Lockdown Vs Breakdown

Citizens vs State: lockdown or breakdown?

Though the world entered the new year of 2020 with a dramatic bang of upheaval, South Africa seemed – until lockdown – to be in a fairly good place compared to recent years. In fact, the country seemed to unite as one for the first time in decades as we faced a novel threat to our livelihood. Together.

The minister of finance had, after all, just announced several remarkable measures to completely overhaul South Africa’s economy; the plan included tax and interest relief, reprioritisation of the government budget to focus on education and healthcare, cutting government expenses, auditing government expenses, drought relief and several other measures not seen in the last few decades.

As Covid-19 snuck over the SA border, the presidency decided to take swift action – imposing a lockdown which was quite unparalleled in the developing world, let alone first world nations. But this period of relative calm, cooperation and unity would all evaporate in a clash of classes, races and creeds as the shiny veneer of our government’s all-star team – Ramaphosa and Mboweni – rubbed off and an all too familiar threat stared back at South Africans through the cracks.

First off the blocks

South Africa had already started setting up Covid-19 testing sites and training staff to manage the virus in January 2020 – more than a month before any hints of a lockdown would show. And as the threat inched closer, the government acted swiftly once more.

Though in shock, a lockdown was not unforeseen and South Africans were relatively eager to comply with the government’s disaster regulations. We’d all seen horrifying footage and posts from Italy, Iran and Spain – countries which had delayed decisive action in curbing the spread of the virus. We all knew South Africa’s health system could not handle such a pandemic without flattening the curve. We were aware of the millions of South Africans suffering from comorbidities or immunodeficiencies imposed by HIV/Aids, TB, malnutrition, diabetes, heart disease, cancer or those living in squalor with no chance of social-distancing or practicing proper hygiene and sanitation. 

The government seemed to have a very well defined plan. The presidency and ministers ran down their respective lists of do’s and dont’s and each offered a clear picture of what was to be expected. The president was a bit late for some addresses. But that didn’t matter – because he had a plan. His team had a plan. The plan was structured and well-informed. At least this was how it seemed.

To assist the economy and healthcare systems, immediate relief was offered to businesses and individuals with further measures announced later. South Africa’s most prominent businessmen and women pitched in, offering millions to fellow citizens under guaranteed loan schemes and business incentives. Some financial services providers offered their business clients interest relief and low-interest loans. A stimulus package of R500-billion was announced by government, R130-billion of which was to be provided by our own government through amendments to the budget. The repo rate was cut twice. Top government employees would each take a third salary cut for months to come – with money to be diverted towards economic relief.  Foreign countries and financiers stepped up. South Africa received financial aid, medical supplies and expertise from foreign nations and philanthropists. Taxes were deferred.

Even news that aid was prohibited from white citizens has been debunked. Indeed, the Minister of Tourism holds fast to her stance that only BBBEE compliant businesses will be assisted – but those aware of BBBEE compliance regulations will know that:

  • BBBEE regulations and requirements are imposed for Small to Large enterprises
  • Sole proprietors, micro enterprises and qualifying small enterprises don’t need a BBBEE certificate and only need an affidavit stating their annual turnover and black ownership/staff complement to be deemed BBBEE compliant (they will be deemed compliant irrespective, but their BBBEE level will depend on ownership and staff makeup)
  • Small enterprises are classified as those with a turnover between R10 million and R50 million per annum. Pending approval these enterprises may qualify for automatic compliance.

The abovementioned prerequisites make it clear that most anyone in SA would be deemed BBBEE compliant and that the fear mongering was rather absurd. So racial scares provoked by several parties was quite nonsensical.

Everything seemed rational. Thoughtful. South Africa was in good hands.

Until we weren’t.

The bitter pill of memory

It took but a small misstep from government to undo all the good that had been done. One misstep around an issue which many South Africans would normally not even think to question or support. The prohibition of cigarettes.

It’s rather counterintuitive that individuals who are concerned for their personal health and financial wellbeing would rage about a ban on cigarettes and vaping, but the weight of the backlash made it clear that the true gripe was not about smoking at all. The outrage runs much deeper and it is, perhaps, a type of muscle-memory deeply entrenched in the hearts of citizens who have been taken for a ride one too many times.

Although South Africa was the only country in the world to impose a total cigarette ban during Phase 5 of lockdown (including a ban on tobacco and all vaping products, even those without nicotine) and one of the few to ban alcohol sales during these times, South Africans reluctantly agreed to abstain…initially. Similar concerns were voiced around walking dogs and exercise – but everyone conceded to an extent. Lockdown would surely not last that long. We could all survive the discomfort. We would push through.

And perhaps South Africans will have complied indefinitely, had Phase 4 offered a reprieve, or lifting of these restrictions. Perhaps if the decision by president Ramaphosa and minister Mboweni to allow cigarette sales in Phase 4 had not been overruled by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma we might have agreed. Or if there weren’t a seesawing on the sale of hot food. Perhaps if speeches given by individual ministers did morph into something so frayed and nonsensical – if we could understand what, why and when – South Africans would remain patient. Perhaps if hundreds of law enforcement officers had not been caught illegally moving and selling alcohol and cigarettes, or our alcohol and tobacco industries not pleaded for clemency or minister Dlamini-Zuma’s past presidential campaign not been directly linked to cigarette smugglers, or the South African citizens not lost millions in tax on cigarettes and alcohol, compliance may have continued unabated. If we did not witness law enforcement brutalising citizens for small or imagined infringements, we might remain quiet. Perhaps if the prohibition had been supported by health officials worldwide or if the government did not refuse to disclose the minutes of the meeting which triggered the backtracking, South Africans will have fumed to a lesser extent.

But none of these things happened. And the outrage seems an echo of a not-too-distant past where citizens witnessed the same pummeling of their rights time and again. Except, in the case of Jacob Zuma and his comrades, saffas had no higher expectations to hold them to. The country had not expected integrity at the time – merely justice. This time round, a glimmer of hope had stirred inside the hardest of hearts within SA borders, and that little olive branch had been clutched at simultaneously by the masses, only to snap off in our outstretched hands.

Perhaps one of Stephen King’s main characters in the acclaimed novel and film Shawshank Redemption said it best:

“Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

― Red in Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

South Africans dared hope, for once, that our leaders were concerned for the wellbeing of all South Africans. This hope lifted us, as one. And from this platform of raised expectations and hopefulness, the plummet has been unnecessary cruel and sobering – both literally and figuratively. Our mortification is widespread, violent and unstoppable.

Memory reveals that the wool had been pulled over our eyes before. Memory is a thorn in our collective side. We have been here before. We know how this goes.

The honeymoon is over

Today each South African sits in their lockdown bunker contemplating their individual mortification, distrust and wellbeing.

The primary problem is that government has let their credibility slip too far for an easy recovery. For once credibility starts sliding, it invariably lends itself to all kinds of conspiracy theories. What else are they keeping from us? Who is on our side? Was the graceful behaviour of government only a ploy to show foreign nations how much South Africans appreciated their leaders before the veil was lifted? What must we believe? Who is on our side?

These questions loom large like the ominous clouds of winter which now assail South African skies. The actions and inactions of our leaders have rendered them deceitful, and there’s no telling how deep the deceit goes. This is a highly volatile situation in a climate where the threat of a pandemic is still very real. For the forfeiture of public respect will invariably damage whatever legitimate containment strategies and health advice is extended towards the public going forward. And let’s be clear, Covid-19 is a very real threat.

Conversely, the far fetched conspiracy theories and divisive vitriol spewed by citizens is making it increasingly difficult for South Africans to present a unified front against unfair restrictions and human rights violations imposed by government. Without this unity, chances of being heard contract by the minute. We set ourselves up for a humiliating ‘shrugging off’ by our leaders. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? A nation nearly uniting as one in trying to rid ourselves of corrupt leaders, but preaching divergent narratives and forming factions motivated by dissimilar motives. It took extensive vandalism, destruction of property and violence by youths to be heard by government, the same for protests around gender-based violence. Yet no amount of frenzied outrage has rendered any lasting or progressive results, even if this were a consideration at this point. And have we conveniently forgotten who was at the helm of the Marikana debacle? Or were we so starved for peace and justice that we extended our forgiveness willingly, without hesitation, when our president showed us that we would be taken care of? Were we so hungry for benevolent leadership, that we deliberately passed over red flags?

We can mull these things over for hours and days on end – it does not take us back to a place before all this, nor to the utopia we had envisioned for a moment in South African history.

Indeed, it is clear that the pandemic was not initiated by any type of conspiracy – but it is also clear that many people in power are capitalising on this disaster, perpetuating perfidious information and wrangling with regulations as if parliament were a bullring. We’ve seen other nations take a different or similar stance and we’ve witnessed their successes and failures. We know that different approaches to the same message can lead to success or disaster depending on the citizenry, leadership and territory. Yet it seems South Africa is gearing up to be just another casualty. The protective hand that had been placed between saffas and the virus had over-reached. The necessary precautions so rigidly applied that they are hovering on caricature. It is dangerous ground, this place where jurisprudence resembles parody.

Opposition parties seem equally helpless in keeping the ruling party in check. All efforts to address the outrage seem to be decorated in the unfortunate wrapping of racism, classism or ignorance. Whether relying on sensationalist and inflammatory social media spats, perpetuating fake media or keeping entirely mum – the safety net offered by SA’s other political parties seems to have been locked down as well. Locked away with South Africa’s most precious and lasting asset – our redeeming quality: our constitution.

How the cookie crumbles

Even before the seesawing on cigarettes, alcohol, education and daily exercise allowances, there had been cracks on the surface of our perfect governance.

Pierre de Vos, lecturer in Constitutional law at the University of Cape town and the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance has pointed out that the ambit and mandates of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) have never been clearly defined. Given that the presidency has offered various divergent definitions of the NCCC and its functions, several legislators are now questioning the legality of the NCCC and its powers. Problematically, despite the progressive nature of the Constitution, there is no provision which defines collective cabinet responsibility or the anatomy of a caucus such as the NCCC. What vague outline is provided states that cabinet ministers are legally responsible for the powers and functions assigned to them.

In his Daily Maverick article discussing the matter, De Vos outlines how very convoluted and vague the relevant legislation and its interpretations are. For although the cabinet is collaborative in nature with regards to the executive function, the legal obligation to make decisions and execute such choices falls solely on the minister who heads the specific portfolio. It is a conundrum which is quite perplexing. Ministers are beholden to the cabinet, indeed, and criticism of any majority backed decision made in parliament or ordered by the president is technically proscribed, but given the powers assigned to ministers and the legally binding nature of their positions, the cabinet cannot legally override a minister’s decision. Where obstinance persists, the president can remove a minister from their position, but where the pundit has significant political backing such a decision can have devastating consequences.

Even if we ignore these confusions around powers within cabinet, we are still left scratching heads over the structure and role of the NCCC. In fact, the documents relating to the NCCC’s work and list of roleplayers is by the president’s own admission ‘secret’ and will remain so. Troubling that such secrecy is maintained given that the presidency has stated that the NCCC has no constitutional standing and therefore no power to dictate decisions or policy. If this holds true, why the need to obscure all information relating to the NCCC from public scrutiny? Perhaps we should refer to the president’s subsequent statements mentioning the NCCC – for in later addresses he had indicated that the council does, indeed, have decision-making powers.

As De Vos states, “Given the fact that the Presidency has provided three different versions of the role of the NCCC, at least two of these versions must be wrong. Two of the three versions, if correct, would also have profound consequences for the legal validity of the entire lockdown.”

Legality and political powers aside, there are other worrying aspects of the lockdown.

A stimulus package which constitutes 10% of our GDP would raise eyebrows at the best of times, but somehow amid an international catastrophe, the careful planning, approval and fine print of incurring a R370-billion debt seems to have flitted past us all. And from where will the R130-billion internal revenue be diverted to make up the total R500 billion stimulus? What exactly have we agreed to, and to whom? What are the IOU’s which we’re not privy to?

Indeed, we can trawl through the endless gazettes and new regulations imposed every week, but the list of gazetted rules grows by the day, and are becoming progressively absurd. It is, perhaps, one of the only ways in which the lockdown is progressing at all. Seeking to analyse and compare all parts of these gazettes is near impossible, to question and challenge them an even more arduous task. Everything is happening too fast. .

If the prohibition of walking outside the hours of 06:00 and 09:00 weren’t already baffling, minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, released a new list of regulations on 13 May (another amendment to Phase 4 restrictions) which has South Africans up in arms. 

Patel was quite specific in his list of clothing sales permitted under lockdown. One may, for instance, buy heels, but only if the toes are covered. Short-sleeved knit tops are permitted, but sold specifically to be worn under cardigans and knitwear. Short-sleeved T-shirts are permitted, but they should now be reclassified as underwear. You can buy leggings and ‘crop bottoms’, by all means, just make sure they are worn with boots. Long sleeves, short sleeves classified as underwear, tights to be covered? It seems almost impossible not to liken these rules to ones found in conservative religious factions – the type of regulations one would imagine from persons who believe that bodies should be policed and that déshabillé is a sin.

South Africans are increasingly confused by the bizarre restrictions which seem as though they’d been grabbed from a hat. And saffas are struggling in other respects. Queues for buying necessities are long. Public transport limited. With online shopping as the only recourse for some, it’s becoming near impossible to know what is allowable and what isn’t. Millions of buyers have purchased items only to realise after payment that the items cannot be shipped during lockdown. Retailers themselves seem confused about essential items. What, for instance, is the point of allowing the sale of hair dye but prohibiting the sale of winter wear? How does the sale of intimate boudoir toys safeguard South Africans against the virus while sewing machines (which could answer some of the clothing and mask concerns) are considered hazardous?

Smoking and alcohol are certainly bad for health, and the smug anti-brigade are not in the moral wrong when saying that the prohibition is a positive step in boosting health universally. But those who bash critics of lockdown restrictions as whiners concerned with ‘trivialities’ are missing a major point here. These trivial ‘upendings’, approbations and revocations if left unchecked can easily be transferred to other aspects of South African life. The next restriction may be one which affects you personally. And if Cele has his way, the pro tem prohibition of alcohol will remain in force indefinitely. Indeed, his intention is to ban the sale and use of alcohol permanently. Whether alcohol is unhealthy, a precursor to violence and impacts mental wellbeing is not what’s being debated here – the concern is rather how swiftly, effortlessly and absolutely activities and products which are perfectly legal in normal circumstances can be outlawed and those involved stripped of rights and recourse.

To add fuel to the fire, 19 000 prisoners were paroled prematurely in order to curb the spread of Covid-19 in prisons. Even if these individuals had been legitimately rehabilitated (which cannot be verified given that the details of their incarceration have not been disclosed), one has to wonder what possible benefit this decision could hold for the citizens of SA. There is quite simply no feasible way to reintegrate these people into society given the current circumstances. Who will feed, clothe and employ them? Where will they live and work? How will this release protect South Africans? How does this flatten the curve?

Keeping leaders in check

Writer for Politics Web, Johannes Wessels, compares current affairs to Nongqawuse’s cattle-killing movement which precipitated the famine of 1856-7. While Nongqawuse called for cattle-culling, our government called for activity-culling. Both leaderships called for isolation. The Gcaleka killed up to 400 000 cattle, the lockdown will claim up to 5 million jobs by current estimations. Both actions, the precursors to hunger and poverty. Unlike the 1800s, however, we have the capacity to question and challenge our leaders. At least this is what we are hoping.

Trevor Manuel, SA’s former minister of finance and part of president Ramaphosa’s special envoy for Covid-19 fundraising, stated succinctly that South Africa’s lockdown regulations are endangering our constitutional democracy and failing the test of rationality. Manuel further stated that the duties of law enforcement have been wholly misconceived – their primary goal should be the assistance and protection of citizens, not the policing and brutality we’re currently witnessing.

It makes one wonder what checks are in place to ensure that each decision and statute follows the rule of law, supports our constitution, is based on accurate scientific and statistical data and caters to the needs of our democratic society. Where are the intricate graphs, analyses and interpretations of data which motivate the decisions made at such executive level? The initial models used to guide policy have already been proven demonstrably wrong, so these cannot be rehashed. In fact, it has been established that one common denominator in predicting the trajectory of the pandemic is population size. Earlier graphs could not provide this information, yet more recent data suggests that other variables such as geolocation, time of intervention and type of intervention are not quite indicative of how and at what rate the virus will spread.

Yet where are the debates on these issues? Where are the people crunching the data, and what do they make of drastic changes in modeling and projection? How can South Africa’s health advice differ so much from other nations, including third world countries with similar healthcare systems and socio-economic drawbacks? Where is the rhyme and reason to these bizarre regulations which the DA states come from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and reminds of Soviet-era restrictions. What does the length of one’s sleeves have to do with the curve?

If the aim of lockdown is social distancing, the endless aid queues, grant lines and grocery store masses provide absolutely no buffer against this pandemic. There is also no legitimate reason to allow all citizens outside at once for three hours a day given that this very action ensures mass congregation in the streets.

And while these juvenile attempts at controlling the citizenry are actioned, the government seems even more blase about the stealing of social care packages meant for the poor – stealing by government employees nonetheless. If the theft of aid isn’t enough, the government is prohibiting the public from feeding the poor or delivering aid to those in need, with some individuals even being arrested for such charitable actions – despite having valid permits.

What are citizens to think when the government admits that it will withhold Covid-19 statistics, or that it will refuse to face anyone in the constitutional court regarding lockdown restrictions, or that it will only divulge information to South Africans as determined by the Covid-19 task team, the NCCC?

How can we foresee a systematic phasing-out of lockdown restrictions at all when the government has already amended dozens of Phase 4 regulations since it was initiated? The whole point of a progressive lifting of restrictions is that each phase would be well defined and that necessary changes would occur in the next phase – on a linear timeline. Is there any point of moving to Phase 3 if the preceding phases can be adapted willy-nilly?

This furore and discomfiture merely pile on the frustration and anxiety of those doctors, nurses and crucial staff working on the front lines. Their voices all but muted. Their concerns satirised by those who should support them.

What lies ahead

Despite these fears, South Africa has gained marginal economic traction lost by the successive international calamities brought on by 2020, but one must recognise that our winnings have been gained through major losses.

We’ve racked up a deficit the likes of which we’ve never seen. Companies across the board are filing for business rescue and bankruptcy. Some of the most highly taxed items are not allowed to be sold or purchased. Non-essential companies are laying off workers, closing shops and dumping stock – including SAB who admitted that it will need to dump 130-million litres of beer if distribution is prohibited much longer. The special initiatives by government seems to have completely bypassed the higher-lower to lower-middle income classes. No lifeline is given to individuals unless they are formally unemployed, have registered businesses or hold business banking accounts, pay UIF and file their taxes. In fact, the BBBEE requirement should seem negligible in comparison when a government will not extend any helping hand to individuals who are below or on the cusp of tax-filing prerequisites. Now certainly is not the time to insist on tax compliance when the physical and financial wellbeing of individuals and households are hanging by a thread.

Why does the government still ignore the reality of unsecured loans and allow debt collectors and retailers to continue collecting payments unchallenged? Why is it that the type of income and debt which underscores the reality for so many millions of South Africans is completely ignored and brushed over? 

Interest in emerging economies and higher risk currencies has certainly piqued, if investor behaviour is to be taken at face value. But will this interest persist once first world economies have stabilised, more tech-savvy or production-driven nations provide novel products and services and the true cost of debt, loss of life and financial ruin is known?

Problematically, one must also consider what consideration is in actual fact extended to expats during this time of crisis, whether promises made by those who had since broken many promises and ranks are to be relied on, and if the progress South Africans had hoped for is a viable dream to pursue. Is the dream still relevant?

Advising South Africans on any course of action at this point in time is tricky. Unlike other times in history where Rand Rescue could point out economic or political movement and sentiment guiding projections across industries or jurisdictions, the territory of 2020 is as novel as the virus which veils it. Too much is occurring at once around the globe, too many decisions made without clarity, millions of notices published, impromptu changes in strategy and businesses in financial distress popping up and fading away every minute. We cannot possibly give our readers a clear picture of the road ahead or wager on any economic outcomes.

We can make some assumptions though. With the pandemic having gripped countries around the world in its claws for a significant period. This gives us at least some data to scrutinise and process. One can ascertain from the interim outcomes which governments boast the best balance between restriction and liberty. We can see which leaders have willing buy-in from citizens and who are struggling with control. It is clear which nations are employing the most skilled panel of experts who can advise on the most favourable course of action.

Although this pandemic will certainly run its course eventually, we can most certainly expect similar crises in future. And from what knowledge we’d gained, we have choices which will dictate how the next pandemic will affect us, at least to a certain extent. If you had to choose a location to be locked down in when the next disaster strikes, would you want to remain where you are? Do you have the necessary resources to see you through another global cataclysm? Will your government support your health, protect your rights and save you from financial ruin?

Perhaps a move of some kind is in order. Something to mull over.

In the meantime, talk to Rand Rescue about your options and let’s plan for the future together.

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