Defend Truth


While things are being pulled apart, our constitutional rights must not be trampled on


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Civil society must strengthen and ensure that our constitutional rights are not crushed during the lockdown and that there is a gradual return to production and distribution to enable people to provide food, clothing and shelter for their families. The constitutionality of government’s decisions have to be tested each step of the way, and each soldier or police officer who abuses their power has to be brought to justice.

Suddenly everything seems to be coming apart. The state, which sent us into necessary lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, is taking criticism from every angle. In many cases the criticism is valid. In most of these cases, criticism has to do with constitutionality, and a lack of deeper consideration (and consultation) of exactly what impact the lockdown, and everything that goes with it, may have on the poorest of the poor, and the ill-preparedness of the country’s military and police forces.

All the while, the minority who, after 26 years, have still not come to terms with the fact that they are no longer in control, are circling the wagons. Led by John Steenhuisen and Gareth Cliff, inspired, so it seems, by Donald Trump, and the “lift the lockdown-open the economy” protesters in the US, are giving increased velocity to centrifugal forces that, history tells us, cause states to come apart, fail, or at worst, collapse.

They’re a small group, for now, but mutterings of the Western Cape seceding from South Africa are growing. This is the danger of Steenhuisen and Cliff’s threats of leading a “resistance” against the government. Steenhuisen issued an exhortation of a populist uprising, saying:

Be  warned Mr, President: Unless you come to your senses and end this lockdown crisis, millions more will start breaking the law in the coming days and weeks.” Gareth Cliff, the shock jock who is fast starting to resemble Rush Limbaugh, warned that there are more of them, whoever they may be, than there are police and soldiers.

Let’s look at those two statements. First, Steenhuisen warns that people will break the law (people break the law all the time anyway) and channelling Trump, who said we cannot let the cure be worse than the disease, the DA leader said:

“The real tragedy playing out here is no longer the coronavirus, but the lockdown itself. Because this lockdown is going to cost many more lives than it can possibly save.” 

Cliff, in all his shock-jock wisdom, also echoed Trump and the heavily armed knuckle-draggers protesting at State houses in the US, saying:

“Many of us aren’t afraid of the virus anymore. It’s our health and we’ll take our chances, thank you. We ARE [his emphasis] afraid of the havoc your lockdown is wreaking on the economy, on people’s lives and livelihoods.” He crowned that with the warning: “There are more of us than there are police officers and soldiers, so if you piss enough people off, things get very hairy.”

Here we have, then, the leader of the political opposition, and a radio shock-jock ala “the big fat idiot,” Rush Limbaugh, (Limbaugh, like Cliff, has frequently use biblical references, and has regularly bemoaned taxation), making veiled threats of an insurrection.

Let’s be clear. There are many valid reasons for criticising the state’s handling of the epidemic. There are aspects of the lockdown that seem downright irrational and confounding. There are (actual) scientists and social scientists (economists) who have made statements about the lockdown and its effects on the economy that make sense, and that President Cyril Ramaphosa may want to take into consideration. 

But there is no need to call for an insurrection as we face the very real chance that the Covid-19 disease has not (yet) hit its peak in South Africa. In this sense, and this sense only, I have some understanding for the decision to send the country into some form of lockdown, encourage personal distancing, and generally preventing a wave of infections – while the country’s medical infrastructure is being built up, secured, funded and staffed. This latter point has to be taken into consideration. 

As South Africa prepares for the worst, the country has time to prepare for a very likely spike in infections. If we cannot ramp up testing and treatment, we might as well follow Steenhuisen and Cliff, lift the lockdown and open the economy. This, at least the way I understand Helen the Second, will allow the virus to shake the poor — as well as those with underlying conditions, those living in informal settlements, and have no income for food, clothing and shelter — out of the system, and the market will reach equilibrium. This was part of a distinctly Social Darwinist tweet by Helen the Second, in which she acted like Trump (remember when he said, “it will disappear”).

The question we can put to Helen the Second is this: Who do you think should die first? But she won’t answer. Helen the Second is like the person who throws an opinion into a crowded room, and leaves before a different opinion can be given.

We have reached a point, then, where the political opposition – what remains of the white minority that ruled South Africa, and their parliamentary pals in the old Volksraad – are demanding that the lockdown be lifted, the economy thrown open, or they will do it themselves, because there are more of them than there are police and soldiers. That’s the way it seems to me, anyway. I may be wrong. In fairness, I have not heard Democratic Alliance members like Phumzile van Damme play fast and loose with the lives of people.

A better response, I believe, is for civil society to strengthen and ensure that our constitutional rights are not trampled on during the lockdown, that there is a gradual return to production and distribution to enable people to provide food, clothing and shelter for their families. The constitutionality of government’s decisions have to be tested each step of the way, and each soldier or police officer who abuses their power has to be brought to justice.

We do not need political leaders and their lickspittles issuing threats about an insurrection (or public servants threatening those who criticise government), and we really should not feed the call for the Cape to secede from the rest of South Africa. The emulative effect of that would give leaders like Goodwill Zwelethini, or the “traditional leaders” in North West ideas… We cannot allow the country to be torn apart by irresponsible political leaders with apparent exhortations of insurrection, and we have an obligation to save lives.

Those (I include myself) who are concerned with human lives as a first-order priority, are not stupid, ignorant, uneducated or out of touch with “millions” of South Africans — as one of Steenhuisen’s defenders said I was, and that Steenhuisen wasn’t. Yes, it is important to get “the economy” going again. But here’s a couple of thoughts.

There is no such thing as an economy, that does not include people. There is no such thing as markets without people who barter and truck in millions of transactions around the world. Imagine, just imagine, a world without people, where we have allowed all people to die off. Will Steenhuisen, Zille, Cliff, Trump still have an economy or markets to speak of? I don’t expect an answer. Actually, one may be provided, but it will be as typical as a Kellyanne Conway pivot. DM


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