Herd immunity is a long way off in South Africa. Credit: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images

January 8, 2021   6 mins

It was always going to be a dice, going home to Cape Town for the holidays. But, then, it was also always going to be a dice staying: the British situation could deteriorate, or the South African one might. As it happened, both did. Two vastly different nations, united by a Mutant Strain.

Three days after Christmas, at around 7pm, President Cyril Ramaphosa performed his version of Boris Johnson’s code red speeches: the ornate briefing room, the national flag, the fatherly tone of a GP proffering a late stage cancer diagnosis.

The situation had devolved, he announced. Rates were rising. Hospitals were filling up. Effective immediately, bars would close. There would be a national curfew of 9pm, and all the beaches would be closed. Alcohol, it almost went without saying, would be banned again. Only this time, to beat the bootleggers, the transportation of alcohol would be banned along with it.

South Africans largely shrugged. Every country wraps Covid around its national character, and here there is little of that John Bull spirit, of Magna Carta and “on whose authority”. In a perverse sense, it makes the whole experience much more doable — without the grinding cognitive dissonance of Brits begrudging every fresh filing down of their liberties.

Here, recent memory is more of the Native Beer Act, of dry Sundays and the rolling curfews of the 1980s State Of Emergency. Freedom may be hymned publicly, but the reigning ANC is at heart merely a different kind of corporatist state to the National Party that preceded it, with the same fetish for public ownership, the same centralising tendencies. What it lacked, till now, was the same cold steel of authoritarianism. Covid may have decisively changed that.

In March, the country had the luxury of a few weeks’ notice as to what was about to hit. Back then, it seemed obvious that Africa would be the hindmost that the devil took. Countries that were a virtual fiefdom of health NGOs, with the globe’s highest HIV rates, would be the driest tinder. The world wished the continent luck, and waved it goodbye.

Only, it didn’t turn out that way.

For a start, Ramaphosa was decisive and bold, as were many of the continent’s leaders. Nigeria was already screening airport passengers in February. Rwanda closed its frontiers on 19 March. South Africa would be put into strict lockdown, and the response would be overseen by a panel of medical advisers: SAGE, but with some direct authority.

A big gamble, for a place where there were no Rishi Bucks falling from heaven. Britain’s AAA credit rating means it can still defer its debt reckoning. But since South Africa was downgraded to junk in 2019, it has had to balance its books carefully. Eventually, a relief grant was settled upon for those left unemployed. It would be R350 a month. That’s £17. Not a typo.

But what had seemed like a Western luxury good, lockdown, did seem to work. By 20 June, only 1,877 deaths had been recorded, in a country of 57 million. And despite comprising a billion people, the continent as a whole made up only 4% of global fatalities. Even now, 195 million-strong Nigeria sits at just 1,324 deaths. Back then, people began talking about “the African Paradox”. In township slums that made real distancing impossible, the question became: why weren’t people dying?

“A young population” was one obvious answer. It’s hard to reach the average age of a fatality — 82 — when life expectancy is 63. But even infection rates remained persistently low.

In part, it seemed that this was because of early and forceful government action. In South Africa, borders were shut totally until October, and even now, entry is provisional on a PCR test, special travel insurance, and notification of abode. Britain did none of this. The same strictures also apply internally. Right now, key roads between the nine provinces are subject to police roadblocks. Passengers are temperature checked. The hot ones are immediately PCR tested.

In a land of cheap labour, many shops have employed staff to spritz every patron’s hands as they enter. Outdoor masks are compulsory: a measure about as scientifically useful as throwing your shoes at the sky to dislodge the clouds, but one that sets a tone, constantly drawing the bead of danger back to the front of the public mind.

This fit of decisiveness has come with some positive consequences. Hotheaded Police Minister Bheki Cele was mighty impressed, back in April, at how endemic burglary rates had tumbled thanks to the simple expedient of imprisoning everyone in their homes. On New Year’s Eve, the southern hemisphere’s biggest hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath, received precisely zero trauma patients. A minor miracle.

Sometimes it seems as though South Africans themselves have been stunned by their sheer compliance. The long arm of the law has always felt stunted here. Without the dense norms of Europe, people tend to just do what they feel. Yet now, a full hour before curfew, the suburbs are tumbleweed. Could it be that this country is suddenly falling into a mesmerism of law abiding? That something coltish is being tamed?

Deep down, the rule of law is nothing written down so much as a feeling: the uneasy sense that you will be made to answer, somewhere, somehow. Covid has demanded an unprecedented degree of surveillance. In the same way that Peter Hitchens is right when he argues that masks are symbols of assent to government policy, the pandemic has served to re-frame the kinds of people who have lived entire lives beyond the aegis of bureaucracy as being subjects of the state. This year, even the goatherds of KwaZulu have had to interact with the man from the ministry of mask-face-space.

As Aris Roussinos points out, state infrastructure and state competence are seldom correlated: the UK has all the gear and no idea. South African infrastructure is patchy, state competence is positively holey. But there is another quality beyond that, which comes into play in rare moments like these, when all the pieces are chucked up anew. It’s the question of what ordinary citizens actually perceive “common sense” to be — how the national character reacts to setbacks.

With far fewer resources, South Africa kept its exam system going through lockdown. In November, school leavers wrote their finals. The marking emphasis has been on maintaining standards, so that learners will have an equally valid qualification. Compare that to the quivering heap of cancellations and grade inflations that has slithered through British schooling like The Blob.

But all good things must pass. This week, the African Paradox resolved itself via an infection spike that is almost double that of the previous mid-year peak, and still climbing. Ambulance drivers are waiting eight hours to discharge their cargo. There are rumours of an oxygen shortage.

As it happens, our new wave also blows up what you might call the Ivor Cummins theory — that, as a respiratory disease, Covid-19 tracks winter very closely — which was sort of borne out by Covid’s return in the Northern hemisphere. Here it’s braai weather every day, yet the bug rolls remorselessly on. Increasingly, it feels as though Covid’s favourite victim is master-narratives. As we stagger into year two, it’s as if we now know less about the nature of our enemy.

Yet still almost none of the chatter here is about the “Mutant Strain”. In England, so far as I can gather, the Mutant Strain practically has its own talk show, Matt Hancock’s constant companion. But in SA, the government still has a measure of trust on the issue of the pandemic, and a huge majority in Parliament. The need to soft-soap each fresh lockdown to the public is absent. Mutancy or otherwise remains only a footnote to what’s playing out.

After all, why worry about an incrementally different transmission rate when there is still no finishing line in sight? In the vaccine bidding wars, Ramaphosa’s administration was reluctant to put multiple chips on the roulette table by laying down non-refundable deposits for various pharmaceutical trials. So it now finds itself at the back of the queue. For 2021, the aim is to vaccinate 67% of the population (to reach “herd immunity”). Even that can feel optimistic. An ANC administration that coined its own word for a crooked procurement contractor — tenderpreneur — will have to deploy all of its decisive authoritarianism to get that long-awaited vaccine distributed, and none of its talents at graft.

Of course, if there isn’t a more rapid vaccine rollout, then there will be time enough for the appearance of The Mutant Son Of The Mutant Strain, and so it could roll endlessly on, into 2022 and beyond in a kind of poverty trap.

In another sense, the finishing line was only ever the starting line to a new set of dominoes tumbling. In October, as economic activity finally surged back to life, so too did the rolling blackouts that have plagued the country for a decade. Once, we exported electricity to the continent. Now, years of chronic under-investment have crippled the power grid.

It was a reminder that, in fact, South Africa teeters between twin abysses. No one could really forget that, with a 28% unemployment rate going into the crisis — a worse figure than under Apartheid —  it has effectively added a nose dive to a nose dive. Through the pandemic, every state has had to find a pax between the economy and public health. Few others illustrate that dilemma quite so well, of how the two can become locked in a downward spiral.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.