Mandy Wiener

Mandy Wiener: Civil disobedience and government’s crisis of legitimacy

2020-05-19 06:00
Government's lockdown regulations are increasingly being ignored. (iStock)

Government's lockdown regulations are increasingly being ignored. (iStock)

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The government and the people are allies in this war against the Covid-19 pandemic and against the attack on the economy. Government cannot afford to turn its own citizens against it and fight on yet another front.

South Africa has a long, deeply entrenched history of civil disobedience.

From Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement at the turn of the 20th Century to the flouting of pass laws and curfews under apartheid, it has proven to be an effective means of non-violent protest.

More recently, civil disobedience undermined and crippled the e-toll programme in Gauteng with motorists just refusing to buy eTags or pay their bills to Sanral.

As we find ourselves on Day 54 of lockdown in South Africa, doubt has set in amongst those who are questioning the logic and rationality of our government’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

With that comes disregard for the laws imposed under the State of Disaster.  

Arguments for and against lockdown have become increasingly polarised, politicised and emotive.

I don’t for one second pretend to speak on behalf of any South Africans other than myself - #WhichSouthAfricans has taught us that.

But there is a sense that this argument has been drawn down class and race lines - that the privileged are pushing for lockdown to be lifted and the impoverished want it to stay. That would be overly simplistic.  

Be that as it may, the calls for the lockdown to be eased have become louder since those heady days in March when President Cyril Ramaphosa was fawned upon and depicted as a superhero.

The dissent within the "MAC" - the council of experts that advises the politicians - has caused more confusion around whether government is doing the right thing or not. 

The apparent irrationality of some of the lockdown laws - particularly Ebrahim Patel’s ludicrous clothing list and the inexplicable exercise time constraints - are fueling the fire of the lift the lockdown camp.

But more than that, it’s the debilitating effect on the economy, businesses and people’s ability to earn a living. The stakes are high. The country’s GDP could shrink by over 16% and it's estimated up to 4 million jobs could be lost. 

Faced with the prospect of starving or losing the income that sustains your family, chances are you are going to flout lockdown laws. You are going to prioritise making money over flattening the curve.

It’s manifesting in all kinds of little and big ways.

Hairdressers and beauticians are doing house calls.

Coffee shops are "delivering" by getting a delivery guy to hand the patron their hot beverage on the pavement. Furniture shops are now hardware stores. Dog groomers are "animal care".

Small sneaky social gatherings are starting to happen, even if it’s in bubbles of family members.  

Looking for loopholes has become the new national sport in lockdown.  

More than that though is the apparent disregard for the government’s call to wear masks in public, not to gather in large groups and to maintain social distancing.

In many instances, people are just carrying on with life as it was before. 

President Ramaphosa went a long way in appeasing the outrage at some of the ludicrous laws in his last address to the nation.

"Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory and some have been poorly explained and some have evoked a lot of anger and opposition in many of you," acknowledged the President.  

Ramaphosa also gave an undertaking to lead transparently and to take the country into his confidence. Politicians have to do better in explaining the thinking and the science behind their decisions.

As I wrote last week, the entire concept of the social contract between society and the government is based on trust and if that trust breaks down, so too does the social contract. 

When government doesn’t speak to us, when it is not transparent, that trust relationship is destroyed. What follows is a disregard for the rule of law and civil disobedience.

Threats of such happening are becoming more vocal.

The Democratic Alliance has warned that the government is abusing its power with "arbitrary rules" and "outrageous announcements" that are "increasingly met with resistance and even outright civil disobedience". 

Outa’s Wayne Duvenage, who knows a lot about civil disobedience from his time on the frontlines of the e-toll fight, says we are getting closer and closer to a situation where civil disobedience is going to see government losing the support of the people.  

He says when there is irrationality people can push the envelope. Keeping citizens in the dark and not explaining the rationale behind decisions, could result in government alienating the people. 

"When government cannot manage their own laws, they suffer a crisis of legitimacy. They can’t manage what they have legislated, even on a temporary basis. Legislation that doesn’t get the buy in of the people, gets flouted and government’s legitimacy comes under attack," says Duvenage.  

Government is facing a legal challenge over the constitutionality of the Disaster Management Act. There has to be oversight over those who are making the decisions.

They have to be accountable to the people and not have unfettered powers.  

With an increase in civil disobedience and people breaking lockdown regulations, the rule of law in the country will also come into question.

Security forces will be stretched and under pressure - we have also learnt from the emphatic Khosa court ruling last week that the police and the army can’t simply resort to brutality and violence to maintain the rule of law.  

In his judgment, Judge Hans Fabricius said South Africans had to be able to trust the government to abide by the rule of law.

In return, the government could then expect citizens to cooperate for the common goal. This social contract would then "take its rightful constitutional place for the benefit of the nation and the state".  

Instead, Fabricius ruled, that "the very institutions that have been created to safeguard and protect the population … are the very persons who now fail to impose the appropriate internal remedies against the transgressors".  

The government and the people are allies in this war against the Covid-19 pandemic and against the attack on the economy.

Government cannot afford to turn its own citizens against it and fight on yet another front.

Not when they need the people on side more than ever before.  

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  pandemic  |  lockdown  |  coronavirus


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