JUDITH FEBRUARY: COVID-19 lockdown: Keep faith with SA’s hard-won democracy


Lockdown. South Africa March 2020.

Monday night’s speech will be recorded as one of the most consequential speeches of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency, if not the most consequential. It was a moment of historic clarity. The President invoked the powers of his office to ensure the wellbeing of the people.

The coronavirus will cause an almost entirely rule-averse country to change its ways. That was the stern warning from President Ramaphosa on Monday night. Again, we waited for the address and again, one could see the gravity of this new and unprecedented challenge etched on Ramaphosa’s face.

It required everything in his arsenal for the pandemic requires us to meet our challenges squarely.

There is no place to hide from our social and economic vulnerability and certainly no place to hide from almost a decade of state capture which has left our kitty bare and our institutions beleaguered. Our past remains uncomfortably with us and the social fabric is tenuous, the economy likewise.

We know too that our challenges are legion - crumbling health services, millions on social grants and levels of inequality and unemployment so deeply entrenched that it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Governance challenges are laid bare with every report of a crumbling municipality and corruption by some or other ANC government official. We greet with relief the announcement by Eskom that no load shedding is expected this week.

Into this fraught context comes a global pandemic. Ramaphosa was compelled to act decisively. If we are to flatten the curve, reduce infections and prevent the collapse of our already precarious health system, then a lockdown is necessary. Ramaphosa acted with a calm sense of intention. Since declaring a national disaster and now a lockdown, we have seen a steely, clear-eyed (and still consultative) version of Ramaphosa.

Mercifully, he eschewed the British way of trying to ensure ‘herd immunity’ and we have been spared the circus-like narcissism that has marked all of President Trump’s briefings on COVID-19.

The seriousness of the measures Ramaphosa proposed was underscored by the support business has given to ensuring that workers remain protected as far as possible during this uncertain time. The Oppenheimer and Rupert families have donated R1 billion each and R200 million will be made available to small and medium businesses that have been hit hard by, inter alia, travel restrictions. A raft of other measures, such as activating the Unemployment Insurance Fund, were also announced, including the launch of a Solidarity Fund.

Crises like these show up both the best and the worst about countries; what they have neglected and what they treasure. The soul of a country is in essence laid bare.

The country’s leadership is also laid bare at times like these. One is either a credible leader or one is not. When President Ramaphosa announced a national disaster on 15 March, he showed then that he and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize could rise to the challenge. Since then Mkhize has provided the country with an honest rendering of the spread of the coronavirus. This is welcome relief and one thinks only of the shambles former President Zuma might have made of addressing the seriousness of this situation before us. Doubtless he would have been distracted by self-interest and matters unrelated to the state of our collective wellbeing.

And so, if Ramaphosa and Mkhize and others are trying hard to act in a way which follows the science and which gives their words legitimacy, their ministers will have to follow suit. It is for this reason that when Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Social Development, posted a video of herself outside Melrose Arch about to go shopping, her frivolous clip was met with outrage. All dressed up with somewhere to go, she exclaimed she was tired of being indoors. The video was wrong on every level. One wonders what goes through the mind of a Cabinet minister when posting something so vacuous? With one ‘click’, she revealed a shallow inner life. Her apology for the video came the next day.

During lockdown we cannot afford ministers, pastors and other charlatans undermining the President’s words.

In the coming days, the sceptics will criticise government and many will urge it to do more and do better. We will doubtless hear of those breaking the rules of lockdown – this is South Africa, after all. The deployment of the SANDF and the police to enforce the lockdown in general is to be welcomed. The aim is, after all, to get as many South Africans as possible to stay at home. It is a simple yet powerful message that should be underscored by mass communication and sufficient enforcement.

But this lockdown is about more than a set of rules to be followed. It is about finding the wellspring of goodness we all know still sits at the heart of this complex country. Can we once more pull together for the common good? Can we see our futures intrinsically linked, as this pandemic becomes all of our responsibility? This is no time for cowering from the challenge whether an ordinary citizen, government, business or labour. We are facing a clear and present danger.

In fact, Ramaphosa may have invoked Franklin D Roosevelt in his inaugural address of 1933 made during the depths of the Great Depression, when he said:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Importantly, however, Roosevelt emphasised restoration of the nation and an abiding faith in democracy when he went on to say:

“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy”.

And so it is for South Africa. During this pandemic we are called upon to restore our country and also to keep faith with the democracy we wrought and the sacrifices that were made to get us to this point. 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. In the days ahead our resilience will be sorely tested and the choice lies within our communities as we seek to embrace new ways of being together while being apart.

Many who watch from afar ask what will happen to our country at this time, given its innate fragility. How will the hungry be fed and the poor be taken care of? Because the challenges we face truly appear insurmountable, these are reasonable questions.

The President called for social solidarity, yet it is something South Africans rarely get to practice given that the spatial legacy of apartheid lives on and continues to separate us one from another. Ordinary exchanges are rare and community has many different manifestations. We know that our ‘ways of seeing’ are different; our disagreements about our future path are often vehement and laced with bigotry, and our understanding or misunderstanding of our past is mixed and imperfect.

On Monday Ramaphosa invoked the extraordinary powers of his Presidency and asked us to shift our ways of being and more importantly, of seeing.

As he came to the end of his address, Ramaphosa’s entreaty rang out, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, he knew he was appealing not only to the God millions of South Africans worship, but to that deep well of resilience which this country finds within itself again and again. Its tumultuous history has demanded it.

Ramaphosa, more than anyone, knows that he is asking much of a country already straining at its seams. But, at the same time he is also calling us to think about the country we could be when all this is over. Or in Seamus Heaney’s words:

Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february