SA needs to take stock of its porous borders and faltering health system

A queue of cars at the Maseru Bridge border post between Lesotho and SA last week, as residents and retailers of Lesotho head to SA to stock up on groceries and other essential goods after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day national lockdown. /AFP/Molise Molise
A queue of cars at the Maseru Bridge border post between Lesotho and SA last week, as residents and retailers of Lesotho head to SA to stock up on groceries and other essential goods after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day national lockdown. /AFP/Molise Molise

I write this as SA enters the first day of a 21-day lockdown period. With SA surpassing more than 1,000 infections and recording its first deaths from the Covid-19 virus, now is a time for critical introspection.

The crisis has laid bare the challenges we ignored or papered over for much too long - specifically as it relates to governance.

For much too long, our porous borders drew too little attention. Yes, Pretoria knew that millions of migrants streamed across these nonexistent frontiers and we ignored it. We knew organised crime syndicates trafficked people, drugs and other contraband across these frontiers and we ignored it.

As I watched spellbound as my government, like many other governments, cancelled flights from landing and cruise ships from disembarking in the light of the global pandemic, I hoped we as South Africans could once again exert control over our almost 10,000 kilometres of land borders.

For much too long, we knew that our health system was faltering. Despite these failings we have sought to bring about grandiose plans like a National Health Insurance system knowing full well that we were building castles on quicksand.

The economic costs were unsustainable and the idea of an inept state controlling such a complex process was apparent to all except the state apparatchiks with their misinformed ideological zeal. Health professionals, meanwhile, were voting with their feet and sought emigration, rather than confront the looming calamity.

The shortage of masks to nurses in hospitals as a result of Covid-19 has made these failures all too apparent. This, being perhaps the most visible manifestation of the crisis in this early stage of infections.

As the country emerges from this crisis, however, we need to seriously re-examine our health system, how we prioritise our available funds and overcome the various inefficiencies.

For too long, SA ignored the crisis emanating from our dysfunctional, inefficient and dangerous public transport system. On this first day of the national lockdown, healthcare workers had difficulty travelling to work. Minibus taxi drivers, meanwhile, flouted government regulations on how many passengers they could transport in a single vehicle.

This flouting of laws has indeed become a national characteristic of South Africans. While complaining about rampant criminality, ordinary South Africans are criminal in their negligence of or deliberately violating the laws of the land - from routine traffic violations to students engaging in violence at the country's universities, to striking workers destroying property.

On the first day of the lockdown, several South Africans ignored government warnings to stay at home. Such behaviour is not only selfish but constitutes a danger to all. This is particularly salient in light of the many South Africans who have compromised immunity systems as a result of being HIV positive and/or having tuberculosis.

Commentators have noted how countries with law-abiding populations tend to substantially slow down the spread of the virus. This selfish behaviour and more general lawlessness on the part of all South Africans has to end.

While the government has deployed police and the defence force, it is increasingly obvious that these forces are spread too thin. Given the need for public order and the inability of South Africans to practise self-discipline, what the country needs is a gendarmerie on the French model to assist the police.

One hopes that the current pandemic allows South Africans to engage in some critical self-reflections.

- Professor Hussein Solomon is Senior Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State, a Visiting Professor at Japan’s Osaka University and a Senior Research Associate of the Jerusalem-based think tank Research on Islam and Muslims in Africa (RIMA).

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