SOUTH Africa is currently run by big fat people with guns and an attitude to match. Seeing pictures of a casspir entering a Cape Town township, an entire wedding arrested in KwaZulu-Natal, and heavily armed troops storming into Alexandra (allegedly killing Collins Khosa on his property on 10 April and assaulting people in the street and forcing them to do humiliating physical exercises) brought back haunting and disturbing memories of the emergency years of the apartheid-era. Judging by the broadcast traffic report there are numerous roadblocks. Ten thousand people have reportedly been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal alone.

Using the armed forces to police civilians is always an extremely bad idea. Soldiers are trained in aggression and to kill, not to ensure co-operation from citizens. They have no policing skills and sooner or later, by the very order of things, someone will die. High-ranking army officers appearing before the parliamentary joint standing committee on defence justified the potentially murderous behaviour of their troops on the grounds that they were ‘provoked’ by people ‘insulting’ their commander-in-chief (i.e., the president of South Africa). This would apparently ‘not be tolerated’. It is clearly news to them that provocation is not a crime, nor is insulting the president unless a charge is laid and the courts find otherwise; but parliament acted in its customary limp-wristed fashion and issued no rebuke.

Soldiers instinctively look for an enemy and in the case of South Africa there they are: legions of increasingly hungry, angry and demonstrative people. The government evaded responsibility for the Marikana massacre of miners in August 2012, but the consequences of another bloodbath, this time in a busy township or crowded informal settlement rather than among some remote koppies, will be dire.

From the very outset the ANC government has treated a global public health threat in a militaristic way. The term state of disaster is a misnomer: there is no disaster – yet – especially in comparison with other ongoing calamities like the murder rate, road fatalities, and deaths from HIV/AIDS and TB. This is no war, but a military approach suits the ANC’s collective psyche. Command centres, whatever they might be, resonate with the idea of a ruling party issuing orders, not an accountable government. They also tap into a tradition of so-called centralised democracy in which a group of chosen cadres debate an issue and then instruct everyone else on the non-negotiable ‘line’. Similarly, there are echoes of armed struggle when power issued from the barrel of a gun.

This may sound fanciful, and maybe is, but there is a sense that a coup is underway in South Africa: strange things have happened before under cover of public health emergencies when the citizenry is faced with an existential threat and there are ruthless authoritarians looking for opportunities. Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula described Khosa’s death as no more than ‘unfortunate’. This is an alleged murder of a civilian on his property but the case has been referred to the military ombudsman. The family has courageously gone to Constitutional Court to establish their rights to due process as citizens of a democracy. 

There is an air of enduring paternalism about the ANC; the phrase ‘our people’ being a big giveaway when describing the citizenry. The party has many members of intelligence and ability, but the factionalism and patronage that are now its essential nature do not favour the thoughtful and rational. They nurture and promote limited people with loud voices and a predisposition to command rather than reason, plan and explain. The ANC approached this looming crisis with a clear desire to appear tough and muscular and in some senses this seems to have worked. Many South Africans are still under the illusion that they are ahead of the world and that life will soon get back to normal rather than the reality that an epidemic is soon to descend. It is an unfortunate consequence also of a nation that basks in sporting metaphor rather than a more cerebral approach to problems. This will not be another Rugby World Cup victory.

South Africa has all the fine trappings of democracy; but it is dysfunctional. The institutions designed to protect it have either never performed adequately (for instance, parliament) or have been deliberately hollowed out to allow free rein for racketeers and looters. If the rule of law were in operation, many of those in government would be behind bars wearing orange outfits. Damaged and compromised public institutions and an economy already on the edge of a cliff before anyone had heard of Covid-19 have now been joined by draconian regulations (there is nothing more severe than being told you cannot earn a living by other people on big fat salaries) enforced by authoritarian security forces.

If it were not already the case, this is a recipe for violent upheaval. Even if that is avoided, there are serious concerns about the most basic of future freedoms. We are currently told that authoritarian measures are required for our collective good, to save lives (although intelligent commentators are increasingly vocal about saving livelihoods as well). A staged relaxation of regulations is planned from 1 May that may include provincial and regional variations, but this could last many months. And just as we as individuals are getting used to new modes of behaviour that will become the norm in future, the ANC is also becoming comfortable with new autocratic methods of government. Fortunately, the judiciary is one of few national institutions that remain largely uncompromised, but civil society organisations and the Constitutional Court are going to need to be very alert and active in defence of democracy in future. Economic decline means that the ANC presides over an increasingly failed state and it will search desperately for means to maintain power. Covid-19 has handed it an authoritarian opportunity on a plate.

Suspicions about this have been further raised by the news that 73 000 more defence force personnel are to be deployed (or employed as the government likes to describe it) until 26 June, making over 75 000 in all. Many of these are medical, engineering, transport and logistical staff, but a large number will join those already in full combat gear and moving around our streets with R5 assault rifles. It is now clear that this extra deployment did not correctly follow parliamentary procedure by first involving the presiding officers and is presumably unconstitutional.

Cyril Ramaphosa is the reasonable face of the ANC. Even within his party it is reckoned that but for him it might have lost the 2019 general election, largely through abstentions. He is now saddled with a Cabinet that is a state of disaster in itself. Given the bleak national outlook on all fronts why does he not demonstrate that he is a true leader of South Africa? There is already anecdotal evidence that the presidency and some government departments are open to ideas beyond the stale ideology of the ANC that all too frequently reeks of eastern Europe circa 1970 and is totally disengaged from the present-day realities and needs of South Africa. Why does he not assemble a high-profile advisory council (no, not another command centre) of the intelligent and competent from opposition political parties, civil society and the professions to encourage a free flow of ideas that could feed into government decision making?

A war-like approach will neither defeat the virus, nor preserve a viable nation. The old mantras of the ANC look more and more flimsy in an increasingly volatile situation and Ramaphosa now has a virus-created gap to introduce new approaches and attitudes. Or will he allow the camouflage-coloured minds of his Cabinet hawks and the security cluster to steer the country into an authoritarian future?