Eusebius McKaiser: Why the bullshit curfew is seriously dangerous

Crises reveal the true nature of people and states. 

I was thinking of this last night as I processed just one of the many announcements made by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his address to the nation in which he announced that we will, as of Sunday, be moving to alert level one of the national lockdown that has been in place now for six months. 

Along the way he announced the decision that the curfew will remain in place. The only change is that the curfew will be reduced slightly in duration and will now apply between midnight and 4am.

The curfew has bothered me deeply for a long while now but I had wanted to reflect on what it is that occasions my discomfort. I think I have figured it out. The problems with the curfew are serious if you consider yourself a democrat committed to certain norms.

Firstly, the curfew reveals to us a state that is willing to act irrationally. There is no coherent logic for the continued imposition of a curfew. The curfew is not consistent with the aims of containing the spread of Covid-19 and therefore has no place in a raft of measures that can only be justified with reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are not more susceptible to Covid-19 between midnight and 4am than the rest of the day. To that extent, the curfew is arbitrary and nonsensical.

 Secondly, and related to this irrationality, is the refusal of the South African government to offer reasons for decisions that are, on the face of it, irrational. One of the many normative features of the democracy we signed up for in 1994 is that ours was meant to be a democracy that is not only bound by the demands of rational behaviour on the part of the state but also by the demand for reasons to be stated and explained publicly for decisions taken by the state. 

By announcing but not explaining a patently confusing curfew decision, President Ramaphosa reveals to us that he is the head of a government that is willing to act irrationally and in an opaque manner. There is no respect for the norm of transparency.

Of course, he cannot choose transparency easily when transparency will show up the irrationality of the curfew decision. 

But that is precisely why, as citizens, we are the ones who should demand, at all times, that when the government acts, it does so with accompanying explanations for the decisions it has taken. Otherwise we are back in pre-1994 territory, a time when the undemocratic state did not see itself as morally obligated to act rationally, reasonably, and transparently. We cannot let this government get away with habituating reasons-averse ways of doing things.

These are not the only considerations why this silly curfew is bothering me. 

It also bothers me because it reveals the dangers of an anti-democratic creep under the pretext of keeping us all safe. This year has allowed all societies to ask themselves a societal-level question: “What kind of society do we want to be?” 

Our state is willing to sign up for some profoundly anti-democratic responses to this silent question imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We should be wide awake to this anti-democratic turn, call it out and push back against it. 

The erosion of freedoms invariably happens slowly and never overnight. It is therefore insufficient for us to moan quietly about the curfew. We should be making loud noises to show off our discontent and force government to abandon this stupid decision it has not even felt the need to explain to us.

Start off by thinking about this in the bluntest terms. Ramaphosa asking you to be home by midnight is right up there with your parents telling you, “As long as you live under our roof you will abide by our laws!” 

Except the ANC government is not our parent and the ANC does not own the country. 

That is apart from the fact that we are not children either.  

And even if we were, it is more likely that children will behave if they are not condescended to but respected as capable of understanding reasons.

The willingness of our government to act from within a framework of misplaced paternalism must be critiqued and rejected by all of us, regardless of our individual ideological and other differences. No one should be happy to live in a state in which an irrational curfew is imposed.

We are not in a war. The language of warfare, in the fight to contain Covid-19, should not be abused by the state. Energetic analogies can be highly effective. They are useful communications devices. They can also be linguistic trickery to justify bullshit. 

The curfew is bullshit. Let us all oppose it as irrational, unnecessary, and revealing a state that is willing to act arbitrarily like a power-drunk Big Brother.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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