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27 March 2021 marks one year of lockdown in South Africa. It also lies at the end of Human Rights Week. In the fight against COVID-19, the South African government chose to embrace its most authoritarian tendencies, with the concomitant result that South Africans - particularly the poor - suffered great economic harms, not to mention infringement of their fundamental rights. The Free Market Foundation (FMF) reiterates its demand that government end the lockdown immediately and restore constitutional normalcy.
"Already there is talk that government should increase our lockdown level for Easter Weekend, when countless South Africans wish to gather for religious, familial, and recreational reasons. After the economic disaster that was last year's hard lockdowns, particularly during the December festive period, Easter Weekend could be just what many small businesses needed to keep their doors open. In the spirit of Human Rights Week, we implore government to back off when any plans to lock South African down again," says Chris Hattingh, FMF Deputy Director.
More than 11 million people are unemployed. In early March, StatsSA published its GDP numbers for the fourth quarter of 2020; South Africa's economy is projected to have declined by 7% for that year. Even more tellingly, in the same report StatsSA indicated that "GDP per capita peaked in 2014 in South Africa and has since been declining."
"Widespread structural, state-imposed barriers to growth and employment hobbled the country before the pandemic; COVID-19, as well as the government's draconian response thereto, served to exacerbate government-amplified inequalities and problems," commented Hattingh.
Human Rights Day was 21 March, last Sunday, and remembers the events of the Sharpeville massacre, in 1960. On that day, 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a crowd that had gathered in protest against the pass laws. The enactment of the Constitution during the 1990s was a promise that South Africa would never return to authoritarianism of this nature. The lockdown of the past year has represented an unacceptable relapse.
No objective measures have been offered by which to judge the success or failure of the hard lockdown. The National Coronavirus Command Council operates as it desires, with no clear date of expiration. No self-respecting Rule of Law-based democracy should entertain a shadow body such as this, regardless of whether it is conceived of as a Cabinet subcommittee. Regulations have been made seemingly at random; from banning the sale of chicken to certain items of clothing. The total tax revenues lost from the bans on alcohol and tobacco sales exceeded the R70-billion loan that the government received from the International Monetary Fund. With mounting pressure on the fiscus, those revenues collected could have been used to provide services and aid to suffering citizens.
Poorer South Africans have suffered the most from the arbitrary suspension of economic freedoms. Talk of extending the paltry R350 COVID-19 grant makes a mockery of the hardships that people have suffered the past 12 months, and misidentifies the 'solutions' for the country's current economic and social malaise - only radical reforms of the kind for which the FMF advocates, will bring the kind of transformative, empowering change and growth that the country needs.
The elevation and protection of civil liberties - freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, press freedoms, and freedom of choice in general - are not the norm. Throughout history, various individuals, groups, and governments have sought to undermine these sacred liberties, in response to various perceived internal and external threats. With more than 11 million people unemployed, it is imperative that South Africa pursue policies that strengthen civil liberties and economic freedoms. Government must never again wield the blunt instrument of hard lockdown.
The FMF reminds South Africans of their hard-won liberties - and how fragile these are. Going forward, the FMF will continue to advocate for the rational, principled, pro-growth policies and ideas that will turn the country into the kind of prosperous environment that people deserve.