Being critical is not unpatriotic

22 March 2020

One of the best things to come out of the outbreak of coronavirus in our country is our unity of purpose, though, paradoxically, the same unity, without careful management, might be­come our undoing.

One of the benefits of having a charm­er like Cyril Ramaphosa as president is that in a time of national crisis, he’s able to charm those who ordinarily would be his nemesis into a social compact. This is both good and bad.

It is good because it shows that all of us are compatriots at heart. It shows that we all want this proud nation to succeed. It shows we all want minimum casual­ties of the virus to the extent possible. It is good because opposition politicians have, for a change, stopped criticising the ruling party for its sake.

This unity pact has silenced the opposi­tion. And therein lies our challenge: agree­ing that the government must tackle the coronavirus does not mean everybody else must stop thinking or abandon their roles.

We believe opposition parties, the me­dia and broader civil society can be crit­ical without being unpatriotic. While there is no doubt the entire nation is behind Ramaphosa, Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize and the cabinet col­leagues and wish them success, there is no doubt that the president and his team have no monopoly of wisdom on how to steer the ship that is our country out of this unprecedented, global health challenge.

The president has correctly set up a command centre to help him navigate us out of the clutches of this pandemic. But what positive – this being the opera­tive word – contribution can be made by opposition leaders? Do we just outsource all our thinking as society and wait for public announcements in the hope that those who take decisions can never err?

Our view is that civil society and opposition political parties have been demobilised or paralysed by Rama­phosa’s charm and, perhaps, fear of the pandemic.

We all know that Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster when only 62 people were infected with the virus. What, for example, is the thing about 62 that makes it OK to declare a national disaster?

Why not 40, 30 or 20? And what is the number of infections we need to record before Ramaphosa declares a state of emergency?

One of the important considerations, in our view, is whether or not Ramaphosa waited until it was too late to declare a disaster. Could it have helped to declare a disaster before the numbers hit 62? Would we have been able to contain the spread before it became rapid?

These are some of the issues we believe civil society, the media and opposition po­litical parties ought correctly to be seized with as we battle this virus that killed thousands in a short space of time, col­lapsed markets and threatens the wellbe­ing of all humanity. When we are seized with a challenge of this magnitude, a na­tion as diverse as ours ought to encourage multiplicity of voices – not a fickle unity occasioned by charm or fear.

With more than 240 people infected, the question, again, is: what number of infections do we need to record before ex­treme measures of a state of emergency are invoked? How do we properly venti­late this matter when all the critical but patriotic voices have been silenced?

This unity, if not managed, can be our undoing.


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