SA must abandon its us-and-them lockdown mentality

The strict measures taken to slow the coronavirus shine a light on how politicians see the masses as problems to be controlled. The government has to learn to work with all its citizens.


If a government can’t see or hear most of the people it governs, they are unlikely to work with it.

It is common to point out that the current Covid-19 lockdown shows there are two South Africas, one in which people are well-equipped to obey the rules and one in which they are not. The government knows this. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said as much recently and announced a set of grants to help people living in poverty to cope. So why has the lockdown seemed to ignore this? Why did the same government send thousands of troops on to the streets the day after it announced the grants, signalling that it believes people living in poverty must be forced to obey?

The answer is not that the government hates the impoverished or could not care less about them. It is that those in politics and government have no idea how most people in this country live.

Despite more than 25 years of democracy, South Africa is still divided between insiders and outsiders. Insiders get a paycheque, outsiders don’t. Insiders tend to live in suburbs, outsiders in shack settlements or townships. But more divides them than this. The realities outsiders experience mean that their lives follow very different patterns to those of the insiders. 

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Politics and government are largely blind to this because they are an insider game. Outsiders vote, but insiders decide what is important. Some insiders claim to speak for outsiders; in reality, they speak about them so they can fight insider battles. With rare exceptions, government is a process in which insiders decide what is best for outsiders.

This is partly a product of social and economic divides, but also of “struggle” politics before 1994. Democratic politics was difficult: despite romantic myths about mass politics under apartheid, the links between activists and the people were often weak. When an activist said they had consulted “the people”, they meant the layer of activists below them.

Inevitably, this shaped how the country was governed after 1994. A year after democracy was achieved, newly elected politicians knew so little about the people who had voted for them that they asked researchers to find out why township residents were not paying for services. The trend has continued – repeatedly, government development plans have been frustrated by a failure to know how the people they were meant to benefit were living.

The lockdown has underlined this. 

Outsiders are different

The government was determined to consult “stakeholders” to win support for sacrifice. But who was consulted? We know business and political parties were. Trade unions may have been. Their members are not nearly as well-off as many other insiders, but they get wages or salaries and so belong to the insider club. But no one with roots in townships and shack settlements was included. Religious leaders were consulted, but only to seek agreement that they would not hold services.

This partly explains how the lockdown has been enforced.

The rules seem to make no concessions to the fact that people in shacks and matchbox houses live different lives to those in suburban homes, that people who get by on informal work face different problems to workers. A deeper look shows that the government knows outsiders are different. Unfortunately, it sees them not as citizens with whom it can work but as problems to be controlled.

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South Africa’s lockdown may be the strictest in the world. People may not take a daily walk or buy alcohol as those experiencing lockdowns in other countries can. Even food deliveries are outlawed. This was surely not because the government feared the virus would be spread by suburbanites clogging up parks, sipping cocktails or ordering sushi. More likely is that it worried that, if people in townships and shack settlements were given the slightest leeway, they would abuse it and ruin the lockdown. 

To say that the government knows that outsiders are different does not mean it sees or hears them. Because it lives in a different world to the outsider majority, it sees their living areas as seas of ignorance and need rather than as places filled with reasonable people who want to protect themselves as much as the insiders do. And so, it assumes that it cannot work with them to fight an infectious virus and can only control them.

It knows control is not enough, hence the grants increase, shelters for homeless people, food parcels and water tankers. But the support is deeply patronising, insiders deciding what outsiders need.  

Rising infection curve

The results have been all too visible. Instead of reaching out to people in townships and shack settlements to work with it, army troops and the police are sent to impose the lockdown by force. A ban on selling hot food is enforced with vigour, a ban on evictions is not. Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu wants to “de-densify” settlements to save them from the virus – in effect, a forced removal. Food parcels are opportunities for insider corruption, not outsider nutrition.

This is not working. The homeless don’t want to live in their shelters and many are back on the streets. In many areas where outsiders live, life has carried on as before.

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The message is clear. Insider politics cannot govern the outsiders, no matter how many soldiers are deployed. It can only try to whip them into line or patronise them. Neither can help to slow a dread disease.

So far, this reality does not seem to have had much impact on the infection figures – they have risen as testing has spread, but there is still no huge increase in cases.

More important, there is no sharp spike in the death toll. But these are early days: as the disease spreads, the limited reach of insider politics among the outsider majority could still cause great harm.

So, insiders’ failure to govern most of the country is threatening the growth in infections it was meant to delay. What can be done? 

Working together

Obviously, the government must work with outsiders to fight the disease. That means talking to and listening to them. But not all organisations that claim to speak for outsiders really do, and the government cannot know which do as long as it does now know the places where outsiders live. In the longer term, it needs to change that. But it will not do it instantly. 

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Grants may help outsiders cope. Measures that are more sensitive to outsiders’ worlds – such as ensuring hand-washing and social distancing at places where people gather, rather than banning the gatherings – may make success more likely.

But unless outsiders work with the government, protection against the virus will remain limited. So, despite the risks of strengthening those who want to use people, not speak for them, the government has little option but to engage with all the groups it can find, including some that have been bullied and harassed by the local authorities. It will need judgement and political skill to work out who is really interested in protecting people’s health and who is not.

There are risks but, if it continues to control outsiders instead of listening to them, it may find that its efforts to fight the virus do little but create new sources of pain.  

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