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Sunday, May 24, 2020 Leer en Español

South Africa’s Lockdown Is Especially Severe

Make no mistake: the COVID-19 lockdown did not cause South Africa’s economic problems.

Cyril Ramaphosa

The COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa started on March 27, 2020. With the announcement of the lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa also implemented a national state of disaster. Before the lockdown, the country’s economic growth hovered between one and two percent. More than ten million people were unemployed. Given the incredibly harsh lockdown that was imposed, and the myriad irrational regulations that have come with it, it would not come as any surprise if, post-lockdown, the majority of those in South Africa who could work, will be left unemployed. It turns out that here on the southernmost tip of Africa, the cure will very likely be much worse than the disease.

There are different levels for South Africa’s lockdown. At time of writing, South Africa sat at level four, with level five being the ‘harshest.’ The thinking that permeates all levels is that of white-listing: everything, every product, business, and social activity, is to be presumed banned, unless a government minister or department announces that it is once again ‘allowed.’ Ostensibly the aim of the lockdown was to prevent the quick spread (or peak) of the virus; however many scientists, including the country’s epidemiologist-in-chief, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, have indicated that the lockdown may well have already served that purpose.

Police and military brutality have flared up. The alleged assault of Collins Khosa at the hands of members of the SA National Defense Force (SANDF) stands out. Collins later passed away and at time of writing, the High Court had ordered the suspension of said SANDF members without pay. An investigation is currently underway. South Africa’s history is marred by abuse of citizens by police as well as the armed forces. To see it manifest again is deeply concerning for anyone worried about the future relationship between the state and the people.

After an abrupt about-turn, e-commerce was allowed to resume. While most in-person business activity was prohibited, and this move enjoyed some support, it made no sense for e-commerce to be banned as well, especially if the companies involved can take the necessary preventative measures. Surely it stands to reason that one would want as much business activity as possible, to ensure that at least some people can still earn a profit, and there can still be a level of employment? It seems the threat of COVID-19 provided a useful excuse for the government to extend yet more control over people’s lives.

An economy is not simply a light-switch to be turned off and on at a whim. Companies and industry are interconnected. The shutting of ‘just’ one industry, for example baking, has a massive ripple effect, on business owners and employees, to farmers, to the customers and their families. Combine the effects of shutting down most industries and activity, and you begin to realize just how deeply, and devastatingly, South Africa’s lockdown has affected people’s lives and livelihoods.

A nationwide lockdown is a brutal, blunt tool. It presumes that each business, and each individual, operates in exactly the same manner, and that certain ‘experts’ (nay, philosopher kings) can best determine the path forward on behalf of over 50 million individual human beings. Hayek’s knowledge problem rears its head once more. A hard lockdown such as we have seen in South Africa made no accommodation for the different capabilities of people, and allowed no room for companies to still try and tackle the virus through implementing their own health measures.

As recently as May 17, a member of the COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee indicated that several members of the body have voiced their concerns over the “apparent stranglehold by the Department of Health on access” to certain data. Where the government garnered praise from many quarters, including the World Health Organization, in the early stages of the lockdown, it appears now that the shiny veneer is cracked underneath.

During March, President Ramaphosa established the National Coronavirus Command Council. The aim was to coordinate between various government efforts in the fight against the virus. It emerged, however, that the Council would also make binding decisions. Lawyers and others concerned started raising worries about these decisions, and indeed the composition and legitimacy of the body itself.

The President himself has talked about some of the eyebrow-raising regulations that have been promulgated (e.g., ban of alcohol sales), and indicated that there was “collective responsibility” in Cabinet for the regulations. But here lies a fundamental problem: collective responsibility is neither a legitimate philosophical nor legal concept. Individuals make decisions, and when those individuals wield significant state power, those decisions must be as transparent and traceable as possible.

The sale of cigarettes and alcohol is currently not allowed. Ours is the only country in the world to have suspended the sale of alcohol. Government is both losing out significantly on the taxes it would be collecting on sales of these goods, as well as aiding the growth of black markets. As the United States knows well, prohibition does not work: those who are sufficiently motivated will always find a way to obtain the things they desperately need. There is also a raft of arbitrary regulations on the sale (or not) of clothing items; for example only closed-toe shoes may be sold.

Societal support for the lockdown (at least in its current, draconian form) is steadily evaporating. It appears that the government does not trust citizens with the necessary amount of information on the spread of the virus, and is not open to feedback and critique on the methods it has implemented to prevent the possible unchecked spread. Our government is following the same path as the Chinese and American governments, who suppressed information in different ways and hobbled their respective countries’ approach to dealing with the effect of the virus. In a similar vein, the SA government prevented the economy, and most importantly people, from having any adequate chance of tackling this virus on their own terms.

South Africans’ economic potential has been severely hobbled by the wrong policies for decades: restrictive labor regulation, an anti-business environment, increasingly high taxes, and now moves to amend the Constitution and remove property rights (expropriation without compensation). In 2019, South Africa was ranked 101 out of 162 on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index. We were ranked at 47 in the year 2000. Make no mistake: the COVID-19 lockdown did not cause South Africa’s economic problems. The economy was progressively destroyed by malignant policies for many years prior.

The South Africa Constitution enshrines the rights to life and dignity. Our modern democracy came from the fire that was decades of the oppression wrought by the socialist, brutal, dehumanizing Apartheid regime. In the fight against a terrifying virus, it appears that those charged with leading South Africa have let their authoritarian inclinations run wild, to the ultimate detriment of working people.

  • Chris Hattingh is Project Manager at the Free Market Foundation. He has an MPhil in Business Ethics from Stellenbosch University. He is the author of published articles on consumer rights, economic freedom, inequality and individual freedom.