OPINION | Government has wasted the goodwill of South Africans

2020-05-25 15:59

The government expected quiet, unquestioning obedience from South Africans. Instead of trusting the public, being open and honest with them, the government has wasted goodwill and turned the public against it, writes Geordin Hill-Lewis.


Common struggle through times of crises often has the effect of upending old acrimonies, and turning adversaries into allies. South Africa’s struggle against the Coronavirus is scrambling the usual dividing lines in politics. The DA is now joined by Cosatu, the government’s senior medical advisors, economists, the Finance Minister, and the vast majority of South Africans in united opposition to the continuation of the ANC’s hard lockdown. This lockdown is now only supported by some portion of the ANC and the EFF.

I was pleased to read Cameron Dugmore (18 May 2020) breaking with party orthodoxy and writing in support of the Premier of the Western Cape Alan Winde’s leadership through this crisis. Winde’s equanimity and focus has set him apart. Importantly, Winde understood from the moment it was first announced that the key opportunity the lockdown offered was time to expand the capacity of the healthcare system.

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This is crucial, because no lockdown is permanently sustainable, and as soon as it ends, there will be a surge in infections no matter what. That is the nature of a pandemic, we are all coming to understand.

This gift of time was limited, and it was not free. Even the initial lockdown came at enormous cost to the economy, so it demanded haste and hard-work. In the Western Cape the time was well used, as bed capacity for Covid has been expanded by some 1416 beds so far, with a brand-new 850 bed facility set up at the Cape Town Convention Centre.

But 8 long weeks into hard lockdown, what has been achieved nationally? ANC governed provinces have been unwilling to report on progress made in expanding healthcare capacity, which doesn’t augur well. Waiting periods for test results are still measured in days not hours, and we are still only testing roughly 17 000 people a day. Yesterday Britain tested 177 000 people in one day.

If indeed this time has been wasted, then it is tragically likely that the economy has been eviscerated, South Africa’s productive capacity razed to the ground, for naught. This would make any further insistence on hard lockdown indefensible. Even now, millions of workers, home owners, breadwinners, and entrepreneurs are living under intolerable anxiety as their livelihoods collapse around them.

This is the reason the DA moved from initial support for the President’s hard lockdown to our proposal for a much wider opening of the economy with strict health protocols. This is the essence of smart decision making in a crisis: interventions must be assessed for their efficacy, and decisions must change with the data.

Dugmore may be uncomfortable with the DA’s move, and John Steenhuisen’s insistence on asking the difficult questions of President Ramaphosa, but the facts increasingly bear us out. We also refuse to accept the secrecy and the petty authoritarianism that has characterised the government’s response. Why did we have to wait 55 days to see the first government modelling? Why are scientists under gag order?

Why all the ridiculous limitations and bans with no basis in science? The fact is that the government expected quiet, unquestioning obedience from South Africans. This may come naturally in the ANC, but it doesn’t wash with South Africans. Instead of trusting the public, being open and honest with them, the government has wasted goodwill and turned the public against it.

Steenhuisen was the earliest among a growing list of people now giving voice to this public dissent. He won’t be stopping on account of Dugmore’s drivel.

 – Geordin Hill-Lewis is a DA Member of Parliament

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