Opinionista Siya Khumalo 21 May 2020

Mistaking constitutional democracy for ‘moralitocracy’ may cost us the lives of children

If Angie Motshekga is prepared to burn bridges with the unions that she had put before children up until now, what makes us think children are that high a priority in her world?

The infantilisation of South Africans cleared its throat in Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s schoolmistress influence over lockdown regulations; it now sings in Minister Angie Motshekga’s decision to return children to school.

The belittlement of the public in both decisions is a consequence of the widespread assumption that we’re a “moralitocracy”, that the job of the state is to teach us how to be good children. The antidote to this is remembering that we’re a constitutional democracy.

We need to run the economy just enough to keep resources flowing, but not so much that we endanger a critical mass of people into an unmanageable infection tipping point. In this scenario, there’d be more efficiency if government’s role were reduced to coordination. The centralisation of its decision-making brings in the risk of politicians using the pandemic to strengthen their positions by clinging to power.

This argument was difficult to make with regards to the alcohol ban because there’s the lingering assumption, a hangover from apartheid, that we’re a meritocracy and if you defend the availability of alcohol you should be regarded as little more than a criminal. 

But I think Minister Bheki Cele saw that since he hadn’t been achieving his policing targets (in part because he wasn’t disciplining the bribe-accepting culture out of the police force, which allowed drunken-driving and crime to flood hospitals), and since he wasn’t taking time to fully understand the social complexities of violent crime and domestic abuse, or get buy-in on a healthy respect for the rule of law and human rights, the lockdown was an opportunity to externalise the costs of getting low crime figures and empty hospitals so he could protect his job at the cost of the jobs of people in the alcohol value chain (bottle manufacturers, liquor stores, breweries, restaurants).

In this way does the appearance of a low-crime state hide the reality that it’s government officials who decide which crimes get prosecuted and which don’t. Turning a blind eye to the policeman who accepts bribes is the same as not prosecuting the government official who unduly benefits from his position. 

I believe the alcohol and cigarette black market indirectly enriches the Mafia government even while depriving the real government of tax revenue. On the assumption that we are a moralitocracy and the facade was real, we tolerated this until the same problem represented itself in the form of Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, saying grades 7 and 12 should return to schools that are magically ready to receive them.

Many say we have unreasonable and conflicting expectations of government officials, but the officials would be able to meet more of those if they were prepared to tell the truth about their prior failings instead of using the pandemic as a fig leaf. 

The fundamental problem in these scenarios is that rationality and the rule of law are bent to make ministers’ management of their portfolios look good despite mismanagement up until now. Our schools have unequal resources and Motshekga can’t account for that and the funding and powers she’d been allocated over her previous terms. If she’s prepared to burn bridges with the unions that she had put before children up until now, what makes us think children are that high a priority in her world? 

You must admire her math: even if Covid-19 is as dangerous as our worst fears say it is, we still won’t see a death-rate from it that bumps our overall mortality rates so high that she looks bad. She keeps her job because she saved the school year without ostensibly massacring more people than would have died. What informs her decision-making is what’s good for you to the extent that it’s good for her.

Many say we have unreasonable and conflicting expectations of government officials, but the officials would be able to meet more of those if they were prepared to tell the truth about their prior failings instead of using the pandemic as a fig leaf. 

The question becomes how to separate the decision-making process from politicians without separating it from the rule of law — and we must do this before the Magashule faction of the ruling party does with the judiciary what they started doing with a key Chapter 9 institution (side-eye, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane). 

When the lockdown was announced I wrote an article with a shared spreadsheet of citizen demands: my condition for lockdown was an interim report from the Zondo Commission, without which the National Prosecuting Authority will not catch up on investigations and arrests in our lifetimes. That worsens the risk of corrupt ministers making their portfolio mismanagement our problem.

Instead, we’re debating whether Chad is selfish for wanting to surf. We should be asking how the rule of law weighs his demand against the principle of social distancing (and what resources are spread thin, if any, to accommodate his request). However that discussion turns out, it’s key to remember that we aren’t a moralitocracy, where selfishness is a proxy for criminality. It takes years of applying the law rationally and consistently to iron out poverty and inequality; shaming selfish people looks like a tempting shortcut, but it delays progress.

We’re instead asking who John Steenhuisen speaks for when, in a constitutional democracy (as opposed to a majoritarianity), that’s less important than whether his demand squares with a Constitution designed to protect individuals, not majorities. If he’s racist as many believe, why not let him be a useful racist and take this damn thing to get ventilated in the Constitutional Court? DM

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JUDICIARY IN CRISIS

Judge Parker still at work as Judge Hlophe defies president, JSC and Office of the Chief Justice

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