Regulatory Justification and Coordination in South Africa

Geo Quinot

In a country that is still suffering from the wounds of apartheid, a system of government that imposed racially-based, oppressive regulation of every detail of people’s lives, the imposition of sweeping restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—while certainly not comparable—is nevertheless particularly troubling for South Africa’s young democracy.

The South African government declared a national state of disaster on March 15. The accompanying regulations—which affect every aspect of public life—as well as the national lockdown announced on March 27 impose significant restrictions on the freedoms that South Africans obtained only 25 years ago upon democratization.

Furthermore, as South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies, its people’s response to and ability to respond to the imposed restrictions are highly unequal. Some are dealing with the stay-at-home injunction in leafy suburbs with their nuclear families, in stand-alone homes, shopping online, and having groceries delivered to the door. This stands in stark contrast to the experience of people living in one of South Africa’s peri-urban informal settlements, often sharing single-room homes with multiple generations of family members, whose access to public services like sanitation and water is only in communal form and whose access to food is through informal traders.

Against this backdrop, the regulatory response to the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa is noteworthy for two primary reasons: first, because of how the government has justified sweeping restrictions with scientific expertise, and second, because of the challenges the government faces due to the lack of horizontal regulatory coordination.

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