Just like in many other parts of the world, the advent of the coronavirus in South Africa has left government with no choice but to impose various levels of lockdown that came with unprecedented levels of restrictions on citizen movement and business activity. While the restrictions were broadly accepted during the early stages of lockdown – at the strictest level 5 – many South Africans began to scrutinise and question the relevance of some of them as the weeks went by, specifically wondering in what ways they would help flatten the growth curve of the Coronavirus or prevent infections and unnecessary loss of life.
As the weeks went by, we also witnessed some known and unknown groupings in the NGO sector, opposition politics, and others with business interests taking to the courts to challenge the legality of some aspects of the lockdown restrictions. In the process, there have been a mixture of firm and short-lived court victories going in all directions, resulting in the overall climate – at least parts of it – becoming somewhat murky.
A lot of the frustration was driven by people realising that the little savings they had – for those who had savings to speak of and were not receiving any income while they stayed at home – were gradually being depleted. While those who were fortunate enough to continue doing paid work from home could do so, many others were either receiving only a portion of their normal pay or, for another group, not receiving any income at all. Those worst affected were the unemployed, the self-employed, and those who worked in small businesses that could not sustain them during a time when no revenue was being generated by the business.
So, to the health crisis that was brought about by the Coronavirus, an economic crisis was gradually building-up, affecting the livelihoods of many South Africans and, even dangerously, threatening harm to an already challenged social harmony in the country.
But ubuntu never died
It is often said that the character of people is best tested in times of crisis. This has been true for many South Africans over the years and during the past 5 months or so of Covid-19. Known to be generous by nature, and easily taking the side of the weak party in any conflict situation, many South Africans rose to the occasion and – driven by the spirit of ubuntu – started initiatives that enabled them to play their part by taking care of the weakest in our society. In no time, many feeding schemes were established by individuals, neighbourhoods, small and big companies, NGOs and others, to prepare and distribute warm food and clothing to people living in the streets and to indigent neighbours and poor people in communities on the other side of town from where they lived. Others offered to use their motor cars and cycles to deliver medical supplies for the elderly and people living alone with various forms of disabilities in their respective neighbourhoods and elsewhere.
To outsiders, the seeming contradiction in the conduct of South Africans would be baffling. On the one hand, they stood up and demanded that government speak with more clarity when it explained the rationale for the various lockdown restrictions while, on the other hand, they never forgot that we’re all in it together when they played their part to ensure that as few South Africa as possible, if any, where left behind during this testing period of unprecedented health and economic crisis.
The road we must travel together
It is known that South Africans have fought long and hard, over many decades, for the freedoms they enjoy, freedoms that are now firmly enshrined in the country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. They will not easily let anyone, including their government, take these freedoms away. And government knows that. But they have also shown that when government takes steps to protect lives – even when such steps seem harsh and hard to abide by – South Africans will stand behind it and play their part, even if doing so takes having to police one another and calling out those who step out of line to endanger the lives of others. But for the above to happen, government has also learned that it must trust South Africans and reaffirm its commitment to the social contract. It must always openly and consistently share information with them in the same way that it did at the onset of the Coronavirus.
From Level 3 to Level 3 bis
The lifting and easing of many of the Covid-19 restrictions at the onset of level 3 lockdown, at the beginning of July 2020, unleashed a lot of excitement around the country. It did not help that restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages were lifted at the same time in their entirety, with government having trusted that all citizens would continue to play their part, having heeded warnings by the authorities and health professionals against alcohol abuse.
Soon, people began forming long queues outside liquor stores around the country to purchase alcohol. Pictures and videos of drunk, careless, revellers made it onto social media platforms to the dismay of many others. It did not take long before reports of increased numbers of car accidents, injuries, and incidents of gender-based violence made the news headlines and, as feared, the rising numbers of injured people needing hospitalisation began to compete for much-needed hospital beds with the rising numbers of Covid-19 casualties. This left government with little choice but to reimpose prohibitions on the sale of alcohol beverages, public consumption of such, as well as an overnight curfew.
All is not lost
There is an opportunity for leaders in politics, religion, traditional affairs, academia, media, business, and other branches of civil society to realise that in order to be won, the battle against Covid-19 can neither be led nor won by government alone. It should never have to be a competition of wills and might pitting any group of South Africans against others, or citizens against government. We have to reignite the nation’s social compact and fighting spirit to positively channel them in a shared drive to curb the spread of the real enemy of our times, the pandemic that is silently making its way within our population taking many lives before their time. We are South African. We have the fighting spirit; we have one another, and we have our spirit of ubuntu. Let us rally these assets to effectively push back and defeat Covid-19 so that we can safely turn our focus to saving our economy. The more time we waste bickering over who is right and who is wrong, the harder it will be to step in in time rescue our ailing economy against certain destruction.
Malele is the Marketing Manager at Brand South Africa, the official marketing agency of South Africa with a mandate to build the country’s brand reputation and to improve its global competitiveness.