Guest Column

Daniel Silke | South Africa’s challenge: How to reshape itself post-Covid-19

2020-04-30 14:56
Ultimately, South Africa does require change, says the writer. (iStock)

Ultimately, South Africa does require change, says the writer. (iStock)

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For the ANC, it will clearly want to use this opportunity to shape the country into the mould it would like. Will it be safer and more efficient? Or will it be safer but more authoritarian? Will it be less liberal and more nationalistic? asks Daniel Silke. 

As South Africa contemplates its "risk-adjusted" strategy to amend the country’s stringent lockdown, it is possible that the ANC government is attempting more than just reacting to the unpredictable and unprecedented manifestation of Covid-19. 

The extent of this crisis - built around a hastily assembled set of rules and regulations to combat a new (and dangerous) pathogen - clearly always had a health focus in mind.

Saving lives was paramount. Buying time for a public health system to ramp up for the worst-case scenarios was critical. Managing a vulnerable population - many living in poverty with co-morbidities (HIV/Diabetes) - was rightly regarded as a key function of the State.  

But, as we move into a marginally "softer" lockdown in the new Stage Four, the initial health imperatives seem a little more watered down.

The raft of regulations, the rising heavy-handedness of the policing authorities and an increasingly stifling of an economy in deep distress creates a perception that South Africa is attempting something broader than just managing its health pandemic. 

It’s controversial.

Perhaps even silly to suggest. But, could it be that our political authorities have seen this lockdown as a conduit to a different South Africa? Almost as if, we have - under the guise of a health-response - mutated to deeper set of behaviour-altering conditionalities that some in power would like to see being permanently etched on our political economy well after Covid-19.

Last week, intrepid journalist Graeme Raubenheimer reported on an elderly woman being arrested for selling achaar (pickled food) without a permit. Indeed, the woman was flouting the lockdown regulations, but the heavy-handedness of the response told a different story. 

Ironically, many South Africans have constantly bemoaned the lack of visible policing especially when it comes to cracking down on smaller or petty crimes in our society.  

Many have called for the introduction of a "broken window" style of policing where even minor infringements are strictly dealt with in order to break the chain of smaller crimes leading to more dangerous activities.

Ironically, it has taken Covid-19 for a type of broken-window policy to be implemented but - at least in this case - without the necessary empathy and basic humanity that is required under these exceptional conditions.  

If our law enforcement agencies are serious about tackling less dramatic forms of civil disorder (outside of Covid-19), it is a welcome step. But clearly, as much as South Africans require reconditioning to accept authority, so does the security establishment in implementing this. 

The achaar incident was small. Yet it points to what the Covid-19 response can do.

The lockdown regulations have resulted in a 72% drop in murder over the first 21 days when compared to the same period last year.

Similarly, rape figures are down by 87%, carjacking by 80% and robbery at around 70%.

The stringent policing of gatherings, ban on alcohol sales and increased threat of actionable policing has clearly contributed to these massive unintended benefits. 

So you can well imagine, that many would wish these dramatic drops in criminality should become more permanent. After all, South Africans have longed for a safer society for decades.

In order to achieve these levels of compliance with the law, it has taken the most extreme domestic measures ever implemented.  

Once again, the level of control and threat of force will be an aphrodisiac to some in government yet weighted against the civil liberties that often work against a society yet enable a constitutional state to maintain civil liberties.

Having secured such a dramatic fall in the worst possible criminal activities, many in government will want to hold onto these gains - but - at what price to the freedoms enjoyed and cherished by most South Africans.

There are always dangers in enhancing the role of the security apparatus - and South Africans know better than most what that means.

There remains a distinct danger that the drawcard to a reduction in the worst crimes that plague South African can be used as a smokescreen to upend civil liberties - and even worse, cover up political crimes that can largely fall through the policing and prosecuting cracks.  

To this point, the severe limiting of economic activity is set to continue indefinitely into State 4.

The curtailing of online trade, elements of the retail sector and a possible curfew suggest that control is increasingly attractive to certain policymakers. 

Covid-19 presents an opportunity for change in other spheres as well.

Last week, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni emphasised the need to implement stricter employment criteria - especially in the service/restaurant sector - to limit foreign workers.  

A resurgence of nationalism was always going to an offshoot of Covid-19 and not just in South Africa.

Economic hardships and rising unemployment will nudge many countries to protecting their own against alien workers.

Still, Minister Mboweni is hinting at much stricter labour controls with consequences not only for foreigners in South Africa but for business owners as well.  

It’s a sign that Covid-19 will be used as a justification for aspects of a new labour order.

And, it has its own dangers in making the country less hospitable to outsiders and fanning the fragile flames of xenophobia which will not take that much igniting in an economic environment of rising unemployment and social hardship. 

Of course, there are also much bigger issues arising out of the country’s response to Covid-19.

The role of the State in our economy and service delivery will, once again, be put on the front burner. Covid-19 will be used to promote a more "statist" response to policy-making especially when it comes to the implementation of National Health Insurance (NHI).

And, if healthcare becomes far more oriented towards the influences of the state, the domino-effect to other sectors cannot be ruled out. 

In these (and other ways) ways, South Africa’s post-Covid rebirth may indeed point towards the cliched "new normal".

For the ANC, it will clearly want to use this opportunity to shape the country into the mould it would like.

Will it be safer and more efficient? Or will it be safer but more authoritarian? Will it be less liberal and more nationalistic?  

But with deep divisions and counter-agendas, the entire country should be mindful of the potential seepage of the more draconian Covid-inspired changes into every-day life.

Ultimately, South Africa does require change. But, perhaps, it should just strive to be a better version of itself.  

- Daniel Silke is the director of the Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town. Twitter (@DanielSilke) and at  

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  jobs  |  economy  |  pandemic  |  poverty


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