By Charleen Clarke
Some say the lockdown is all about saving lives. But, increasingly, more and more people are claiming that government is getting caught up in its own agenda.
Jeffrey Dinham, senior economist at Econometrix, notes that we are now seeing a pushback against lockdown. “As the economic damage of South Africa’s heavy-handed lockdown grows ever more apparent and real to millions of households, we are finally seeing civil society voicing a protest. President Ramaphosa must be receiving an exceptional number of letters,” he notes.
Why go into lockdown?
Dinham says that one needs to understand the purpose of a lockdown. “In the midst of so many voices, it is worth taking a step back and understanding that at its core, a lockdown can only ever hope to achieve one thing – provide breathing room to prepare the healthcare sector for the inevitable rise in infections. When the lockdown is lifted, infections will race upward, and the health sector can fall back on these preparations,” he points out.
But Gerhard Papenfus, chief executive of the National Employers’ Association of South Africa (Neasa), is crying wolf. “Towards the end of March 2020, government announced the three-week lockdown, stating that it will buy the government time to prepare the health system for Covid-19’s real onslaught. If, six weeks later, the health system is still not in place, government will never get it in place and, although the so-called ‘curve’ is on the rise, that was to be expected right from the outset. Or were we somehow, intentionally, misled?” he questions.
Options to lockdown
According to Dinham, the rate of infection can still be controlled through social distancing, isolating those at high risk such as the elderly, cancelling social gatherings, protecting workers with PPE and rolling out mass testing. “This is a risk-based approach that Econometrix and others believe is the best way to balance the health and economic impact of this crisis, especially as more data shows the virus to be less lethal than first anticipated,” he notes.
Why then does government continue on what Dinham describes as a “destructive and immensely costly exercise”? “One argument is that it understands the fragility of the healthcare system it oversees better than external commentators. This would justify a much more cautious approach but does not gel with many of the incredible internal fallacies of the current lockdown,” he contends.
Lockdown is a “political tool”
The other arguments are more sinister. Papenfus believes that lockdown is nothing more than a political tool. “We no longer view the government’s evaluation of the coronavirus threat, as well as its response thereto, as credible. It is now, not only a perception, but our understanding that the current lockdown approach has become a political tool, not only to advance political agendas within the ruling party, but also to advance government’s ‘radical economic transformation’ agenda and to correct the so-called ‘fault lines’ in society,” he contends.
Dinham disagrees that lockdown is a tool for political agendas but does believe that “the lockdown is being seen as validation of government’s ideological model coupled with its inherent anti-technocratic biases”.
“Cynically, a state of lockdown brings a level of authority and control that could not be found in a democracy that protects individual liberties. Ministers are no longer burdened by due process and this reversion to minor fiefdoms, guided by already existing factionalism within the ruling party, is the result.
“As has long been a trend in South Africa, it will be very difficult for those who now have access to so many levers of power to relinquish them entirely,” he warns.
Are these varied opinions valid? Or is government indeed acting in the best interest of its people? Only time – and the number of deaths, the impact on the economy and the effect on the people of South Africa – will tell.
A test of South Africa’s democracy
However, right now, as Dr Zaheera Jinnah, a research associate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, points out in an article in the Mail & Guardian, the lockdown is testing the country’s democracy.
“The coronavirus is more than a health pandemic. Eventually we will contain it; we will look back on this time when a handshake was forbidden, when we fortified our homes, and scrambled to digitise our classrooms and workplaces. Soon, our streets will come alive with noise: supermarkets and spaza shops will be filled; shebeens and restaurants will be crowded with the sounds of friends and family; we will let our embraces linger, and our hugs will be warm.
“But how will we emerge as a country? Will our democracy be strengthened, our distances from each other shortened? Can Ramaphosa win back his own party, his own government and all of our trust? Will the state rule by law — with compassion and justice — or will we remember this as a time when a virus will have changed our body politic forever?”
So many questions. So few answers. Only one thing is certain: the consequences of the lockdown (be they good or bad) will either make or break Cyril Ramaphosa.
Photography by Edwin Hooper, Engin Akyurt and Matt Seymour on Unsplash