The lockdown: South Africa’s test of its democracy

As night fell on the first day of South Africa’s 21-day lockdown, an uneasy tension hovered through the mostly quiet streets. There are many questions that weigh on the nation’s mind. Will we have enough supplies? How will I receive my salary? Do I still have a job? Will we beat the coronavirus? These are all urgent and valid questions that have marked the uncertain time we now face. Beyond these immediate concerns though, there are bigger questions that will determine South Africa’s fate.

The lockdown is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s most decisive act since assuming office. Unlike  leaders in the United Kingdom and many other countries in the West, he was quick to act, declaring a state of disaster and marshalling a lockdown just weeks after the first case was reported. In making this decision, he rose above the factional politics in the ANC. He has been showing leadership and grit, unafraid to take a path that might not lead to a quick recovery; a path which, in itself, could cause significant economic harm.

But the real test for South Africa is not if the lockdown will help slow down the pandemic. Instead, lurking within and throughout this lockdown is a battle for the future of South Africa’s democracy. Here are three issues to watch out for over the next three weeks.

Will South Africans comply with the rule of law? 

On Friday, the nation woke to images and news reports of business as usual in large parts of Alexandra. Public transport, shops, and public spaces were bustling with people. It took a few hours for the police and the army to scramble over, but even after there were boots on the ground, there were people not maintaining the required social distance, and large crowds gathering to enter a shopping centre, under the watchful eyes of the armed police and army. Some (of the more privileged among us) took to social media to lament how people were not being compliant, how the poor needed to be educated, how more force was needed to make people comply. 

But poor people are neither ignorant nor unnecessarily defiant. There was a genuine sense of frustration among residents, some of whom had been waiting since dawn to buy much-needed supplies, and were now being policed in their quest to get food. “Do I stay home and starve?”, asked one woman interviewed by eNCA. “Why are they closing the supermarket when government orders were to control the queues?” asked a man. Across the country, we will see how the lockdown reflects underlying socioeconomic inequities that threaten to tear this country apart. Put simply: for many people in this country, compliance with a system that has squeezed them out is not an easy option.

Yes, there will be the defiance: those people who will disregard the law openly and intentionally; those who seek to hurt the state at any cost to further their own agendas. Will these groups remain on the fringes, or will they be emboldened in these strange times when they have had to relinquish civil liberties and accept the armed forces on our streets?

In townships and suburbs, across rural areas and in the cities, South Africans will be wrestling with a similar question: Should I follow what this government says, or should I do what is needed to meet my own needs? This debate cuts to the heart of the social and legal contract that characterises the relationship between a modern nation-state and its people. And this disjuncture speaks to the underlying problem of South Africa’s governance: a citizenry that has lost trust in its government. The state — from national president, to local civil servant — has shown repeatedly that it can be bought, twisted, and cajoled; that laws exist only to hold up the interests of a minority who have the privilege or power to access its protection; that basic services such as education, sanitation and health come only after confrontation with the state. How then can ordinary South Africans trust that their government has the ability and willingness to do what is needed to protect them? 

Will the army and police rein themselves in?

The second question that plagues us is whether the police and the army will abide by the Constitution, or will be tempted to go rogue. South Africa’s armed forces are notorious for being inefficient — and unnecessarily violent. Over the past decade, the bloodshed and trauma in Marikana; Fees Must Fall; and, indeed, in almost every single service-delivery protest, have shown that the police will use force arbitrarily against its own people

The success of this lockdown for public health reasons depends on the members of the army and police being able to rein themselves in; to become friends to the people who they usually use force against; to show care, instead of brandishing arms. In the governance of our law and order, we have a crowded platform: private security, which acts with little oversight; community leaders and local groups who, as we see in ongoing xenophobic attacks, are not afraid to use force to control their turf; and criminals who sniff opportunity at every corner. The lockdown is a moment for South Africa to unite behind a common enemy, the Covid-19 virus; a time for the police and army to show they can be a credible force, acting effectively with restraint. In this moment can we tighten ranks, or we will turn on each other?

Will our politicians remain united?

Finally, there is the political stage itself. How will ministers, factional groups in the ANC, and opposition parties behave? Will they support the president in private, as they did in public? Already we can see signs of dissent brewing. If Ramaphosa’s address to the nation was calm, informed by evidence, guided by health experts, presidential and decisive, calling on unity and resolve, the interministerial briefing on March 24 was the opposite. Individual ministers have shown a remarkable ability to be tone deaf to the moment, instead using the opportunity to ramble, and reveal a glimpse of the chaos, mediocrity and authoritarianism that lurks within (large) parts of the government.


So far, opposition parties have mostly danced in harmony, appearing together in a show of unity and support. How long will this last? Will they see elements of disgruntlement on the streets, or violence among the police and exploit these for their own political gain?

The coronavirus is more than a health pandemic. Eventually we will contain it; we will look back on this time when a handshake was forbidden, when we fortified our homes, and scrambled to digitise our classrooms and workplaces. Soon, our streets will come alive with noise: supermarkets and spaza shops will be filled; shebeens and restaurants will be crowded with the sounds of friends and family; we will let our embraces linger, and our hugs will be warm. But how will we emerge as a country? Will our democracy be strengthened, our distances from each other shortened? Can Ramaphosa win back his own party, his own government and all of our trust? Will the state rule by law — with compassion and justice — or will we remember this as a time when a virus will have changed our body politic forever?

Dr Zaheera Jinnah is a research associate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. She writes in her personal capacity.

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Zaheera Jinnah
Guest Author
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