Mbabane: Dear Prime Minister Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini. I hope this letter finds you well, as you help Eswatini navigate COVID-19 and the unintentional social impact of the policies you and your ‘crew’ designed to contain the virus. We appreciate your efforts and the goodwill underpinning them.
John Quincy Adams, son of John and Abigail Adams, who served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825 to 1829, once said: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
Born in Lyons, France, on June 29, 1900, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in his classic, The Little Prince, the prince tells the story of a king he met on a tiny planet far away. Speaking of authority and public obedience, the king opined: “Authority rests first of all on reason. If you command your subjects to go and throw themselves into the sea, there will be a revolution. I have a right to demand obedience because my orders are reasonable.”
Can our government demand obedience in respect of Covid-19 regulations on these grounds?
There wasn’t a murmur of dissent as you announced a 21-day lockdown. Even though we knew some businesses, particularly informal businesses, might not survive, we knew the sacrifice had to be made.
The idea was to achieve physical distancing that would limit transmission, thus avoiding unmanageable demand for our limited health facilities, including hospital beds and ventilators. Our medical services needed time to prepare, and obtain adequate personnel protective equipment.
At the time, nobody asked questions about reasonableness or legality; the need was self-evident.
The trouble started, Mr Prime Minister, when you announced an indefinite extension of the lockdown, with the promised backhander of a gradual relaxation of the restrictions on movement and commerce. This led to questions about whether the draconian restrictions, which devastated the economy and social wellbeing, were the best options the government had.
Observably, the two key challenges to the lockdown are social justice and reasonableness. Learned friends reminded you that all policies, including the Covid-19 regulations, must comply with the constitution’s equality clause and, by implication, the dictates of social justice. The constitution requires that no section of society should be unjustly and unfairly excluded from opportunities, resources, benefits and privileges. No group should bear a disproportionate burden under the Covid-19 rules.
But you need to know, Mr Prime Minister, that there are increasing concerns about the reasonableness of some of the Covid-19 rules. Like equality, reasonableness is also a legal requirement for policies. Section 33 of the constitution says: “Everyone has the right to just administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.” Now, you have conceded that some of the rules are contradictory. And I’m sure you’d agree with me that contradictory regulation cannot be said to be reasonable.
Expect more people to push back against the perceived excesses, since parliament, which is an essential check and balance, has been missing in action.
We must remember, Mr Prime Minister, that public policies and conduct must not only pass the reasonableness test in a court of law, they should also pass that test in the court of public opinion. The king in The Little Prince learnt that to derive legitimacy, laws must also be just, fair and reasonable in the court of public opinion.
However, most of those bearing the brunt of the draconian rules, who feel they’re being asked to throw themselves in the sea, don’t have the means to engage with you.
If I am correct in my observation, how long will our edifice hold?
How long will the cry of the young people in villages and townships — whose self-employment has ground to a halt, their unregistered businesses ineligible for loans and salary relief, go unheard? While the promised money from ENPF for those who have been laid off is fantastic, how long will it take to reach the poverty hotspots?
Instead, we read of food parcels and money being delivered randomly in a process tainted by corruption.
And if that money from ENPF does arrive, it is cold comfort for Mziyabantu, the parking attendant and Mhluthula the bar attendant and the part-time gardener or others doing casualised labour who still make twice the amount the ENPF would pay out — even if they were registered as employees.
You need to hear them, Prime Minister. You need to hear Gogo Jumaimah, who has been stopped from making the E200 a week she got selling hot bomasithandane or chicken nests (tilulu).
You need to think of those people running bottle stores and bars and those who had been working there. As we speak, they are not making even making a penny as you imposed another alcohol ban without providing empirical proof that the skyrocketing numbers of positive cases were as a result of alcohol. To me, you are using the alcohol ban to mask your government’s failure to provide a functioning healthcare system.
Alcohol is not to blame for shortages of hospital beds, the government is. In my observation, the decision to reduce costs on primary health and healthcare services was behind the current state of affairs, where there are not enough facilities to adequately treat the deadly virus.
To make matters worse, you unilaterally banned alcohol, with no regard whatsoever for how this will impact on workers in the sector.
Again, you and your Cabinet have made no plans for workers to receive salaries or some kind of income while the ban is in place and workers in the sector are facing an uphill battle with the government’s temporary employee relief scheme ending.
For time immemorial, has refused pump in more money in the health sector but instead, a lot of money had been going to the security forces without any justification.
History has it that when the law is unjust, violating it is not only justified as legitimate, it is exalted as heroic. Perhaps you can take a page out of John Quincy Adams’s quote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” And save the people of the Kingdom of Eswatini.