OPINION: As the stomach churns

Norman McFarlane

In the very early days of television in South Africa the pickings were slim because of the cultural boycott, ably implemented by Equity, the British actors union, which meant that pretty much everything worthwhile coming out of the United Kingdom, never appeared on our little screen.

The American television industry by contrast, seemed to be a great deal less sanguine about enforcing the cultural boycott, so our screens were graced with whatever was available, as cheaply as possible.

Much of it was execrable, but because it was “from overseas” most viewers devoured it willingly.

An exception was the Carol Burnett Show, which, if one enjoyed biting satire, made for satisfying viewing.

The cast included the likes of Harvey Korman and Lyle Wagonner, who, together with Ms Burnett, did a regular slot during which they mercilessly lampooned the numerous American soap operas that graced television screens every day of the week.

The title of the slot was As the stomach churns, and for good reason, because it depicted the nauseating banality of soap operas, suggesting, and rightly so, that if you watched just one episode of any of the daily soap operas playing at the time, you’d know exactly what was hapenning in all of the others you’d not watched that day.

Watching events unfold in South Africa right now, is like watching one of those nauseatingly banal 1970s soap operas, in which even the most gullible of viewers end up anticipating each twist and turn in the plot line, often well before it unfolds.

Each time we hear that President Ramaphosa is to address the nation on the latest developments in government’s risk adjusted strategy to the Covid-19 pandemic, social media is rife with memes predicting what is likely to be revealed.

Most recently, after the education unions stretched the ruling party government over a barrel – there are plenty around with the ongoing collapse of the wine industry – and publicly caned it to within an inch of its life, the prediction was that Mr Ramaphosa
would announce the closure of schools.

And he did, despite the advice of the medical and scientific experts on the MAC (ministerial advisory committee), that closing schools at this juncture would do little to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Which makes the decision entirely political, and designed to mollify a critical component of the ruling party’s electoral support base in the lead up to next year’s local government elections. Pour encourager les autres, it seems, is of greater consequence than is the academic wellbeing of the children.

By like token, social media speculation that measures to alleviate the plight of the hospitality industry that is haemorrhaging worse than a terminal Lassa fever patient, would enjoy not a mention, also proved to be right.

It’s as if the groundswell of public discourse about the state of the sector is unfolding in another universe. Or perhaps it is the NCCC (national coronavirus command council) that lives in that other universe.

As predictable, was the violent response by the SAPS to the peaceful protest by the hospitality sector in the Cape Town city bowl, intended to appeal to government to help save the thousands of jobs that are forfeit, if the restrictions on the sector are not eased sufficiently to allow trading profitably enough to retain staff and maintain a going concern.

And equally as predictable has been the loud silence on this issue since then, despite widespread media coverage of the peaceful demonstrations, and the violent response thereto.

The Restaurant Association of South Africa, which has appealed for an easing of the alcohol ban and lifting of the curfew, reports that “the Presidency had acknowledged their memorandum and was looking into the matter”, to be discussed by the NCCC on Saturday,
but predictably, at the time of going to print, there had been no reaction.

There seems to be no nuance in governments’s approach, no compromise. It’s either all, or nothing.

After each announcement by President Ramaphosa, we wait with bated breath for the pronouncements by his ministers, which are supposed to fill in the gaps in the broad-brush picture he paints with each fireside chat.

And what unfolds, is of course, entirely predictable.

It will be laboured, counterintuitive, often contradictory and confusing, and equally often, gleefully triumphal.

Who can ever forget the relish with which Police Minister Bheki Cele explained the implications of the first alcohol sales ban.

The ongoing war with the tobacco products industry is a soap opera in its own right.

That government has won each round in the court battle thus far, does not mean that it is right, just that it has deployed legal counsel clever enough to win each legal argument.

The judgment in the inital matter was quite explicit: the court was not in a position to rule on which litigant’s scientific evidence had the greater merit.

Rather, its purview was limited to determining whether or not the respondent’s actions – banning tobacco sales – was rational.

The judgment pointed out that as long as the actions taken are intended to achieve the objective of the state of disaster – to whit, to save lives – then those actions and their consequences, whatever they might be, are deemed to be rational in law, even if they do not save lives.

Which makes the subsequent response by government on the tobacco ban – doubling down despite overwhelming evidence that the ban is ineffective – entirely predictable.

And so, as the lockdown, now in its 20th week, drags on, the cooperation of the population, upon which government is heavily reliant in its efforts to contain the spread of the virus and respond effectively to the rising infection rate, is no longer a forgone conclusion.

Society may be at odds over the alcohol and tobacco products bans, but the need to wear a mask, to sanitise hands, and to maintain social distancing, although initially overwhelmingly accepted as an essential response to contain the spread of the virus, may well fall victim to the increasing inclination to lift the middle finger to each new set of regulations.