Dear Mr President, the paradox of leadership during Covid-19

THERE is a paradox in philosophy, one popularly referred to as Buridan’s Ass. It tells the story of a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty, and placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. The paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, and therefore it dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision between the hay and water.

Similarly, South Africa is caught between two seemingly contradictory paths, both of which necessitate immediate and urgent action.

On the one hand, we are required to combat a ‘killer virus’, a virus whose impact upon our health and the health of our broader population is only beginning to be understood. If we do nothing, we risk inundating our health care system with casualties, and incurring unacceptable loss of life.

On the other hand, we are dependent upon our economy, for our livelihoods and way of life. Not simply our lives, but the very manner — both way and means by which we as individual households, survive year to year. We are all stricken by the need to feed and clothe our families, forced to pay our way, our rent and our bills. It matters not whether one believes necessities of life exclude alcohol or the nails one uses to repair ones roof, or whether we do depend upon smokes or the tools one uses to fix ones walls.

If we cease to engage with our economic imperatives, we also risk death — incurring unacceptable, diminished living standards, shortened life spans and negative health outcomes as we move forward.

That the burden of disease is also the burden of hunger, has already been written about here at length, and only a fool would suggest otherwise, to engage in a binary debate between people’s lives and livelihoods. Both are equally important.

The conundrum is similar to a patient forced to take medication. The list of side-effects may turn out to be worse than the disease. The cure may kill us all.

To complicate matters, there are urgent human rights and serious civil freedom predicaments that have compounded the situation. What appears to be nothing less than a silent coup, occurring the world over, a creeping Global Police State and a major shift in national and international imperatives.

Bar the health agenda, it is with almost zero constitutional backing that our own government has embarked upon a drastic course of action, (taken alongside other governments both across the continent and the world), with outcomes that appear to result in a blatant seizure of power in favour of the national executive.

Power taken without debate, taken away from Parliament in favour of the Executive, power usurped from the Courts, without checks and balances in favour of a centralised authority, the so-called National Command Council (NCC). The erosion of democratic institutions which have characterised our republic for decades and likewise many other democracies, is further reflected in local authorities pulling away from democratic norms and standards .

That the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) in South Africa has admitted it was an “error of law” on its part not to investigate the alleged role played by the Johannesburg Metro Police in the death of Collins Khoza at the hands of the SANDF is to be welcomed.

But a lot more needs to be done to preserve the rule of law in our country.

For starters, recognition that the SANDF may only act in an adjunct or auxiliary role to the Police during a National Disaster — the courts and justice system must be seen as primary during such a difficult period, especially one where the metaphor of war is easily bandied about, but where no actual war has been declared. Even then, we are a democracy and expect the democratic will and rule of law to prevail.

There are troubling signs that local authorities also wish to curtail rights not to be subject to search and seizure without a warrant.

The lock-down certainly has a sell-by-date and it is surely an extraordinary act of chicanery for us to believe that powers emanating from a piece of legislation designed primarily to deal with natural disasters such as hurricanes, drought, famine and earthquakes is fit for the purpose of public health initiatives taken over the past month?

Parliament must return to its civic duties, and the justice system must resume its oversight role. The many rules, bylaws and regulations must be debated by our elected representatives, and the NCC must explain why it is that they find themselves unable to choose between a stack of hay and a bucket of water, unable to speak to the absence of a vaccine and the problematic of herd immunity, unable to come through for those who demand alcohol or tobacco? Stricken as it were, by the enormity of what they have done, in seizing power over the commons.