South Africa is now in its fourth week of lockdown, with an increasing number of commentators warning of an economic catastrophe unless something is done soon.

Economist Mike Schussler warned at a briefing hosted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) that unless the country transitions to a softer lockdown we will be facing an expanded unemployment rate of 50%.

 Others, from doctors to economists, agree that a hard lockdown extending much further than 30 April will devastate South Africa and its citizens to a much larger degree than Covid-19 ever could. The economic cost will simply be too great. A group of academics at Wits University have proposed how South Africa can emerge from lockdown here.

What began as a health emergency is increasingly looking like an economic emergency, with many in the government being exposed as petty tyrants.

Many of the rules that have been implemented seem to have no purpose other than for petty bureaucrats to demonstrate their power over ordinary South Africans.


And this petty tyranny extends to many in our security forces who have been tasked with ensuring the lockdown is adhered to. At least five people have been killed by overzealous security forces enforcing draconian lockdown rules and we have also seen images of soldiers humiliating people by making them do push-ups or frog jumps.

What is also concerning is how our new reality has been welcomed by many in the middle classes. On social media, I have seen people celebrating photos and footage of soldiers making citizens do physical exercise, and claiming this is a good way of enforcing lockdown. As my colleague Sihle Ngobese has pointed out, South African citizens are not enemy combatants which the South African National Defence Force needs to deal with.

And a number of journalists have shared photos of people breaking lockdown by jogging or doing something else equally ‘unspeakable’. Luckily for us, we are meant to believe, these heroes have taken it upon themselves to enforce the lockdown and tell people to stay at home – although it is not clear what moral or legal authority they have to do so.

This petty tyranny is not limited to members of the governing party or some of our journalists. Last weekend a councillor for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in Johannesburg, Tim Truluck, gleefully shared pictures of people who had committed the serious crime of purchasing takeaway coffee from a bakery. Truluck, who is presumably still receiving his councillor’s salary during the lockdown, tagged the police and a number of other organisations in his zeal to shame the criminal masterminds who had the audacity to try to ensure someone’s income stream in this economic calamity we are all facing. And, in fact, it does not seem that selling takeaway coffee out of a bakery is prohibited under the lockdown, so the brave councillor may have jumped the gun.

Arbitrary rules

The continued imposition of what are clearly arbitrary rules will simply ensure that the lockdown loses its legitimacy among South Africans. It is unlikely that the lockdown ever had much legitimacy to begin with among people who rely on the informal economy and live in less than spacious housing. It is one thing to impose European-style lockdowns on South Africans who live in homes with gardens, who have the internet and electricity, and can work from home and still receive a salary. To impose these conditions on people who live in conditions of poverty is not feasible and is, arguably, cruel. And it is these South Africans who have borne the brunt of heavy-handed army and police lockdown actions.

The imposition of arbitrary rules has shown, first, that many in our government do not trust ordinary South Africans and, second, that they have let their power go to their heads.

The sale of alcohol has been banned during lockdown, along with cigarettes, and now hot food too. These rules are completely arbitrary and have clearly been implemented without much forethought. The argument has been made that the restrictions on alcohol sales have led to a dramatic drop in trauma admissions at hospitals and have kept beds free for people who need to be treated for Covid-19. However, the drop can just as well be attributed to less social interaction between people due to the lockdown. The ban on cigarettes (now to be lifted when the level 4 lockdown begins on 1 May) was also arbitrary – and, perhaps, ironic, given that  smoking may not increase the risk of falling ill from Covid (although it is still too early to come to any concrete conclusions). All that these bans have done is send the smokers and drinkers in our midst, who need their fix and no longer have a supply, into the black market, which the government has now created. Ivo Vegter has also written on these pages about why prohibition is a failure.

Another rule which seems to have been implemented without sufficient thought is the ban on the sale of hot, prepared food. Last Friday, minister of trade and industry Ebrahim Patel announced that it was now illegal for food retailers to sell hot food, so that was the end of rotisserie chickens. However, it was pointed out that nowhere in the regulations did it say that hot food could not be sold. Three days later, on Sunday, minister for co-operative governance Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma amended the lockdown regulations to state that hot food could no longer be sold. However, what ‘hot food’ is has not been defined. Is it food that is served above a certain temperature? Or curried food? If it is the former then presumably food retailers can sell cooked chickens, pies, and pizzas once they have cooled down. And another question to ask is, when is food no longer ‘hot’?

No proof

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world to ban alcohol, tobacco, and the sale of hot, prepared food. Most countries have allowed restaurants to remain open to serve takeaways, and the sale of booze and cigarettes, partly because there is no proof that banning the sale of these items will help in combating the Covid epidemic and partly because allowing their sale will help the economy to tick over.

Instead of taking South Africans into their confidence about why certain rules have been implemented, our leaders are treating us like naughty schoolchildren. Nobody should be surprised that some in our armed forces and police are acting like petty tyrants – they are taking their lead from those in government.

In this setting, Tuesday’s announcement that the entire manpower of the SANDF has been put on standby should be noted. If you aren’t worried, you’re not paying attention.

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