Covid-19: Enough with the petty paternalism

William Saunderson-Meyer says the booze ban should be replaced with some sensible regulation


The South Africa we know and love was cast in a uniquely flawed cauldron. No surprise that we have to make do, as best possible, with an infuriatingly cracked vessel.

Combine Calvinist Afrikaner self-righteousness, imperialist British hauteur, and traditional African paternalism and this is what you get. A conceited, condescending, Daddy-knows-better government that treats its adult citizens like feckless kids.

This is probably not the situation that the political philosophers of the SA Communist Party had in mind when they developed their theory of “a colonialism of a special type”. Nor what the drafters of the SA Constitution had in mind when they tried to contain within a Bill of Rights this country’s seemingly irrepressible disposition towards authoritarian governments and petty bureaucrats.

No other government in the world has, in response to a medical emergency, dared peremptorily to decree what its citizens should be allowed to put in their shopping baskets. Yet here we have a supposedly 21st-century, supposedly democratic government that initially forbade the purchase of alcohol, cigarettes and — that epitome of dangerous indulgence — roast chicken.

Now, after a month of South Africans whining and nagging like tempestuous toddlers, a month of looted bottle stores and bootlegged cigarettes, there comes a little bit of parental manipulation. Okay, you’re adult enough to have some ciggies but still no booze. And certainly no buffalo wings.

As with any kind of parental manipulation, there’s an implied but indefinitely deferred reward. Maybe, just maybe, if we behave like good little boys and girls, under Mommy and Daddy’s watchful eye we’ll be allowed a nip of sherry with the Christmas roast. 

Or as the president phrased it in his national address on Thursday: “The range of goods that may be sold will be extended to incorporate certain additional categories.”

This is not just carping. Vexing, small-minded government regulations are not a minor issue. Aside from such irrational proclamations probably being unconstitutional, they go to the heart of something that President Cyril Ramaphosa ironically loves waxing lyrical about: the importance of social compacts.

The social compact concept is simply that nations are governed most successfully when competing groups seek to find common ground rather than to engage in a see-saw of perpetual conflict. It’s the antithesis of decrees from on high of what should be or not be.

In any case, even if you were going to treat your voters like children, the rod has long been out of favour. As any child psychologist worth their salt would tell the nation’s favourite patriarch, children behave best over the long run if they are treated with respect and set reasonable boundaries.

Uncle Cyril actually understands this need to retain the citizenry’s goodwill. The obnoxious bossiness that we have been subjected to seems to come not from him but from a small number of ministers with school-prefect complexes.

Ramaphosa handled the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic firmly but deftly, responding not on the basis of whimsy but on the basis of best scientific advice. And as the transmission and mortality figures appear to show at this early stage, this has paid off, with SA drawing international plaudits.

The danger, however, was that SA would remain frozen for too long in that initially draconian lockdown, which would turn economic damage into economic disaster. That’s thankfully not happened.

What Ramaphosa showed this week was admirable flexibility, an understanding that the situation is nuanced and continuously developing, and that there are very few absolutes. 

Not even the medical science, on the basis of which the total lockdown was initially implemented, remains unchallenged. No less an authority than Professor Shabhi Madhi, the former head of SA’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and former co-head of the SA Medical Research Council, says in a Financial Mail article that the modelling of how many people would contract Covid-19 and die was “flawed, illogical and made wild assumptions”. 

The hard lockdown was premised on mathematical modelling that predicted between 87,000 and 350,000 deaths in total, with 600 virus patients needing admission to intensive care units by April 1. But as at April 18, the date of the last publicly released figures, there were only 32 Covid-19 patients in ICU and, as at April 23, there have been only 75 deaths.

This is presumably why the government is now going for what Ramaphosa calls a “risk-adjusted” strategy of reopening the country and the economy. Some sectors, to be defined, will be allowed to embark on some activity, to be defined. All these concessions will be “measured and incremental” and are subject to “extreme precautions”. 

The containment measures will be precisely targeted. There is now room for different national, provincial, district and metro regulations, with industry bodies invited to make input into these changes. 

It’s a pity, though, that Ramaphosa still has not been able to bring himself to admit, never mind address, the head-thumping brutality of the police and the military.That includes the alleged beating to death of a man drinking alcohol in his own back garden, just one of at least 10 such violent death claims. He has, however, signalled that the deployment of an extra 70,000 soldiers may be directed towards more productive efforts than terrorising the populace — ensuring water supplies, maintaining infrastructure, and assisting as health workers.

This risk-based strategy of easing the lockdown is conceptually sophisticated and clearly based on Ramaphosa's social compact model of a responsible citizenry. To the relief of the suburbanites who have been so roundly mocked on social media, we’ll even be able to exercise in public and walk our dogs.

One can only hope that the new approach will extend to the ban on alcohol, which some in his administration appear to want to continue indefinitely. Prohibition may never have succeeded anywhere, ever, but it’s a siren song to the ears of those who remain burdened with the self-denying, arrogant and paternalistic strands forged in SA's historical foundry.

None of this is to seek to deny the problems caused by alcohol abuse, which is rife in SA and plays a part in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, contributing to criminal violence and road accidents. But not all South Africans drink to excess, pulverise their spouses and then crash their vehicles.

The alcohol industry and SA’s wine farmers employ hundreds of thousands of people and moderate alcohol consumption is part of the lives of millions of people. The lack of something more imaginative than the “one size fits all” approach is causing significant damage and widespread irritation.

So do something. Cut the hours of business or cut the amount of liquor sold to each person. It’s surely not beyond the regulatory ken of a vaguely competent public servant?

As an irate correspondent wrote to me: “These kinds of prohibitions represent fundamentally poor legislation because they are incidental and irrelevant to the primary objective which is to curtail contagion.  

“Social distancing directly addresses the objective. A numbers limit on gatherings directly addresses it. A ban on travel directly addresses it as well.  

“Dictating the temperature of the food you can buy, what you can drink, what you smoke and how much you can exercise, is so far removed from the objective as to be simply bizarre.”

Time for a tipple, Cyril. Cheers, boet!

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