On 9 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an extension to South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown. What was due to end on 16 April will now only cease at the close of the month, or it simply be extended again. What I’ve found most interesting about all the ‘we are led’ talk on social media is that such sentiments have not come from people in informal settlements, who are now confined to shacks for an even longer period of time, but from those amongst us who have access to Wi-Fi, ample food, widescreen TVs, and gardens.
I know many people don’t enjoy talking about ‘privilege,’ but I think the concept does have merit when applied in the correct context. Given the continued increase of government power, and the ways in which that power skews things in favour of those who either have the power or are well-enough connected, privilege is very much at play in the imposition of this lockdown. Millions of poor South Africans have to sit in tiny ‘houses’, and this is nothing but a profound disgrace. Even more so, given the fact that those in power always talk about serving the interests of ‘the poor.’ When a government runs all over civil liberties, it is always poorer people who suffer the most and for the longest.
I suppose we will be told that the lockdown and its extension are being done for the ‘good of the country’ and for the good of ‘those who don’t know better’. I’m sure a fair few racists have already thrown in with this particular view. Whichever justification is offered, at base they are all immoral because they reject any notion that individuals have any sort of noteworthy agency to decide for themselves how they should live. The prejudices and sub-human view of a certain group of South Africans appears to have continued into the new South Africa.
A couple of videos of apparent abuse of citizens by police and soldiers have done the rounds. It doesn’t appear that much action has been taken against the abusers. High-profile politicians can flout the lockdown rules and proceed as normal. But indeed, with any level of totalitarianism, the same rules do not apply equally to the anointed and the undesirables. (see “While Cabinet minister gets a ‘slap on the wrist’, homeless are shot at for trying to leave unsafe camp”).
Why have so many governments pursued the lockdown route? Perhaps it is with the intention of acting as the ‘saviours’ of society while at the same time entrenching their power even more in the long run. This theory has serious merit. Throughout history governments have used crises to further their controls, the most recent example being the United States government’s trampling on civil liberties while it fought the War on Terror. There is another theory, that governments have simply internalised the view that they must solve every problem that afflicts society. This theory is my own, and I think goes to the root of the role governments have adopted, wrongly and immorally, for themselves.
I’ve mentioned this on social media before, but it’s a crucial point that bears repeating here. If governments had not taken it upon themselves to provide for people’s healthcare needs, they would not be under this much pressure to ‘flatten the curve.’ Had healthcare providers, manufacturers, investors, and others in the sector, not been hobbled by endless regulations and prevention of investment, they would have been able to mobilise much faster and tackle the crisis much better than any government-led plan ever could. (How the government delayed coronavirus testing)
Discretion may well be the better part of valour. Where it has caught hold, the virus has caused the deaths of thousands. But in country like South Africa, where so many have to try to make a living day to day, can it really be considered in any way moral for those in power to make these sorts of life-affecting, and potentially life-destroying, decisions on behalf of the citizens? While the virus can and has killed many, being denied any chance of obtaining food for weeks will most certainly guarantee death.
I suppose the only silver-lining in all this is that Eskom has more than enough capacity to power the country now. It’s just a travesty that there isn’t much to power.
I hope at least some who fawned over the extension of the lockdown will think about the level of power the government is exerting over the poorest in society.