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Best to choose battles wisely


One would have hoped that protests against the government during the Covid-19 crisis would have been more about life and death situations, as opposed to reactions against limitations on individual freedoms, says the writer

WHEN we look back at the Covid-19 pandemic one day, we might remember the last week of April and the first week of May 2020 as the period in which many South Africans reached the end of their tolerance levels with the lockdown and the regulations.

It was the first time, after more than five weeks of being in lockdown, that many South Africans started publicly questioning some of the government’s decisions. The questions came from all quarters, but on many social media platforms, some “political commentators” have blamed much of the criticism on the white community who, they have argued, find it difficult to be restricted by a black government.

It would have been wonderful if it were that easy. But nothing in South Africa is ever easy. We all knew the lockdown would test our tolerance levels. It was just a matter of when many of us would snap.

Yes, there has been disproportionate outrage from certain sectors about things like the government’s 360-degree about-turn on the sale of cigarettes or that it decided to allow the nation to exercise for three hours a day – 6am to 9am – a cold and dark part of any autumn day. There have also been renewed calls for the government to consider lifting the ban on alcohol sales, with threats of legal action, and nothing being confirmed.

There has even been an unprecedented “mass” protest by surfers demanding the right to return to the sea. This would have been funny if it were not stupid.

Some have compared their protests or the lockdown restrictions to apartheid and the resistance against it. I wonder if the surfers are aware that many of the beaches were reserved for whites only during apartheid and that when we tried to liberate the beaches by insisting on swimming there, the police reacted with violence.

One would have hoped that protests against the government during this crisis would have been more about life and death situations, as opposed to reactions against limitations on individual freedoms.

For instance, the fact that the education authorities are considering opening schools despite the potential danger to millions of schoolchildren and their teachers, is something worth protesting about.

It is irresponsible to reopen schools at the height of the pandemic and condemn millions of poor children and their teachers to an uncertain.

While some of the protests and outrage have been portrayed as a white versus black phenomenon, that would be the lazy way to interpret it. It is easy to see everything in terms of race, when often an economic lens would be better. The black middle class shares a lot of the concerns raised by their white counterparts, but have mainly chosen not to raise them publicly.

However, just because concerns seem to come from certain sectors only, does not mean they should be dismissed. We don’t want anyone to feel their ideas don’t matter because of their race or class position.

Those who have been protesting about restrictions on their “freedoms” should consider that, in a country as unequal as South Africa, most people do not have the luxury to protest. Most people just want to get something to eat and to put food on their family’s table. Many poor people fear being killed by hunger more than by the coronavirus.

I have never believed in merely complaining; I have always tried to look for solutions. The energy spent complaining about the government could have been better spent looking for solutions to the many problems in our society, most of which existed way before Covid-19.

* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA