen, is all of us — “We, the People”. DM

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