JUDITH FEBRUARY: Mr President, the buck has to stop somewhere


South Africa is entering its ninth week of lockdown and everyone is mostly frustrated and fatigued.

In late March, once lockdown was declared, there was a general feeling of ‘grin and bear it’ resignation. There has been a decided change in mood.

Partly, this has to do with poor government communication, the bungling around the implementation of certain regulations and what some view as downright irrational restrictions.

Some of the complaints mirror the middle-class ‘echo chamber’ which has a disproportionate voice on social media and other platforms, and some of it is a very South African thing - complaining about everything all of the time.

It’s an easy trap to fall into in a country in which nothing is simple and in which our divisions are laid bare in just about every public exchange.

Yet others are reasonable and legitimate grievances.

What has been decidedly unhelpful has been the often un-nuanced public debate regarding the economy. The ‘open versus close’ debate simply has no real meaning. This is because the answer lies somewhere in the delicate middle.

It seems clear that a phased reopening of the economy is the right thing to do if we do not wish to reverse the progress South Africa has made in ‘flattening the curve’. It also seems to be the logical route most other countries around the world are taking.

In South Africa, government has announced that a differentiated lockdown will take place. This means that various districts, metros and provinces could be placed on different risk alert levels. Quite how this will work remains to be seen.

It will require the government to base its decisions on reliable data and to be agile in its decision-making. This will not be an easy task. But then no aspect of dealing with this pandemic has been or will be easy.

It is therefore important that government consults with stakeholders across the country and that a reasonable decision is made regarding the phased-in reopening of the economy.

It is equally important that any decisions are made timeously and then communicated in a clear and decisive manner.

It was always inevitable that mistakes would be made in dealing with this pandemic given its scale and unprecedented nature. While President Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize have mostly struck a calm, rational tone in their communication, many other ministers have struggled.

They are well known to us. The faces of irrationality in the public domain have, whether fairly or unfairly, become COGTA Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel. The ongoing tobacco ban and the rather silly list of sanctioned clothing items have not helped to enhance their reputations.

In addition, Dlamini-Zuma’s lecturing style has not endeared her to the general populace, nor has Patel’s stubbornness. He surely is the Jeremy Corbyn of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet?

In all this, we seem to have forgotten the core message, which is that the lockdown was declared to buy time to deal with the peak of the outbreak. It was never about dealing with the virus to ensure it ‘goes away’. It is quite clear that COVID-19 will be with us for a long while yet.

That the lockdown has caused economic hardship and even greater food insecurity is a fact. It is also a fact that some of our gung-ho SAPS and SANDF members have been responsible for acts of brutality. Lest we forget, Collins Khosa died at the hands of SANDF members.

The Khosa family approached the courts so that those responsible could be held to account. The judgment handed down by Justice Hans Fabricius reiterated that the duty of government was to adhere to the rule of law. In addition, he said that, “The public is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect whether rich or poor”.

The judgment also contained an order that the Ministers of Police and Defence were to draft guidelines ensuring that a code of conduct is in place so that SANDF and SAPS members know how to appropriately interact with citizens. This code would be made public and breaches reported.

It is extraordinary that citizens’ rights needed to be affirmed in such a way in a constitutional democracy. The respondents in the matter were: the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, secretary for defence, chief of the SA National Defence Force, Minister of Police, national commissioner of the SA Police Service, acting chief of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department, chief of the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department, Office of the Military Ombud, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

President Ramaphosa has been largely silent about these sorts of abuses. That has been both unhelpful and unfortunate. He should, as commander-in-chief, rein in his ministers so that they desist from militaristic language which facilitates acts of brutality.

Above all, however this government owes the Khosa family an apology. It also owes it to all of us who live in this constitutional democracy to ensure that such brutality never happens again.

An apology will not be enough to bring back a life, but it should draw a line in the sand as regards conduct within the SAPS and SANDF.

The judgment also provides a meaningful opportunity for Ramaphosa to sanction the ministers on whose watch this happened.

The buck has to stop somewhere.

Incidents like these provide fodder to those who would criticise government’s overall strategy regarding the lockdown. During this time especially we must keep faith with our democracy and continue to use the Constitution as our bulwark against any and every abuse of power.

A callous state at war with its citizens is the very anathema of the values of a constitutional democracy, after all.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february