The political rationale for lockdown regulations

The good citizens of the suburbs have struggled in recent weeks to understand the government’s Covid-19 lockdown regulations. Consternation and outrage have been induced by bans on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, a curfew, a narrow exercise window, disruptions to informal trading and the production of a curious catalogue of government-approved winterwear fashions.

To this catalogue of controversies we now have to add this week’s decision to reopen places of worship.

Such measures have often been interpreted as irrational or even vindictive impositions, intended to harass and punish particular groups of citizens, to reward special interests, to secure illegal campaign donations, or to advance the secret agendas of governing party factions.

Some observers have even discerned a rise of the securocrats, a move towards communist rule, or simply a descent into chaos, as ANC power brokers fight for ascendency in the National Coronavirus Command Council.

Internal ANC politics has certainly been messy. President Cyril Ramaphosa has waved his good news wand in the evenings, leaving his ministers to fill in the unpalatable details the next morning.

What, however, if government’s actions in fact reflect an underlying and coherent political strategy? According to a very old “theory of the median voter”, a political party needs to hang about somewhere near the centre of politics if it wants to win.

At one end of our political spectrum lies a grouping we can describe as the sinners, who have been government’s most vehement lockdown critics. They smoke, or drink, or like to take a late morning jog with their labradoodle. Some of them are even cyclists.

The sinners have been noisy antagonists. But there are not very many of them, and they are concentrated in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

Johannesburg’s sinners, on the whole, do not obey the law anyway. (Just try getting them to pay their traffic fines or e-tolls.) Their view is that the government should pretend to have laws and they will pretend to obey them.

According to the World Health Organisation, fewer than one in three SA adults is a drinker, although those who do drink are quite likely to be bingers. A quarter of alcohol was already illicit in pre-coronavirus SA, and unlicensed outlets outnumber licensed by two to one. The bingers have therefore mostly found underground sources.

As for cigarettes, it is surely not persuasive to claim, as the sinners have done, that cigarette bans have been both cruel and easily circumvented.

White, middle-class sinners have largely taken themselves out of the electoral equation. By voting remorselessly along tribal or racial lines, they have reduced the incentive for the government to pay heed to their grievances. Informal traders, for their part, have been scarcely courted by opposition parties, and many of them are unable to vote.

On the other side of the political continuum lie the vastly more numerous godly communities. Four out of every five SA citizens describe themselves as Christian. On top of that there are many other conservative faiths and traditionalists.

The 10-million Zionist, Apostolic, and Pentecostal church members openly live under strong injunctions to abhor promiscuity, alcohol and tobacco, but it’s not just the hardcore believers who are likely to support bans. According to an Afrobarometer survey in 2018, 60% of citizens believe women who receive child support grants spend too much money on alcohol. Worse still, more people agree than disagree that pensioners are alcohol spendthrifts.

They believe trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel’s sense of good fashion is a little racy. Many of them may indulge in the belief of a third of SA citizens that military rule is not such a bad thing.

What this all means is that SA has a vast number of God-fearing and deeply conservative electors, and a relatively small coterie of whingeing urban sinners. The latter don’t vote for the ANC anyway, and are not too aggrieved by the bans because the regulations can be circumvented.

When Ramaphosa said this week that “the faith community is an integral part of SA life and has made a great contribution in the fight against the coronavirus”, it should be added that its members are also the holy grail for ANC electoral strategists.

This country’s conservative population has not so far provided fertile ground for religious parties, but nor has it acceded authority to the liberation movement. This is where the real competition for votes in future elections probably lies.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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