It is a mark of a good president to be able to deliver bad news well. President Cyril Ramaphosa has many detractors, of various ideological stripes, but his announcement on Monday evening of harsher lockdown regulations was striking for its presidential tone and command of the moment.
It will also not have escaped notice that he was emotionally affected by the crisis caused by Covid-19, and, presumably, to have to be the bearer of bad tidings.
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Given the rapid escalation of the pandemic, it is about time that government stopped avoiding the issue and put its foot down.
An immediate criticism of the lockdown is, however, precisely that enforcement is lackadaisical at best, and that this is a contributory factor to why matters have gotten out of hand. It is a matter of credibility and safety that indeed the police be seen to be acting against those who do not abide by the regulations. Ramaphosa stressed that wearing mask is not a matter of personal freedom, but of life and death. He is correct, but for his words to have meaning, it is necessary for there to be some arrests. Enforcement of a health regulation does not turn South Africa into a police state, but is rather a basic rule of governance.
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Everyone wishes that it were possible to rely on personal responsibility to get us through. The fact that we have arrived at this point of heightened crisis is evidence that trust and civic-mindedness are not sufficient mechanisms. The personal circumstances of most South Africans means that adhering to basic precautionary measures, notably social distancing, is difficult. Nevertheless, a mood of abandon has been obvious over the past couple of months, and it was always going to end in tears. For the first lockdown, the country did not know what it was in for or have a real sense of the implications except as a theoretical outcome. No one can claim that now, and there can be no excuses.