How the lockdown united the nation

William Saunderson-Meyer says all classes and races have simply had enough


One of the interesting aspects of the aptly named State of Disaster is that a significant number of whiteys have been klapped by the cops, roughed up and abused by the soldiers, and told by arsehole bureaucrats where, when and how they should conduct their daily lives.

That’s a novel experience for us vaguely paler-hued citizens but it was, of course, the ever-present reality of the majority of black South Africans for generations. The advent of democracy in 1994 was supposed to make us all equal on this score by ending gratuitous state violence but it hasn’t quite panned out that way.

The middle-class — of which whites incidentally form a steadily decreasing proportion — lives a reality substantially different from the daily lives of the mostly black poor. It has been spared the indignities and authoritarian abuses that still today are visited upon the indigent. Consequently, cocooned in its relative comfort, the better-off have been able to indulge a political apathy that allows space for bad governance to thrive.

Wealth is truly colour blind. No matter how despised one's ethnicity is, to have some money is to have some insulation against the harsh edges of a poorly trained and incompetent police force, a thuggish and ill-disciplined military, and an indolent public service. 

But with lockdown that reassuring mask of benign governance has dropped. The state’s visceral tendencies towards undemocratic control have slipped into suburbia, slithered past the booms of the gated estates.

It is admittedly never going to spark the kind of resistance that saw the apartheid government slinking offstage. There is still the correcting mechanism of a judiciary that is mostly resolute in its defence of human rights.

But the lockdown has had the salutary effect of sparking some defiance from the previously passive. The people — perhaps for the first time, all the people, of all races — are gatvol. And they’re doing the one thing that any government, anywhere, is terrified of: they are en masse simply ignoring the law. 

That is why when President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this week announced that lockdown would ratchet down another notch, he was greeted with a countrywide yawn. Nobody much gave a damn. Whatever number Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma wanted to put on it, most South Africans had already long ago moved straight from Level 5 to Level 0 and were merely curious as to when the government would catch up.

After all, in much of the country, the townships and communal rural areas, lockdown never happened in the first place. In cheek-to-jowl shacks and small homes with extended families, far from where the few who are employed actually work, lockdown isolation was always going to be impossible.

To be sure, the security forces would occasionally rampage through these townships to make an intimidatory point. They would mete out random violence to subversive loiterers, arithmetically challenged shoppers and social grant collectors who were not maintaining the decreed social distancing, and homeowners provocatively sipping a drink in their own backyard. But as they have always had to do, the poor would endure and then go back to what they were doing before, which was living their lives as best they could.

Effective lockdown has been largely a suburban experience, initially self-enforced by people who understood and agreed with the government’s policy. And when the middle-classes eventually got a little uppity about wanting to surf or walk their dogs, footage of burly police officers trying to drag an “arrested” toddler out of its father’s arms or a solitary jogger being manhandled weeping into the back of a patrol van, would quickly restore obedience.

But because of this pettiness and heavy-handedness that co-operation — the “social compact” that Ramaphosa says he so values and which is like gold dust to any government vulnerable to voter displeasure — has been squandered. At best, there is now a surly and waning compliance.

Contrary to the assertion of the Human Sciences Research Council that 88% of smokers have been unable to buy cigarettes — contradicted by a more recent University of Cape Town study finding almost the exact opposite — there’s not a smoker that I know of who has been deterred from getting access to illegal cigarettes. The same with alcohol.

The black market tobacco industry was already well established before the Ramaphosa administration's ban. It is now thriving, with outrageously expensive, mostly low-quality products. 

When the tobacco ban is lifted, the illegal sellers will, with the advantage of new distribution channels, switch to better-quality products priced more cheaply than the highly-taxed legal ones. The victims of this will be the exchequer and the rule of law.

Booze bootleggers are less likely to survive. My local backyard ginmeister is producing a top-rate tipple that I’ll continue buying as long as he makes it, but unfortunately, most homebrews are rough stuff. 

Unless cross-border smugglers can bring in recognised brands at a lower cost than the off-the-shelf bottle store offerings, the alcohol black market is a temporary phenomenon. And the government must be praying that the two-fingered salute it’s getting from much of the populace is going to be a similarly short lived phenomenon. 

For no government can indefinitely contain a sustained and widespread public rebelliousness. That’s a basic and tested tenet of revolutionary movements worldwide. Which is why contra-instinctually, insurrectionists tacitly welcome increased repression — the heavier the yoke, the stronger the urge to shed it, rather than adapt to the chaffing.

So, kudos to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government. Through a combination of hubris and an ongoing flow of stupid regulations, the ANC has in just two months turned millions of habitually law-abiding South Africans into renegades and criminals.

Forget the 1994 schmaltz about South Africans being the rainbow people of God. It is only now that we are at last united as a nation, as one learning to channel our inner anarchist. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye