You cannot go to work or walk your dog or simply go jogging. You are not even allowed to visit your ailing grandmother. If you do go out it is for medical supplies or basic food items. These are not your decisions; it is the government telling you what to do, where to go and even how to cough. The police and the army will be out there controlling your movements. It is not yet clear how exactly they will enforce the new regulations. But the government is dead serious: the arrested and charged a man with attempted murder for continuing to run his hair salon after testing positive for the cause of this lockdown: an invisible pathogen called the coronavirus.
Like many South Africans, I will obey the new rules even though I have already exhausted all the Netflix movies on offer and in my desperation I am now down to The real housewives of New Jersey. I am a social person. I thrive off the company of people. I love the teasing of nephews and nieces, the competition around board games and making fun of Liverpool who once again may not lay their hands on the Cup in 2020. But the little bit of science I know assures me that social distancing is the one thing we can do to limit the spread of the disease and thereby “flatten the curve” of those exponential graphs they show on TV every night. I get it.
That said, I am paid to think. I do not trust authority and especially governmental authority. Those policemen deployed to control us have a history. If during peacetime they can beat a man while dragging him into a police vehicle or physically abuse a woman driver for asking why she is being arrested, then I worry about ceding power to the implementers of these new regulations. I do not trust political authorities. All of them come from a history of kragdadigheid either as perpetrators or as victims.
Notice what happened in the televised briefing on Wednesday night when journalists were allowed to pose questions to a phalanx of relevant cabinet ministers. Did you notice how the decibel levels of the politicians increased when these pesky men and women from the fourth estate starting to ask really probing questions even after softening the blow with “with due respect Minister X?” Did you notice how every different the tone of these political appointments were compared to the head of state who all-round received glowing credits for how he announced the lockdown on Monday night? Did you see how the Minister of Police bristled when some of the questioners would not lie down and accept his vague, brusque and sometimes uninterpretable answers? Did you also pay attention to the mixed, hardline messages from this cabinet panel compared to the more gentle guidelines of an earlier briefing on something as simple as those very middle class questions of Can I jog or walk my dog?
Here’s the problem. We are a very young democracy. We flout the rules of decency in governance as a matter of course. These are the very people who rain blows on each other in parliamentary sessions or have paid bullies at their command to sort out a troublesome opposition party. Almost every major government-owned enterprise has been bankrupted by thieves in suits who sit shamelessly through each and every sitting of parliament as if nothing happened.
I do not trust my leaders with everyday governance why on earth would I entrust them with my constitutional freedoms?
Let me be clear. I accept the new regulations restricting my freedom and I do understand the science that says many more people will die if we do not practice this extreme form of social distancing. No problem with compliance from my side.
My question is broader: what happens if this three-week period of self-isolation is extended? What if now and then poor people rebel and start showing up for work simply because we do not have the fiscal or administrative capacity to send every working person a check to their doorsteps? What happens if the official clampdown becomes physical because citizens would not oblige?
And when you give political authorities these exceptional powers in an emergency, how do you know they will give it back?