27 April is Freedom Day in South Africa. This year, however, South Africans will spend the day under lockdown, imposed at the end of March with the goal of countering the spread of COVID-19. To think that we have to ‘celebrate’ freedom with a curfew, myriad restrictions on business activities, and the threat of force from police or the Army if we step out of line, strikes me as deeply ironic.
People’s fears over COVID-19, as well as the government’s desire to ensure the healthcare sector is not overwhelmed by the number of infections, have been used as justifications for the lockdown. But fear, as is the case with other emotions, ought not form the basis for policy formation – especially not a policy as draconian as a societal lockdown. South Africa’s lockdown has been described as one of the most wide-ranging, draconian lockdowns in the world. If one has a robust understanding of freedom, human agency and dignity, it can be argued that South Africa’s lockdown is one of the most unconscionable, inhumane acts ever perpetrated in the country’s history.
A solution that may work in a country where most people could work from home, in relative comfort, has been imposed in a country where many people live in tiny shacks, and where they need as much freedom as possible to try to make a living. Indeed, before the lockdown, ridiculous regulations already made it exceedingly difficult for informal traders to make a living for themselves and their families. South Africa’s lockdown fails from both a principled and a pragmatic point of view.
What is most concerning to me about the lockdown episode is not so much the tool itself, which is deeply infantilising of people in its conception, but people’s support for it. It appears that, when a danger is perceived to be big enough, most will go along with any massive stripping away of their civil liberties. Tyranny is often imposed by dictators, but it can always come about sooner if it enjoys strong popular support.
According to a report from City Press and Rapport, “51% were strongly in favour of excessive force being used by law enforcement officials tasked with ensuring that lockdown measures were being complied with.” Authoritarian government control comes in many forms: Sometimes it happens overnight, in a coup, and other times it progresses over a long period of time. Based on this report, there appears to be an underlying desire among South Africans for more ‘action’-driven leaders. Whatever the actions may constitute is often irrelevant – as long as we have someone who can seize the moment, and ‘lead,’ many among us appear willing to let them do so, no matter the damage they may cause to our freedoms along the way.
I suppose some level of freedom is always conditional. When someone murders someone else, we deem it just that the murderer has many of his freedoms stripped away and is to be imprisoned. The generally accepted view of freedom is that freedom is not absolute: We cannot act with impunity with no concern for how our actions may affect others.
I can go along with this, but I think there’s a deeper philosophical justification for freedom that many lack in their conceptualisation of it. It is one thing to limit someone’s freedom because they committed murder. But it is an entirely different thing to limit people’s ability to earn a living and condemn them to starvation, based on the fear that others will die from a disease.
A lockdown on the scale we have seen, wide-ranging and deep, deserves at least a modicum of debate and questioning before it is enforced on an entire society. Freedom must be guaranteed from the beginning, not thrown by the wayside as something unimportant. The fears of some of us over the deaths wrought by COVID-19 do not justify the stripping away of everyone’s freedoms, especially people who cannot be expected to just make do, as many others can with Wi-Fi, spacious homes, and adequate food.
Freedom has gone out of the window, almost overnight, and it seems that many support the view that pervades government and political circles: Freedom is something we only ‘get’ if our government decides we ‘deserve’ it.
Freedom is a necessary condition for economic growth. Even more than that, if you conceive of human beings and human agency correctly, you understand that a free society is the only truly moral kind of society, where people can use their reason and abilities to pursue their own goals, fulfil their own needs, and be protected from the use of force by others on them. Freedom is a metaphysical concomitant if you hold that human beings must be free if they are to have a chance of realising their potential.
The clearer our conception of robust freedom, and of robust delineations of freedom between rights-respecting individuals, the better equipped we should be to hold accountable a government that sees our freedoms as mere inconveniences. We have an incredibly long way to go if we are to ever push back against government control over our lives. It appears that many have no problem with their freedoms being merely sufficient window-dressings for life, but not necessary for human flourishing.