Locked-down SA: A crisis of character

Ernst van Zyl says this period has been revealing of who people really are

Locked-down South Africa: A crisis of character

28 April 2020

John F. Kennedy once remarked, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis'. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.”

The irony of the Chinese featuring in this quote aside, I, too, strongly believe that times of crisis give birth to a plethora of new opportunities. One such rare opportunity, I reckon, is to observe the true character of the people close to you, of those constantly in the public eye and of those in positions of power.

One such opportunity is presented while observing who takes part in the suddenly popular national activity of snitching. Some of our compatriots’ true character is blatantly exposed by their apparent eagerness to loudly and publicly name and shame those they see breaking the lockdown rules (tagging SAPS in such posts seems crucial). Jackboot-licking appears to be an essential service in South Africa, no matter how trivial the offense might be.

These prying eyes and ears of the state range from regular citizens to ward councillors and even journalists. If enforcing the lockdown rules was their only motive, such reports would most likely have been done anonymously; however, there seems to be a deeper psychological element at play here.

Exposing the “transgressors” loudly and proudly in the online public sphere appears to be the lockdown variant of virtue signalling – a phenomenon where an individual makes a social media post with the primary intension of signalling their virtuous nature to their community or the world. As the lockdown intensified, this practice seemingly evolved into a need for signalling one’s obedience and dedication to the lockdown by valiantly exposing non-compliance for the “greater good”.

In 1971 at Stanford University, a famous social psychology experiment was conducted to investigate the psychological influences of perceived power on human behaviour. In the study, student volunteers were assigned to be either guards or prisoners by the flip of a coin, in a mock prison.

The student volunteers quickly embraced their assigned roles. Some “guards” got so caught up in their positions of power that they ruthlessly enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately even subjected some of their “prisoner” classmates to psychological torture.

Many “prisoners” passively accepted this psychological abuse and went on, at the request of the “guards”, to actively harass other “prisoners” who tried to stop the abuse. Several “prisoners”, however, bluntly refused to continue halfway through, and the experiment was abandoned after only six days.

In 2020 the New Zealand police created a website where citizens could report those who broke their lockdown rules. New Zealanders were so eager to report their transgressing neighbours that this website soon crashed. The Stanford Prison Experiment and the New Zealand case give us a glimpse into a dark corner of our psyche.

The behaviour of the tattletales or impimpis we’ve seen emerging during the lockdown has an eerie resemblance to the former case. In a country like South Africa, with a worryingly low level of societal trust capital, this nasty culture of snitching that has emerged during the lockdown can only further damage the country’s already fragile social fabric. “Do not trust thy neighbour” doesn’t have that popular ANC “nation building” ring to it, does it?

In another revelation of character, many ideologically possessed individuals saw the COVID-19 crisis as a perfect opportunity to promote a class war narrative by blaming the wealthy for introducing the virus into South Africa. One such opinion piece had the following venomous introduction:

“The coronavirus, which first entered South Africa in wealthy people returning from ski trips to Europe, is now beginning to seep into [poor] communities from where it’s likely to spread rapidly.”

I reckon they share the sentiment of Winston Churchill when he said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Furthermore, Minister Bheki Cele’s remark that he’d like to see the ban on the sale of alcohol enforced post-lockdown is revealing. It is a very short-sighted and damaging statement. Only a recovering alcoholic could possibly display such righteous indignation towards even moderate and responsible alcohol consumption. This, unfortunately, is only one of many examples where the ANC appears to be overreaching their authority in the name of crisis control. By doing so regularly, they are unwittingly revealing their hidden authoritarian hand for all to see.

As I said at the outset, people’s true character comes forward during a crisis. When AfriForum challenged the race-based criteria of the proposed Tourism Relief Fund, Tourism Minister MmamolokoKubayi-Ngubane remarked, without a shred of self-awareness, that the relief fund would be guided by BEE laws, not by skin colour. It is most concerning that the ANC government still pursues a race-based ideological agenda 26 years after they proclaimed their commitment to a non-racial society. Relentlessly pressing it forward during a time of crisis, like we are now witnessing, is nothing less than shameful and immoral. It seems that even an international crisis is not enough to sober up a party drunk on race-based ideology.

When AfriForum showed their true character by handing out thousands of bottles of hand sanitiser to police stations, this gesture was met with another revelation of character, but of a different kind – Maj. Gen. Patricia Rampota, of the Gauteng Provincial Police Office, instructing police stations to look this gift horse in the mouth and to refuse AfriForum’s donation of hand sanitiser.

Fortunately, not all revelations of character during this time have been of a negative or malicious nature. The Solidarity Movement (not to be confused with the government’s Solidarity Fund) created an emergency fund to support as many as possible in need during and after the COVID-19 crisis. To date, this relief fund has raised over R6 million from public donations.

Let us make mental notes of the character traits of those around us during this crisis, and of how eagerly and forcefully the government and/or individuals grabbed the opportunities for power that they have been presented with. Let us also take note of which pre-COVID-19 “crises” and pressing issues, which previously had South African social media and newspapers ablaze, have now miraculously disappeared like a morning mist after a new dawn. Hopefully this will prompt some important reflection amongst South Africans about the true nature and extent of any future “crisis”, as well as distinguishing the issues which should be of genuine concern from those which are mere political games – full of sound and fury, but signifying (and fixing) nothing.

It is most encouraging to see how many South Africans are productively using the lockdown to improve themselves, with many learning basic cooking skills, reading, writing, making music, exercising, et cetera. Seeing as this crisis has already revealed the true character of plenty of our compatriots, I encourage everyone to roll up their sleeves and to make sure their best qualities come forward during this challenging, yet interesting, time. After all, if your conduct might be recorded in a history book, why risk immortalising your worst side?

Ernst van Zyl is Strategy and Campaign Officer at AfriForum. He co-presents on the Podlitiek podcast, hosts the Afrikaans Inalle Ernst podcast, and hosts the Stream of Consciousness live interview show on YouTube. Ernst usually posts on Twitter and YouTube under his pseudonym Conscious Caracal (follow him at https://twitter.com/ConCaracal).