In his message to the nation on the eve of the national lockdown, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba called on South Africans to “be wise people and listen, for our own sake, and for the sake of the nation”.
Makgoba said this as the country was preparing for the most draconian restrictions on civil liberties since apartheid-era states of emergency were lifted in the early 1990s.
This time the curb on freedoms is for the greater good – a blunt weapon in the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus.
South Africans have been asked to sacrifice the freedoms they take for granted so that this “invisible enemy”, as President Cyril Ramaphosa called it, can be slowed down and eventually defeated.
By this weekend the virus had already infected close to 600 000 people in the world. The global death toll was more than 25 000 and was climbing fast.
Those infected ranged from ordinary people to royalty, heads of state, sports stars, entertainment celebrities and business moguls.
“Covid-19 knows no age, no colour, no boundary. It doesn’t carry a passport. It will affect all of us. My message to all of you is, please be wise, be sensible,” Makgoba said, urging each South African to play their part “for your good” and “for our good”.
That is the nub. The sacrifices we will make in the next few weeks will be for ourselves, our families, friends, colleagues and strangers.
They will be for those in neighbouring countries and in faraway lands, all of whose citizens are susceptible to this common enemy.
They will be for the economy which will take a knock, but which would be brought to its knees were it not for this action.
When Covid-19 first reared its head in China in December, it was a distant disease.
Our prejudices kicked in as we joked about how the people of that country ate anything, as if to say they deserved to be attacked by strange illnesses.
When it spread beyond the borders of China into neighbouring countries, we began to take it more seriously but still felt safe.
Even when it reached Europe and North America we still felt safe.
Reality hit home when we recorded our first case of Covid-19 early this month, but even then many held on to the myth that it would affect only those wealthy enough to travel abroad.
South Africans continued to behave irresponsibly and it took the government’s announcement of the state of disaster and the imposition of restrictions to get people to adhere to common-sense behaviour.
Fortunately, most citizens have played ball and are adhering to the orders.
Now we are here, living under the most extraordinary conditions, under which even visiting a relative or friend is considered unlawful.
We urge South Africans to adhere to the strict rules, however uncomfortable and no matter how much they remind them of the repression of the past.
But we must also caution against the temptation, on the part of the authorities, to abuse the powers to which this period has entitled them.
There is always an instinct among politicians, bureaucrats and law enforcement agencies to overstep their mark when granted some leeway.
Already, in Europe, some governments have been called out for trying to use the cover of emergency powers to encroach on basic rights.
This week several international press freedom organisations wrote to the EU urging it to act against some governments on the continent, which had used emergency powers to enact regulations that curb media scrutiny of their responses to the pandemic.
“While we appreciate that certain emergency measures are needed to combat the pandemic, all such measures must be necessary, proportionate, strictly time-limited and subject to regular scrutiny to solve the immediate health crisis.
“Unfortunately, numerous governments around the world are already using the pandemic to claim excessive powers that can undermine democratic institutions, including a free press. These dangerous developments could easily outlive the health crisis as it is, unless we act urgently to stop them,” the organisations said.
While we hope nothing of the sort will happen in South Africa, we have to be vigilant.
The gung-ho language of some ministers this week sounded very much like the war talk of tinpot dictators.
It was as if they were relishing the opportunity and ability to take liberties away from South Africans.
The government has done well and exercised good leadership in the crisis.
Most citizens and sectors of society have responded with maturity.
Let us continue to behave responsibly and caringly and to prod those who don’t into line.
There can be no sacrifice more worthy than this one in our lifetime.
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