Public support for shutdown
The response to the South African government’s hardline approach to curbing the spread of the coronavirus and the seeming preparedness of the people to accept more stringent measures present interesting dynamics in understanding relations between the state and society during a crisis.
As the proliferation of Covid-19 reached pandemic status globally, the state forbade gatherings of more than 100 people, discouraged “unnecessary travel”, encouraged social distancing, and prescribed operating times for restaurants and liquor outlets.
A national shutdown was announced on Monday March 23 as the numbers of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 continued to rise. The figure had since risen to 554 by Tuesday morning.
Quite significantly, citizens, organisations and businesses had mostly obliged without significant questioning for the most part, save for few instances where people tried to circumvent the imposed restrictions.
The response to the state’s directive has been so positive that the religious community has also barged and postponed major season-sensitive or calendar specific events, a phenomenon that would be unthinkable under different circumstances.
People have also criticised others over exceeding the limit of no more than 100 people per gathering, even at a funeral, a very sensitive topic culturally.
The government’s attitude and actions as well as the responses they triggered are quite interesting from the political observer’s perspective.
They are uncharacteristic of usually highly disagreeable democratic societies, where people would differ so much with the state that they would even resort to courts to settle disputes that relate to limiting its powers or actions.
This situation evokes an interesting debate in political studies about the role of the state and its implications for individual liberties, more so in a democratic society.
This has been a common feature of political theory in that it raises fundamental debates about when it is acceptable to obey the state even when it appears to trump individual liberties.
Do individuals who form part of civil society relinquish some of their individual rights to the state in order to ensure everyone’s safety or wellbeing, as per the views associated with Thomas Hobbes and those who follow him?
Alternatively, do individuals not necessarily relinquish their liberties to the state but allow the institution enough room to exist and offer protections to them as long as it guarantees the common good or does not violate individual liberties, as per John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s’ views?
The differences in the two approaches lie in the assumptions made about both human nature and the state.
The Hobbesian view is that human nature is inherently evil and competitive and humans would endanger all if they were left to their own devices.
For that reason, control by a beastly state, a Leviathan, with the ability to exercise force is justified.
On the other hand, Locke believes that humans are actually inherently good and co-operative and the state, which arises from their free will, is only but their servant, not the scary Leviathan, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau adding the element of being born free as critical in that equation.
As such the state, its decisions and actions are justified only when they serve the will of the people.
What is interesting in the behaviour of the South African state is that it is prescribing limitations to individual freedoms and liberties.
As such, its behaviour could be construed as that of a Leviathan that is preventing people who are prone to exercise their rights with no limits from doing so in ways that endanger one another, even inadvertently.
Based on the generally positive response to this action and the seeming calls for a lot more, some might think that South Africans agree that the type of state needed in response to the crisis is in fact a Leviathan.
However, this would be a gravely mistaken view.
The only basis for the seemingly obedient posture shown by the otherwise disagreeable populace is their perception of the risk of the spread of the virus and their trust that the government thus far is acting in good faith.
Should both the perception of risk and the levels of trust in government action shift, they will soon resort to their disobedient and opposing ways.
This should be a warning to authorities that they must continue to act in the best interest of the public and continue to communicate information that helps achieve a common understanding of the risks facing us in order for them to continue to enjoy the generally positive support they are getting because it is circumscribed. It is not a blank cheque.
For that reason, boldness and decisiveness in government’s response must be balanced with consensus building, whether the latter comes before or after decision or actions have been made or taken.
Ongama Mtimka is a lecturer, researcher, and political analyst based at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity.