A police officer trying to enforce the national lockdown chases a man in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, March 28 2020. Picture: AFP/MICHELE SPATARI
A police officer trying to enforce the national lockdown chases a man in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, March 28 2020. Picture: AFP/MICHELE SPATARI

On Saturday afternoon I posted a tweet that read: “What the lockdown has shown is that there are probably large numbers of people in SA who have no problem living under an authoritarian system where they are told what they can and can’t buy and when they can and can’t go out. It’s like we’ve learnt nothing from our history.”

The tweet was posted following my statement and letter to trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel, calling on him to end the banning of “non-essential” items from retail shops that are allowed to be open during the lockdown. 

It makes no sense, in my opinion, that you cannot buy matches in your local supermarket to have a braai in the evening. I was even told of someone who was not allowed to buy toothpicks at a major national retailer, which is truly bizarre.

The regulations around “essential items” are open to abuse by the SA Police Service, which has been enforcing them during the lockdown in an inconsistent manner. The police have allowed some shops to stay open while closing down others, despite shops having permits to be open. This is because what is, and what is not, an essential item, is vague and arbitrary.

My tweet was used to buttress the argument that it has been concerning that many people have gladly accepted this form of authoritarianism over something as critical as freedom of choice on what to buy in a supermarket, especially if the item is in stock. 

On Sunday morning, police minister Bheki Cele issued an ominous warning that the prohibition on alcohol would continue after the lockdown

I have heard harrowing stories of mothers of newborns not being able to buy clothes, bottles and dummies for their children in rural villages because these goods are not designated essential items. And yet, people have accepted this under the guise of “national solidarity” in the fight against Covid-19.

When one casts one’s eye back to the beginning of the lockdown, we have slowly but surely seen more and more power assumed by the executive. And that power is being exerted arbitrarily by the state and its functionaries.

From soldiers dishing out physical exercise to civilians who don’t obey the “stay at home” directive; to police officers who stand accused of physical assault, rape and murder according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid); to the human settlements, water and sanitation minister effectively nationalising all water in SA whereby she will determine who does and does not get water.

On Sunday morning, police minister Bheki Cele issued an ominous warning that the prohibition on alcohol would continue after the lockdown. And for anyone who thinks this is about people who enjoy a good tipple (which I do), this is about the  right to decide what you want to do being taken away because a government minister feels like it.

It is, of course, concerning and should be a flashing red light to us that this is going on without any oversight as parliament has effectively been castrated, with some in the ANC believing the bill of rights has been “suspended”. However, what worries me the most is the large number of people who gladly and unquestioningly accept this path we are taking.

But what really took me by surprise was the visceral anger and hatred meted out in response to my tweet. It of course included the lazy and traditional responses by the twitter mob of, “Sit down!”, “Shut up!” and “I simply can’t!” to a more sinister retort proposing that I have my internet disconnected, which actually reinforces my point. 

The second thing that grabbed my attention was the near uniform response by members of the media who piled on the bandwagon of emoticon, capital-lettered and exclamation-marked responses, seemingly unable or unwilling to actually interrogate the tweet and its content.

It was as if high treason had been committed to point out and warn of complacency in this time and to be on guard to any surrender on civil and economic liberties.

In my opinion, the reason for this rage-infused merry-go-round that many people found themselves on is that so many are invested in seeing the president succeed in the fight against Covid-19. This is a noble cause, but when it clouds your judgment to the point that any voice that may offer caution is seen as an enemy that must be dispatched immediately, we are on dangerous ground.

Its appears that we are seeing a drawing of the battle lines by many, that you are either simplistically for or against the government response to Covid-19. 

Obedience beyond the virus

There is a dangerous narrative that has developed in broader sections of society that we must “all work together”, just as long as it is on the government’s terms. The truth is that we all have a role to play in this important fight. Some will focus on combating the virus, others on guarding civil liberties, and many more by simply staying at home. No individual’s contribution should be dismissed by anyone because then we will all fail.

This applies especially to those required to report the news in a fair and objective manner.

We should never be comfortable in handing over our rights in a situation such as we find ourselves in, where there are no checks and balances over those who have assumed control over our rights. This is not in the interests of any citizen, regardless of what your political beliefs are.

It would not be in anyone’s interest to wait until those restricted rights become personal, which is often the catalyst for society to respond.

So while the twitter mobs continue to circle and look for the next target that dares to disagree, let us remain on guard and hold those accountable who will determine what our country will look like after the lockdown.

Make no mistake, the biggest mountain this country will have to climb after the lockdown will be the shattered economy and rocketing unemployment that will beset us. 

It will require the scaling back of the state, which has sought to control every aspect of our lives, from job-killing red tape, to cash-guzzling state-owned enterprises, an out-of-control public wage bill to feed its patronage machine, and the continued march towards prescribed assets.

If we want to get our economy kick-started and people back in employment, the fight to scale back the reach of the state and the rights they have suspended during this lockdown will be as important as the fight to defeat Covid-19.

• Macpherson is DA shadow trade and industry minister.