Ending the polarization around South Africa’s lockdown

In South Africa, we are not in a situation where we need to choose between saving lives and protecting livelihoods. It is far worse. We are in danger of losing both.

President Cyril Ramaphosa receives PPEs from Naspers. Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC.

The debate around the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa is becoming increasingly polarized. While South Africans were initially broadly united around Cyril President Ramaphosa’s swift and radical proclamation of a National State of Disaster in mid-March, and the sweeping stay-at-home order that followed, we are now in a situation where every aspect of the regulations pertaining to the current “Level 4” is being noisily debated.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Fierce contestation of government decisions is part of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, the debate is now polarized along unhelpful lines: it is being constructed as a binary choice between “saving lives” and “saving livelihoods”; between prioritizing between the political imperatives of fighting the pandemic and the needs of “the economy”; between solidarity and self-interest; between “left” and “right.”

To make matters worse, some of those within the government who are defending the lockdown regulations are framing the debate as a contest between expertise deployed in the service public good versus ignorance and privilege: as if concerns about the regulations are simply reflecting the views of armchair epidemiologists and middle class whites mainly concerned with their own selfish interests. A regrettable example is the opinion piece recently published in the Daily Maverick by Saul Musker, a speechwriter within the South African Presidency. Musker’s piece dismissed the rising tide of dissent about current regulations as the fulminations of a bunch of uninformed amateurs. He argued that these critics were “endangering society”—and doing so “on the basis of little more than a hunch, an intuition, or an article they saw in the Wall Street Journal.” South Africa, Musker warned, should not merely be governed for Claremont but for Khayelitsha as well. (Claremont is a wealthy, middle class and mostly white suburb in the middle of Cape Town and an important center of financial and retail capital. Khayelitsha is a sprawling and impoverished black settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town.)

But the reality is that the voices of concern are not only coming from Claremont. They are coming from all over the country. The choice is not between the lockdown and the economy. The real danger is that poorly conceptualized and implemented lockdown regulations will fail on their own terms. They will not help stop the virus, they are causing great economic damage—and they risk leading to a dangerous crisis in relations between the state and those it means to protect.

There are two basic problems with the conceptualization and the implementation of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown. The first is that stay-at-home regulations of the kind implemented in China and emulated across much of the world presuppose the existence of a resilient economy with high levels of stable employment and a strong social safety net. With those elements in place, it is indeed possible for people to shelter at home and minimize their social interactions.

But those conditions aren’t present in South Africa. We are one of the most unequal societies on the face of the planet. More than a third of our population are landless, un- or underemployed, and frighteningly vulnerable. Many depend on a fragile and tenuous informal economy, and on the distribution of scarce resources through thinly stretched and overburdened social networks. Waste-pickers, domestic workers, and informal traders cannot work from home. For this population, the lockdown has been ruinous. Their primary concern is not the pandemic. For 25 years or more, they have already been living in a crisis of ill-health, poverty, and food insecurity. But that crisis has now become all-encompassing. For millions of households, hunger has for decades been a perpetual ghostly presence, always knocking on the door. Now it is inside the house. Palliative measures have brought some limited relief, but they are not nearly enough.

The second problem with the lockdown has been that it has depended on an excessively technocratic vision of government action. The lockdown has unfolded within an imaginary of hyper-development—as if we lived not in South Africa, but in South Korea or Singapore. The regulations assume a highly capable state, proceeding on accurate, clear and up-to-date information, and engaging seamlessly with a formalized and responsive economy and a compliant and trusting citizenry.

But none of those conditions resonate. The South African state is weak and dysfunctional. Data (both epidemiological and economic) are partial and incomplete. Large reaches of our society are invisible to economic planners and epidemiologists alike. And the population is vulnerable, mobile and defiant: dependent on the state but also often highly distrustful of it.

To make matters worse, the conditions prevailing in the informal settlements, impoverished villages and rural slums where a large section of South Africa’s population live, are not conducive to the implementation of basic safety measures. People live in crowded and unsanitary conditions, local health systems are fragmented and overloaded, basic water and sanitation is lacking, and local government systems are in tatters.

This is a frightening state of affairs: where community transmission is established, and where implementing social distancing is difficult, any workable politics of life in response to COVID-19 depends on the active and voluntary cooperation of the citizenry. This is the lesson we learned (or should have learned) from the HIV/AIDS pandemic: fighting a disease like this requires a democratic politics of public health, a social movement that engages people as not as objects of biomedical management, but as partners in their own well-being and that of the people around them.

This we have thus far failed to do. Instead, we have irrational regulations, often brutally enforced by poorly trained police and army. The government is seeking to regulate the sale of tobacco and the conditions under which T-shirts may be bought, while dense gatherings conducive to the spread of the virus are being permitted (e.g. at funerals) or actively solicited (queues for social grants or food parcels). Meanwhile the looming economic meltdown threatens to overwhelm the fragile coping mechanisms that South Africa’s poor populations have relied on thus far. There is a danger that this crisis could fatally undermine the legitimacy of the lockdown regulations themselves. In the long run, it is likely to imperil the social contract at the heart of our democracy, creating deep political problems for decades ahead.

In his live-streamed address on the evening of May 13, President Ramaphosa struck a grave and conciliatory tone, warning South Africans about the threat to life posed by the epidemic, acknowledging the hardship imposed by the lockdown, and admitting that his government has made mistakes. Again, we had the opportunity to contrast his dignified and measured approach with the cynicism and incompetence on display elsewhere in the world. But the difficult questions about the advisability and the fitness for purpose of the current approach to the management of this pandemic will not go away.

In a way, despite the heat and noise generated by many of Ramaphosa’s critics, they underestimate just how deep in trouble we are. We are not in a situation where we need to choose between saving lives and protecting livelihoods. It is far worse. We are in danger of losing both. It may feel comfortable or virtuous to point a moralizing finger at the ridiculous figure of right-wing radio host, Gareth Cliff, or to censure the middle class whites of Claremont. But the stakes are far higher. The lion is already among the cattle. Our whole society is in danger. It is time to think again.

Further Reading

It has no place

COVID-19 exposes the continued inability of most white South Africans to critically reflect on privilege or engage constructively about the handling of the pandemic.