19th July 2021
If you’re looking for reasons to think we’ve fallen over the cliff, you don’t need to look very hard. It’s on our television screens, all over social media, it’s in the queues now for petrol, and the jittery sense that prevails in retail outlets even far from areas of unrest and looting. It’s the dull sounds that puncture the day: faraway explosions of just daily activity?
The opinion pages of this newspaper in recent days, seeking to capture the lawlessness and criminality that have taken hold and the resulting national mood, have been replete with metaphors of mazes and dark woods. It would be naive indeed to pretend that what we’re confronting isn’t deeply sinister and of the shadows.
Still, the danger of unmitigated darkness is that it may leave us blind to how near to the clearing we may actually be. Take the national vaccination programme. No one can pretend that it was planned for and rolled out with the requisite government efficiency, and without endless agitation and interventions by parties outside the state, but it is now properly underway. Many of our senior citizens and the most vulnerable are fully vaccinated. Registration of those aged 35 – 49, a hefty swathe of the country’s most economically active, begins at midnight tonight with actual administration of the vaccines to begin not long afterwards.
In 6-8 weeks, as spring takes hold, we can begin to imagine living our lives in a way quite different from that we have experienced for a year and a half. And whatever the agonisingly slow start, the mistakes and the failures committed along the way, once fully rolled out the vaccine programme will represent a signal national accomplishment – the execution of an unprecedented operation to secure and protect the nation’s health.
There’s something similar to be said of our country’s constitutional order. Right now, a former president is serving a sentence of imprisonment for the contempt he showed the country’s highest court. Writing of these events in the Financial Times this week, Gideon Rachman wrote: “If a ruler can eliminate the independence of the courts, the door is open to the destruction of democracy, untrammelled corruption and the suppression of freedom of speech.”
Zuma’s imprisonment is, he says, “a tribute to the robustness of the country’s legal system.”
Whatever other factors might be fueling the looting and criminality, there can be denying that those who have instigated and incited it have sought to do so as vengeance for the act of imprisonment and as leverage. If they too are brought to book, if there is no capitulation to their most cynical manipulations, our constitutional democracy may be stronger not weaker for this episode.
I write this not naively unconscious of the fact that these two potential successes – in defence of our physical health and our constitutional health – are, at this very moment as imperilled as the warehouses of Umbilo. Vaccine distribution has been disrupted, some vaccination sites closed down, Clicks and Dischem shuttered in KZN.
While law enforcement managed to secure the committal of Zuma, they have been all to often, and at best, nowhere to be seen in the unfolding calamity of the past few days, leaving ordinary South Africans to face escalating lawlessness on their own. Meanwhile, those inciting and instigating the attacks do so seemingly undisturbed on social media and over the airwaves.
But to recognise how near we come and what we stand to lose is also to recognise what we must fight for and not to be undone by hopelessness.
We need to make our voices count in the ways that we can and look to extend solidarity to those who have been made most vulnerable by these attacks.
So take heart South Africa and hold fast. If we can just get to that clearing … there will be no end to the work we still have to do but we will have passed the longest night.
Nicole Fritz is CEO of Freedom Under Law
This piece was first published in Business Day.