Observations on Freedom Day – Personal Freedom During Lockdown

After five weeks of one of the harshest lockdowns worldwide, South Africa will start opening up to economic activity from 1 May 2020. Although I felt relief when our president did not extend the hard lockdown in one of his regular TV appearances, I am not sure if our lives will change at all for the next few weeks.

The severe limitation of basic fundamental rights will continue. Even worse, there seems to be very limited public discussion. I submit that the planned steps indicate a lack of trust by the state towards its citizens.

Similar to load-shedding schedules, we will have five alert levels, Level 5 being total lockdown and Level 1 entailing the least restrictions. Clearly a lot of thought and work from experts has gone into this framework. The phasing in of various sectors of the economy and the ability to have different alert levels per province and even per district makes sense. The criteria is rational and clearly outlined in the various government documents explaining their framework.

I do not want to go into too much detail about the differences between the various levels, the apparent flaws and contradictions. I have submitted my comments on the Level 4 restrictions to the government as well as through the American Chamber of Commerce.

Two main points worry me, though. Firstly, the national command council (interesting name! one could have thought of a less military-sounding one) is filled with quite a few politicians who have been very influential under the Zuma area and lack understanding, or at least interest, for the needs of businesses and their employees. Economic considerations are still not high enough on the agenda.

Secondly, it appears that the state is of the opinion that basic freedom is granted to us citizens. This is not the case. Fundamental rights are not presents by the state, which can be taken away, if we do not conduct ourselves appropriately. With every additional day the threshold for the state to limit our personal freedom should be higher! Clear, rational and data-based arguments should be put forward. The default position should be as much personal freedom as reasonable possible.

To be clear, I am not advocating for zero restrictions. Not all freedoms are equal. There is a difference between a rugby match in front of spectators or the right to demonstrate, between a visit to a pub or religious gatherings in small groups (with lots of space between the attendees and face masks).

Of course the state cannot do everybody justice and there will be unfair regulations.

However, the guidelines for the state should be clear.

Trust your citizens to act responsibly in the spirit of protecting others, as well as ourselves.

Thus, grant us as much freedom as possible as soon as possible, it is our fundamental right, and not yours to give.

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By Andreas Krensel