Judith February: When this is over there will be a reckoning of government

2020-05-10 06:00
President Cyril Ramaphosa gets screened at the Dr Pixley Isaka Seme Provincial Hospital in KwaMashu.

President Cyril Ramaphosa gets screened at the Dr Pixley Isaka Seme Provincial Hospital in KwaMashu. (GCIS)

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South Africa needs to emerge from this lockdown as a society that holds its government to account in more ways, not less, and with citizens at the heart of our endeavours to fix our country, writes Judith February.


A global pandemic lays bare many things - the fragility of human life, of economies and the systems that underpin it.

It also lays bare deep inequalities and prejudices within societies, none more so than in South Africa.

Burdened by its entrenched inequality, poverty and ever-deepening levels of unemployment, the coronavirus was always going to place an unbearable strain on every sinew of this society.

We remain in the midst of lockdown. While there is increasing frustration with what some see as arbitrary and irrational rules put in place by government, President Ramaphosa has been clear that the worst is yet to come in terms of both the spread of Covid-19 and the economic devastation that inevitably comes with the lockdown.

These words are hard to absorb as we witness the poor and starving waiting in queues for social assistance and businesses either closing or on the brink of closure.

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Diepsloot residents queue for food parcels. (Gallo Images, Sharon Seretlo)

Facing the biggest challenge of his presidency, Ramaphosa has demonstrated leadership underpinned by science.

Yet, he has needed the backing of his Cabinet ministers, some of whom have often and almost predictably, disappointed.

This, together with weak institutions and a largely incapable state, has undermined the social solidarity needed to deal with the pandemic more effectively.

In his recent weekly newsletter, Ramaphosa again painted a stark picture of the progress that has been made in buying time to deal with the peak of the virus.

He also sketched the bleak reality as he wrote, "At this stage in the progress of the pandemic, other countries had far more infections than we do.

As of now - which is 46 days since we recorded our 100th coronavirus case - we have 6 783 confirmed cases.

Italy, which has a similar size population to ours, had more than 140 000 cases and the United States had around 700 000 confirmed cases at the 46-day mark."

And so, despite the noise around us, it is important to hold these facts before us.

Ramaphosa and his government initially declared the lockdown having followed the science and that, by and large continues to inform its response.

No government has dealt with this pandemic perfectly. South Africa is no different, especially in relation to the lockdown rules and managing those. Here we have seen egregious breaches of rights, police brutality and a government that has lost its way as regards aspects of implementation.

The lockdown has been in place since 27 March
SANDF and SAPS patrol the streets of Alexandra, Johannesburg. (Luca Sola, AFP)


Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu and Sassa have squandered precious goodwill by their incompetence, failing to distribute grants timeously and undermining the dignity of those already on the margins of society.

The on again, off again cigarette ban has caused the most intense speculation about the power dynamics within Ramaphosa's Cabinet, and the ANC's internal politics.

The resultant outcry has been loud and vociferous in some quarters.

In many respects, the "analysis" of power relations within Cabinet has been shallow and a knee-jerk response mostly founded in deep anger at the prolonged lockdown.

What the pandemic requires is that we hold two thoughts at once; that while the lockdown is necessary, it has been imperfectly implemented and deeply harmful mistakes have been made.

There has been careless disregard of rights and people's dignity trampled upon. In addition, some irrationality has prevailed in relation to lockdown rules.

We must not shy away from naming those breaches and remaining vigilant at abuses of power at any time, but especially during times of national disaster.

Yet, these heinous actions do not negate the raison d'etre for the lockdown itself.

Holding two thoughts at once calls for any society to grapple with contradiction and complexity.

South Africa struggles to do that, unsurprisingly, given also the past decade of poor governance and the lack of trust we generally have in the state and in each other.

Despite the prevailing criticism of the lockdown and the ubiquitous analysts who claim dealing with the pandemic is easy, there are no self-evident answers to a challenge of this nature.

There are no simple choices.


The lockdown creates economic hardship, yet having the majority of the workforce succumb to the virus will create devastation of its own kind.


When to implement the hard lockdown?

Too late and government risks death at a scale unimaginable and the collapse of an already over-burdened healthcare system.

What democratic government could survive such a callous response?

And one can be almost guaranteed that those most angry at government for the present lockdown, would be the first to slate an uncaring and cold ANC-led government for letting its own poor, black compatriots die because they risked their lives to keep the economy going.

Yet, if government is asking people to make extraordinary sacrifices then it is incumbent on it to ensure that the balance between our constitutional rights and incursions on them is fair, limited and legally rational.

So when Ramaphosa deployed the SANDF to assist in enforcing the lockdown, he sent them out somewhat optimistically to serve South Africans with "respect and responsibility".

"This is a mercy mission, this is a life-restoration mission, this is a life-saving mission, this is a life-giving mission."

It has been anything but.

There may have been outrage about cigarettes, alcohol and exercise but we need to focus our minds more carefully on the acts of brutality by the police and the SANDF.

What should concern us more is the most casual manner in which the relevant ministers, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Bheki Cele, have responded to reports of brutality.

Cele's incoherent communication and threats of a kind of "kragdadigheid" require far deeper scrutiny. His careless words provide a chilling licence to police to act in heavy-handed ways.

bheki cele

Police Minister Bheki Cele takes part in a joint law enforcement operation in Krugersdorp on the first day of lockdown Level 4. (News24, Azarrah Karrim)

At times, it has felt as if the state is at war with its people and not the virus itself.

As the University of Cape Town's Cathy Powell has said: "Rules cannot be enforced by might but rather with people's consent."

The president himself has neglected to fully address these concerns.

He ought to.

Post-pandemic (whatever the world looks like), these are the questions that need to be asked and answered. It was Ramaphosa who said at the start that he did not want a "coronavirus commission of inquiry" at the end of all of this.

How one gains the trust and consent of the citizenry is therefore axiomatic when dealing with a pandemic of this kind.

For every food parcel stolen and every citizen experiencing police brutality, the trust is broken and the sacred contract between the people and their elected representatives is broken.

There is much to weigh up now but there will also be a post-pandemic moment when we should take time to ponder the neglect of the constitutionally enshrined notion of participatory democracy.

The Constitution champions "public participation" but too often that participation is shallow and technocratic and does not facilitate an ongoing conversation between citizens and elected representatives.

Is there any wonder that "burning" has become commonplace?


The careless disregard of citizens' rights over the years has resulted in the breaking down of participatory democracy and links between those in power and citizens.


Much government and citizen interaction between elections has been abandoned as councillors and local government authorities have failed to deliver basic services.

After all, only 18 of the 257 municipalities received clean audits, and irregular expenditure by municipalities sits at around R20 billion a year, according to the Auditor-General. 

There has been very little listening in our democracy.

Ramaphosa has committed his government to re-establishing the social compact between government, business and labour.

What this pandemic has shown us is that we have to do more to ensure that nexus between government, business, civil society and citizen groups is strengthened thus enabling us to work collectively towards a society that is more just and less unequal.

This pandemic has shown us how desperately we need a capable state.

It has also shown us that different sectors can no longer work in isolation. If we have any hope of succeeding in the future, we need to combine public and private resources and expertise, where appropriate.

This not only envisages academic Harry Boyte's notion of democratic "co-creation" with the state, but also leads to a society that is more resilient in dealing with the turbulence that comes along with living in a deeply unequal society.

Ramaphosa may have invoked Franklin D Roosevelt in his inaugural address of 1933 made during the depths of the Great Depression, when he emphasised not only the restoration of the nation and an abiding faith in democracy in saying: "We do not distrust the future of essential democracy".

South Africa needs to emerge from this lockdown as a society that holds its government to account in more ways, not less, and with citizens at the heart of our endeavours to fix our country.

And more importantly, we need to emerge from the lockdown as a society more empathetic, not less so, and where we fully understand that our dignity is intertwined with those most marginalised within our society.

During this pandemic we have been called upon to keep faith with the democracy we wrought.

In many aspects, we have failed but in many ways South Africa is a cacophonous, lively democracy, able to withstand the challenges we now face and able to endure the slings and arrows of disease and unease even while our resilience is being sorely tested.


In many ways, South Africa is a country still divided. (iStock)

As is usual in South Africa, daily we are beset by extreme and polarising views.

Yet, the truth mostly lies somewhere in the fraught middle.

The noise can be unhelpful and unproductive. What is certain is that there will be a post-pandemic reckoning.

The coronavirus response has shown up the worst and the very best of what this democracy is and what kind of leadership has navigated us through choppy waters.

Keeping faith with our democracy is crucial in this moment where many - specifically those within our government - have preferred to flex their authoritarian muscles and feed their nationalistic tendencies.

But it will be of even greater importance when we navigate a changed, uncertain, somewhat ravaged post-coronavirus country.

- Judith February is an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies and the author of Turning and turning: Exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy (Pan Macmillan) 

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  pandemic  |  governance  |  democracy  |  coronavirus
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