Candice Bailey is a Political Studies PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand looking into the Promotion of Access to Information Act and how it enables democracy.
SOUTH AFRICA enters a new phase of its ongoing COVID-19 fight this week, loosening the grip on a variety of regulations introduced in mid-March to try and contain the spread of the deadly virus. The latest stage of the lockdown takes place as South Africa marks more than 30 000 COVID-19 cases and close to 700 deaths.
Level three means that most of the economy opens up, a large cohort of workers return, previously forbidden goods such as alcohol go on sale and the night-time curfew is lifted. Social distancing is still a must, as is wearing masks in public and so is vigorous handwashing. Staying home as much as possible is still the best course of action and interprovincial travel remains prohibited, with the exception of business travel and those attending funerals of close relatives.
At this time the government is relying on the public to take collective responsibility for the management of the virus. Providing definitive guidance and information to the citizenry is more important now than ever before. One critical issue is the need for people to understand the severity of this pandemic, how easily it can spread and the fact that even the simple day-to-day tasks we carry out can put us at risk of contracting the virus.
But the concern here is that the government’s track record over the last 9 to 10 weeks with providing definitive guidance hasn’t been great. This may have disastrous consequences for the South African government which should be seen as the most reliable authority on COVID-19 guidelines.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial address announcing lockdown measures put everyone at ease. The public felt informed and in control. But as the lockdown has progressed, Ramaphosa and members of his cabinet have created scenarios of pandemonium. At certain points there has been clear definitive communication on the lockdown rules. On other occasions the public has been left in pockets of vast uncertainty caused by inconsistent messaging and uncoordinated communication. Sometimes the goalposts have shifted. At other times critical statistical information has been left out when engaging with the public.
Some government officials have made about turns mid-regulation, while other ministers have bordered on an authoritarian approach, threatening the public about regulations. There are countless examples. The to-ing and fro-ing of when exactly public schools would reopen, is a case in point. The sale of cigarettes and tobacco products is another. The actions of some soldiers when implementing enforcement can be added to the list. And a clear explanation on why the Western Cape has higher figures than the rest of the country and why its engaged in a different testing model is another question that has not been convincingly addressed.
The other worrying trend emerging is the seemingly reluctant stance of Provincial Government officials in the Western Cape to adhere to national decisions, creating confusion.
Although there are mechanisms that the public could use to comment on regulations, this has also been a clouded issue. It’s still generally unclear how the public can comment on the regulations. Is there a central place where the public can lodge their comments? And what about those in rural areas – with limited access to electronic communication – how do they make sure their voices are heard?
We are in unchartered territory – and to a certain degree the government must be commended for rolling with the punches and taking definitive action very early on in the pandemic’s cycle. But there are times that they have gotten it very wrong. The good thing is that they were able to admit when in practice certain regulations were just not workable and they needed to be amended accordingly. The decision not to sell baby clothing in level 5 is a clear example of how one sector of the citizenries needs were completely overlooked.
COVID-19 will be around for a long time and the only way citizens are going to survive it is if they get information they need – and are able to make informed choices about the issues that affect them.
Renowned Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has published one of the most notable discussions within modern democratic theory on the need for information in democracy. In the time of COVID-19, we need to remember these words and ensure that the information we receive is not only provided consistently, but also that it is reliable and above all accurate. In his seminal work The Idea of Justice, Sen discusses the role that the media plays in society, drawing on the links between the media and public reasoning. He speaks of an informational role the media play in disseminating knowledge, allowing critical scrutiny and facilitating public reasoning. He also emphasizes the importance of “general information” about what is happening where. One of Sen’s poignant illustrations is that of famine. He argues that “famines do not take place in functioning democracies” – and that the media have an important role in this because it points to the protective power of political liberty. Sen says: “When a government is accountable to the public, and when there is free news-reporting and uncensored public criticism, then the government too has an excellent incentive to do its best to eradicate famines.” Sen was speaking about the Bengal famine of 1943 where an estimated 3 million people died.
The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be compared to the Bengal famine. But it is an unprecedented global health crisis with more than 6 million people infected and more than 370 000 people dead. The estimates are that in South Africa, at least 45 000 people will die from this virus.
There are two important points that Sen makes. Firstly, public dialogue about the calamity can make the fate of the victim a powerful political issue which ultimately has an impact on voting. But it is also able to make people take an interest in the matter through public discussion. The second point concerns the informational role, which provides the public with knowledge. What this suggests is first and foremost that democracy has a role in creating informed citizens, and mechanisms such as freedom of access to information can be used by the media to effect accountability.
The ruling of the Pretoria High Court this week shows that the judiciary also has a role to play in ensuring the dissemination of clear and precise information. It must do this by admonishing the government when it errs in drafting or enforcing regulations. The court’s decision to send the government back to the drawing board and focus on drafting level 3 and 4 regulations that are in line with South Africa’s constitution is an indication that its democracy is alive and well.
If the South African government wants the support of the public, they need to clean up their communication act. South Africans expect them to provide clear precise and well considered communication. And they need to remember that in a democracy you need to subscribe to a brand of governance that is citizen-centred. People need to feel considered and listened to. The public don’t want their concerns to fall on deaf ears. They want to feel like democracy is functioning in the face of the global health crisis.
The expectation of the electorate as a collective is not that each individual’s preferences and requests be met, but that the needs of the citizens are dutifully engaged and considered when decisions are made. South Africa has a mixed participatory and representative democracy, but for citizens to truly participate, they need to be well informed. Accurate information gives citizens the ability to effectively live their lives. If the status quo remains and the government fails to adequately share information, our democracy and our freedoms, such as access of information that holds it together, will be on a slippery slope.