SA enters a new world of freedom but Covid-19 pandemic is far from over

At midnight on Monday, South Africans entered a new world of freedom – after 145 days of ostensibly not being allowed to buy cigarettes, travel between provinces and drink alcohol (albeit since July 12). The strangest thing doesn’t appear to have been the mass absenteeism from work, endless queues and near pandemonium in bottle stores of yore.

Real cigarettes were another matter. Smokers dug deep to get enough of their favourite fags as they could afford after being forced to asphyxiate themselves for almost five months on illicit, over-priced knock offs that (if memory serves me correctly) often taste like a mix between three-day-old underpants and sawdust.

So, what does this tell us? There are two possible options; either we aren’t the inveterate problem drinkers that the amateur pulpit bashers have been telling us for weeks that we actually are – or the underground market was a lot more effective than anyone is letting on at meeting that demand. We’ll know soon enough when the trauma reports from emergency departments across the country are collated on Monday.

We have always been a country of hard drinkers, binge drinkers even, but the associated evils; in particular gender-based violence, didn’t miraculously evaporate during lockdown. Police Minister Bheki Cele’s officers arrested several hundred thousand people since the end of March, mostly for breaking the quarantine regulations – like bootlegging cigarettes or booze – but very few for actually raping their wives and girlfriends, beating up their kids or murdering their neighbours.

As for the kleptocrats bleeding the country dry with their tenderpreneurism – it comes as little surprise that they’re still at large. Their assets haven’t even been confiscated, so they’ll be able to brief the most expensive counsel with taxpayers’ money (or emergency COVID 19 funds) to forever avoid justice at the hands of an under-resourced, under-skilled and under pressure NPA.

For the rest of the country, it’s been fairly bleak. Jobs are haemorrhaging, salaries are being slashed and corporates collapsing. Strangely enough though, the job security of our politicians and our public servants – particularly all those outside of health, defence and law enforcement – seems guaranteed, indeed the unions keep threatening to strike to force through increases.

Some countries were alive to this from the get-go, New Zealand cut the salaries of cabinet ministers so that they would pass laws affecting everyone else under the same burden as everyone else.

COVID 19 isn’t over. There will be other peaks. We may even be forced to go into lockdown again. We might even lose the right to buy booze and smokes again – even if we can behave and even if there’s no scientific link between their consumption and infection.

When that happens shouldn’t our public servants, especially teachers happy to sacrifice the school year for their health while on full salaries or our MPs cosseted at home on Zoom calls ordering kids back to class, share the lived reality of the rest of the country who don’t have that luxury but whose taxes still have to pay for it? The next time we go back into lockdown, let’s slash their salaries by 40%.

Originally published on 22 August 2020 in the Saturday Star