If you ever wanted a perfect illustration of how to lose the goodwill of a nation, yesterday ticked all the boxes.
First, our basic education ministers bungled their way through an explanation of how schools will reopen, with what should be a criminal degree of ineptitude.
The basic education department’s director-general, Mathanzima Mweli, conducted a live press briefing and announced a set of dates, only for basic education deputy minister Reginah Mhaule to later announce those dates had changed.
You can read up on that nonsense here.
Around the same time, the details of how much those Cuban healthcare workers will cost the South African taxpayer also emerged, whilst many of our own healthcare workers sit without work, ready and able to assist.
Then, during her address last night, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma walked back the government’s decision to allow the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products under alert level 4.
At this point, it’s not even about the cigarettes any longer, but rather about the fact that the mixed messaging, and seemingly random manner in which these decisions are made, is starting to wear thin.
Perhaps that was a tactic to draw attention away from the curfew which will be imposed, with South Africans legally mandated to remain indoors from 8PM until 5AM each day, starting Friday, May 1.
Yes, the majority of South Africans have no reason to be out during those hours anyway, but that’s kind of missing the point.
Writing for the Daily Maverick, Ferial Haffajee calls the curfew “overkill”, adding that it is “more in line with a more draconian state of emergency than a national state of disaster”:
“Traffic is virtually non-existent at night, generally traffic has fallen off a cliff,” says traffic specialist Rob Byrne, who did not express a view on a curfew. Roadblocks and traffic checks appeared to have worked as a deterrent measure to stop movement and ensure compliance, especially in the Covid-19 epicentres of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban…
A Human Sciences Research Council survey of almost 40,000 respondents released this week found:
“The majority of people adhered to the regulations: the results show that 99% either left their homes for food, medicine and social grants or stayed home. Thirty percent had not left home since the start of lockdown and 62% had left to get food and/or medicine.”
With the rapidly changing nature of the virus, and thus the data that governs the decision-making processes, it’s tough to know exactly what led to this step being taken.
What is clear is that it gives law enforcement a very wide scope to exercise its powers, which has proven fatal on some occasions.
Here’s Gareth Newham, the head of the government, crime and justice unit at the Institute for Security Studies:
“Curfews are there to make things easier for law enforcement agencies…It gives the police much more control and the ability to enforce. Legally, they can now stop you without having to explain why.”
…“It is an extreme measure and imposition on freedom of movement,” says Newham. We have not had a curfew in our democracy. It’s important to know who took the decision, what information was relied on,” says Newham, who warns that Covid-19 regulations should not become edicts.
Various politicians have come out to criticise the curfew, such as the DA interim leader John Steenhuisen, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, and Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald.
Given how heavy-handed law enforcement officials have been over seemingly trivial (and legal) issues thus far, handing them further opportunity to flex their muscles “raises disturbing questions for South Africa’s democracy”, writes Marianne Merten, again for the Daily Maverick.
Here are a few examples of serious overreaching:
Most recently the grapevine buzzed with the seizure of pineapples and yeast at roadblocks and elsewhere, even though neither are prohibited in the regulations that also do not ban the consumption of alcohol in one’s private home.
After years of civil society and government campaigns to provide girls with sanitary pads so they do not miss school – common sense means sanitary pads are personal hygiene products permitted by lockdown regulations – police in some places have confiscated sanitary pads…
Seeking medical attention was expressly permitted during the hard lockdown, yet Eastern Cape police stopped the elderly parents of an ill toddler going to see a doctor because they did not have a permit…
Examples abound. From the farmer who was fined R1,000 for crossing provincial boundaries to get from his house to his farm on the other side of the river – and in another province – to the Free State farmer stopped from delivering vegetables to the Johannesburg fresh produce market because he was crossing provincial boundaries.
You can read more from Merten here, who finishes by saying that “the curfew and the powers given to police, soldiers and metro and traffic police, alongside a bureaucratic system of permits for movement, raise deep and difficult questions for South Africa’s constitutional democracy”.
I sometimes wonder if these politicians, when deciding to ban the sale of tobacco, or limit exercise hours to between 6AM and 9AM, actually consulted with everyday South Africans, or merely chatted amongst themselves in their echo chambers.
The lockdown’s continued success relies on the public’s backing, and adherence to the measures put in place, but even common sense concessions, and basics like how to ensure the safety of schoolchildren returning to the classroom, seem to flip flop from day to day and hour to hour.
President Ramaphosa generally spends Thursday evening calming the nation, and then his ministers spend the rest of the week buggering everything up.
At this stage, perhaps all ministerial briefings should be scrapped, and typed out, coherent, rational, and concise press releases should be spread via the government’s official channels.
Patience is wearing thin, and there is still a long, long road ahead.
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