Covid-19 is presenting humanity with an enormous challenge as it faces a global crisis on a scale not experienced in a very long time. Governments and societies are wrestling with big issues, from how to save both lives and economies to learning critical lessons for the future; from ensuring that rights suspended under lockdown are reinstated unsullied as soon as possible to ensuring that we are prepared to embrace a post-Covid-19 reality which cannot be business as usual.
These are big issues for South Africa. And they are joined by other pressing local matters, such as a military deployment which has seen significant abuse of community members, spiralling rates of domestic violence, large numbers of people starving, underlying patterns of poverty and inequality manifesting through the crisis in very destructive ways, networks of corruption extracting resources from emergency relief work, and so on.
But there is another issue we should not lose sight of as we grapple with the big ones, namely, the ways in which the dignity of people is being eroded by the abuse of power in petty ways, especially in the period since South Africa began moving away from total lockdown. This was alluded to, I believe, by President Cyril Ramaphosa this week when he acknowledged that "mistakes have been made".
A progressive opening up after the lockdown was always going to be more complicated than it was introducing lockdown in the first place. A certain messiness, and therefore a need for improvisation, has been unavoidable. Some measures will work well in shifting circumstances, others won’t. Mistakes will occur. The country, as the President points out, is in uncharted territory.
But too often these mistakes have been completely unnecessary. Again and again in recent weeks we have seen measures and actions which fall into categories we would call petty, arbitrary, officious, or inhumane. When we allow these to go unchallenged then we invite them to become the norm. And in the process our communities will lose whatever respect they still have for authority.
Let me start with the most petty in the experience of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. We are part of the Each One Feed One campaign, which takes us and our institutional partners around the country delivering food parcels and protective gear. Staff of these organisations have had lockdown permits from the start. Why are they constantly harassed by officials who pull them to the side of the road and delay them needlessly? For instance, sometimes one of the team’s cars goes through a roadblock without incident, but the next one is turned back because the team members don’t have "level 4 permits". Or, and this has happened several times, a problem suddenly disappears when a member of the team is recognised as a public figure. That can’t be right. Who you are can’t determine how you are treated by authority.
And it can’t be right that communities in our rural areas get written permissions from their local leaders to go into a local town to purchase foodstuffs but are simply turned back by police or municipal officials who tear up the permissions in front of them. Have we not embraced the absurd when regulations determine that a t-shirt becomes something different when it is promoted as an undergarment? Or when they force soup kitchens and related facilities to give foodstuffs to the homeless which they have no means to cook? Where has common sense gone when a kettle in one store is a non-essential item that cannot be purchased but in a store just down the street it can be purchased without question? Have we not perfected the art of the arbitrary when we ban sales of cigarettes, announce that the ban will be lifted and then almost immediately re-affirm the ban?
These are petty things. But we have also seen people humiliated and harassed in ways that are beyond the pale. And worse. How is it possible, for instance, that one of our staff members takes four days to find a hospital willing to admit his 80-year-old mother who has fallen and broken her hip? What was the half-empty private hospital thinking when it sent her out into the car park an hour after the ambulance brought her in? It can’t be right.
The overriding objective of the lockdown (at all its levels) is the protection of life. Those who are regulating the progressive relaxation of the lockdown and those who are enforcing it need to be reminded that this is the golden rule. Regulations are a means to an end. It is when they are allowed to become an end in themselves that we begin to see the kinds of petty abuses I’ve been talking about. As the country begins to prepare to move from level 4 to level 3 it is vital that common sense prevails and that those who have power entrusted to them exercise it responsibly and with unswerving respect for the right to dignity. The latter is an unqualified right in our Constitution. If we allow it to be eroded then we will pay a heavy price when we get to the point of trying to rebuild our society after Covid-19.
Originally published in the City Press