Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Picture: GCIS
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Picture: GCIS

On Wednesday night, co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma took to the airwaves to explain what fresh hell we may expect under lockdown 2.0 – or “level 4”, as the government calls it. The address was reminiscent of the lockdown itself: interminable, unforgiving, repetitive, and not just a bit infuriating.

There were questions, of course. What protocols should be in place around sharing a microphone in a world of social distancing? And what was the sense in trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel liberating just his nose from his face mask?

What the performance of the rather Soviet-sounding national command council made abundantly clear is the incoherence and lack of vision that has prevented the government from making inroads on any of the big issues bedevilling SA. There’s no rational policy line that a unified cabinet rallies around. In many cases, there’s not a rational line that even a single cabinet minister can keep on course. Some may argue there’s very little in the way of a rational line at all.

For a start, there’s the flip-flopping.

Last Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced cigarettes would be for sale again from May 1. Just six days later, Dlamini-Zuma, in a fit of puritanical pique, put the kibosh on that. With vague hand-waving, she suggested that 2,000 submissions had been made requesting an extension of the ban on cigarettes – and, in any case, some people share cigarettes and lick “zol” paper, so they could contribute to the spread of the virus.

Well, SA has seen that 2,000 and raised it. At the time of writing, at least 270,000 South Africans had reportedly signed a petition to overturn the ban. And at some point, the government is going to have to trust people to act like adults or risk keeping them locked in the playpen in perpetuity.

A proud history of U-turns

But then, it’s not as if backtracking is anything new to the government. Regulations and directives, it seems, are made to be changed. There was transport minister Fikile Mbalula, with the “100%, no 70%” taxi capacity tap dance.

Picture: Eugene Coetzee/The Herald
Picture: Eugene Coetzee/The Herald

There was small business development minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who vehemently denied race-based criteria would underscore the allocation of Covid-19 relief funds, and then in a fit of amnesia parroted the BEE-only line of tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane – seemingly oblivious to the hardship that decision could cause South Africans of all racial stripes.

And there was the mixed messaging around child support grants: Ramaphosa first announced they would be upped by R300 for May and R500 for the five months after, only to have social development minister and Instagrammer extraordinaire Lindiwe Zulu clarify that the R500 top-up would be per caregiver, rather than per child.

Dlamini-Zuma herself, with the click of a pen, outlawed rotisserie chicken and the sale of other hot foods halfway through the lockdown. It’s unclear whether supermarkets will be allowed to return to selling such items under level 4, given that hot food in the regulations now seems to be for delivery only.

It’s also unclear why Dlamini-Zuma couldn’t use that same magic pen to save the country’s wine producers a few weeks ago. First they couldn’t export wine; then they could; then they couldn’t, because transporting alcohol was illegal. Now, by some miracle, wine remains prohibited for sale under level 4, but the government has ingeniously found a way to allow its transport for export. Imagine that.

But it’s not just the bipolar swing of ministerial whim that’s so infuriating. It’s the fundamental irrationality of so many decisions.

There’s Patel’s seemingly unwavering determination to render as many markets as possible moribund. For example, e-commerce, which surely presents a relatively low-risk means of ensuring at least some movement of money in the economy, is subject to pretty much the same strictures as regular retail – for reasons of “fairness”. (As an aside, here’s an interesting Financial Times piece on how the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed Chinese online retail giant Alibaba to grow its global customer base.)

And let’s not get started on the bloody-minded decision to keep SAA going – perhaps in the form of “a new financially viable airline” – when even airlines that actually could hack it without sucking the fiscus dry are on the ropes. (Business Day political editor Genevieve Quintal has a great piece on just this issue, right here.)

In fact, the incoherence and irrationality of government’s responses give the impression that our leaders are more concerned with policing the borders of their own political fiefdoms than ensuring the country doesn’t collapse around them. Their actions simply erode the trust that is crucial for containing the spread of the coronavirus. If we are to comply with the government’s rules, we need to know that they’re not arbitrary; that our freedoms are being limited in service of a greater good.

Relinquishing control

Nonetheless, at some point the government will have to relinquish total control and allow some measure of individual responsibility.

In this essay for The Atlantic, Rachel Donadio explores European countries’ varying approaches to easing their lockdowns, and what that means for personal moral choices. Because as restrictions ease – as they must eventually – responsibility moves from the state to the individual, creating a whole new world of anxiety.

It’s this very dichotomy – between lockdown and freedom – that is parsed incisively by Freddy Sayers on British news website UnHerd. The debate, so emotive, is often cast in a Manichaean light: good against evil; reason against irrationality.

Sayers says it’s not – rather, it’s “a question of what sort of world we want to live in, and at what cost”.

No-one said navigating a way out of lockdown was going to be easy. So I appreciate that our government is feeling its way in the dark. But that doesn’t excuse its outright irrationality, which serves no purpose other than grandstanding and ego – not the protection of lives, nor the control of the virus.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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