Is the lockdown authoritarian creep or ‘proportionate response’?

Police and army members patrol the streets of Korston and Schauderville Photo: Theo Jeptha. 02/04/2020 (News24)

Covid-19 has once again revealed that South African society is deeply divided: The middle class who want the opening of the economy and an end to authoritarian restrictions on their personal liberties; and the poor who want jobs, grants and additional welfare state interventions to support their precarious lives.

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley’s Daily Maverick account of lockdown South African style, “An iron curtain is falling on our freedom”, implies that Covid-19 measures could signal the start of a slide into totalitarianism along the lines of the former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR).

The writers, who are both based at the economic think tank The Brenthurst Foundation, portray a scenario whereby President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initially sober and sensible approach to the pandemic is rapidly unravelling and morphing into authoritarianism.

An Iron Curtain is falling on our freedom

Mills and Hartley are correct to draw attention to the fact that “more than 100 charges have been laid against the police for abuses during the first three weeks of lockdown”. They are also right to highlight the untenable human rights violations by the SANDF in enforcing lockdown measures.

However it would seem that the main target of their attack are a series of measures that include restrictions on social and economic activity, such as the purchasing of tobacco and alcohol, and the 8pm to 5am curfew that, they claim, was introduced “without a scientific justification other than to control”.

They also claim that this “impulse for social control was further exposed by the ruling that exercise – walking, running and cycling – would be permitted for only three hours a day from 6am to 9am”. These measures, they argue, reveal the ANC government’s totalitarian tendencies, which are seen to draw inspiration from the GDR’s state-controlled economy and its notorious Ministry for State Security, known as Stasi. So, how did we get from the initial widespread support and praise for the Ramaphosa administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis to comparisons with Stasi?

A brief scan of responses to the Mills and Hartley article reveals that these kinds of perceptions are widespread among the chattering classes in the middle-class suburbs.

Examples include JG’s comment:

“Ahh, the Orwellian National Command Center. It’s not about tobacco, alcohol, hot food, exercising, dog walking, its about the assault on peoples freedoms. Its about the state’s attitude that they know what’s best for the people. Little wonder given that the aging cabinet consists in large part of people who were brought up on the Soviet twaddle of the 70s and 80s during the struggle years.”

According to FvK:

“Absurd, contradictory and unnecessary regulations abound… 70,000 troops on the ground armed with automatic weapons of war. An 8pm to 5am curfew that cannot be justified. The rule of law undermined on a daily basis as troops and police punishing alleged transgressors without the benefit of a court hearing. The slogan ‘we are all in it together’ now a farce. It seems the authors of the article have it spot on.”

BC writes:

“Let’s be honest, the ANC have been chomping at the bit for years to impose a dictatorship. It’s the only possible way to extend their power grab”.

And finally, EO:

“Good gracious me! Did these two guys seriously compare the state of the current level 4 lockdown to the German Democratic Republic. When I started reading this article, I thought it was meant to be a joke, but it increasingly becomes clear that it is not.”

It does indeed seem strange to compare South Africa’s lockdown with the GDR’s Stasi. Surely such extreme public health measures are, on the whole, justified given the seriousness of Covid-19 and the fact that South Africa has millions of immune-compromised citizens, including 7.7 million living with Aids and more than 400,000 TB infections each year, including 20,000 cases of drug-resistant TB? This is a particularly serious health threat given that TB is a respiratory disease much like Covid-19. Other high-risk conditions include malnutrition and stunting, and chronic conditions such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and asthma.

Mills and Hartley may be correct to point out that “the United Nations has gone as far as to name South Africa as one of the countries abusing the lockdown with gratuitous violence”, but what they fail to mention is that the minister of defence publicly apologised for the death of Collins Khoza at the hands of SANDF members enforcing the lockdown in Alexandra.

The government also seems to have backed off from its initial plans to “decant” and “de-densify” informal settlement “hot spots” to facilitate social distancing. The City of Cape Town has also decided to close down a temporary shelter for 3,000 homeless people at Strandfontein sports complex following NGO and activist calls for its closure on human rights and health grounds. It remains to be seen whether the government will heed the concerns of human rights lawyers and NGOs about the role of the 73,000 soldiers to be deployed during the lockdown.

While coercive policing and “quarantine camps” for homeless people and refugees are indeed problematic and ought to be challenged, surely restrictions on exercise and the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol are not signs of a police state in the making? Yet, reading some social media commentary one would think that we are already living in a Stasi-style state.

Such alarmist perspectives are perhaps to be expected from conservative whites locked down in the suburbs. This section of South African society lives in a bourgeois bubble where restrictions on their liberties (ie, to exercise, cycle and walk their dogs) are increasingly being perceived as signs of totalitarianism, even if these are motivated by legitimate public health concerns to protect the vulnerable from a deadly disease. These “libertarians” also typically have very little understanding or empathy for the plight of the poor and marginalised, who now more than ever urgently need any protection they can get from the government.

Concerns about authoritarian creep are not only emanating from the conservative and libertarian camps. It appears that some progressive citizens are also worried. For instance, on 27 April 2020 there was an animated Facebook discussion by some former anti-apartheid activists in response to concerns that Level 4 could usher in restrictions on exercise for those 60 years or older.

As a veteran anti-apartheid activist put it:

“I sense that we are slipping into a very undemocratic and authoritarian space that I am well primed to detect as soon as it raises its head… I agree with those who feel we are going too far. More draconian than we need to be. Read a fascinating paper written by the Director of the body that handled the Ebola Crisis. Biggest lesson learnt is worth quoting: ‘government cannot force policies down the throat of people even when it may be for their own good’.”

While some of the lockdown restrictions certainly require rethinking and reformulation, these measures are surely not signs of totalitarian tendencies?

Given South Africa’s authoritarian past, one could perhaps expect kneejerk pushback against some of these measures. Moreover, there are indeed precedents throughout the world where crises and states of emergency have been used to clamp down on citizen rights and freedoms.

In fact, on 26 February 2020, during the height of the Italian Covid-19 crisis, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote a provocative article claiming that lockdown measures in Italy were “frantic, irrational and absolutely unnecessary”, and were merely an opportunity for the government to use fear and panic to introduce a state of emergency and thereby suspend freedoms, all in the name of basic biological survival, or what he calls “bare life”.

A more plausible claim has been made in relation to how the US “War on Terror” after “9/11” resulted in the establishment of a massive Homeland Security surveillance apparatus that has remained in place since. Similarly, with the outbreak of Covid-19, countries such as China were able to extend their mass surveillance systems, and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban used Covid-19 to further restrict freedom of expression and postpone elections. But to compare the lockdown measures of the Ramaphosa administration with these cases of authoritarian creep seems both inaccurate and alarmist.

Stellenbosch University’s Professor Keymanthri Moodley and colleagues recently published an article in the South African Medical Journal in which they ask whether South Africa’s Covid-19 responses can be seen to be “draconian measures” or a “proportional response”? 

The authors conclude that for quarantine and containment strategies to be legitimate and effective in public health emergencies, they need to be both legally and ethically justifiable, and implemented with “compassion, restraint and respect for human rights”. They also note that, for such measures to have “democratic legitimacy”, they need to be compatible with South Africa’s Bill of Rights, which protects “human dignity, equality and freedom in an open and democratic society”.

There clearly needs to be a delicate balance between measures required to contain the spread of the virus and respect for democratic rights. As Steven Friedman has noted, a “listening government” needs to create a balance between expert and state-driven disease control measures and co-operation with citizens and their needs.

A recent study by Professor Pricilla Reddy of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found that the majority of citizens claimed that they were complying with Covid-19 regulations. Such surveys are of course very problematic because they rely on what people say they do, rather than what they actually do. Another attitude study by Victory Research reported that support for the lockdown had dropped from 77% when the measures were first announced to 30% by the end of the April. Regardless of the accuracy of these findings, it seems clear that questions of democratic legitimacy will continue to loom large as the lockdown measures unfold.

While the R500-billion rescue package and the phased opening up of the economy may be able to sustain the legitimacy of these measures, what is becoming increasingly clear is that Covid-19 has once again revealed that South African society is deeply divided.

It is not surprising that South Africa is once again being described as a country of two nations: the middle class who are relatively secure and comfortable behind their high walls, and who are now pushing for the opening of the economy and the cessation of authoritarian restrictions on their personal liberties; and the poor in the townships and informal settlements for whom the problem is not authoritarianism, but jobs, grants and additional welfare-state interventions to support their precarious lives.

Only very recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and South Africans across the spectrum praised the government for its responsible and effective responses to the devastating Covid-19 threat. Government’s responses may not be perfect, but they are a far cry from a descent into authoritarian rule.

As the country moves towards the eye of the Covid-19 storm, now expected to arrive in July, we need to think more deeply about the government’s obligation to protect the poor and the vulnerable, even if this means temporary sacrifices of individual liberties.

It is not going to be easy for a government to balance individual liberties with the needs of the economy and public health. It will require both a “listening government” and citizens who are prepared to make sacrifices to protect millions of vulnerable South Africans.

This has nothing to do with the spectre of the Stasi or Stalin; it is about the basic decency that Albert Camus wrote about in his 1947 novel, The Plague. DM

Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.


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