I spent a recent evening following a handful of South African policemen as they patrolled the dark, narrow streets of Alexandra township on the edge of Johannesburg.
It was an unsettling experience.
Every minute or so, the police would stop their van, jump out and – as people around them began to shout and run away – start to chase citizens more or less at random, it seemed to me, before shoving one or two of them into the back of their vehicle.
One woman wasn’t wearing a mask, an officer explained.
Another might have been selling contraband cigarettes.
Several people had, perhaps, been standing too close together, although it was hard to tell in the dark. And so on.
Lack of trust in the state
The whole process felt arbitrary and alarming – a clear abuse of authority.
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Media captionWATCH: Andrew goes on patrol with South Africa’s police
But in the days since then I’ve begun to think of that night in Alexandra in a different way; to consider not the police’s behaviour, but rather the hard-learned reactions of the citizens of the township.
To run. And then, if caught, to submit meekly.
It was, I think, a very clear expression of vulnerability – the behaviour of people who feel, instinctively, powerless to challenge the might of the state.
I’ve seen it often, both here in South Africa and – to a far greater extent – in other parts of the continent.
South Africa’s army has been called in to implement strict lockdown restrictions
Something similar applies to hospitals too.
I’ve heard – first and second hand – too many anecdotes about people whose relatives were admitted to underfunded public hospital with “a stomach ache” or “just a cold” and who were abruptly pronounced dead within days.
In other words, many people have learned to look towards the police and the medical profession not for salvation, but for something more nuanced.
Coronavirus in Africa:
It strikes me that an acute sense of vulnerability – not unique to Africa, of course – has characterised this continent’s response to the pandemic too.
Yes, there was some bluster in the early days about Africa perhaps being spared – and we still hear populists like Tanzania’s President John Magufuli trying to play down the threat.
But most people I’ve spoken to, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, have shown an increasingly intense and proactive determination to do all they can to protect themselves and their families, and – importantly – not to expect, or rely on, the state to do it for them.
In a sense, that same vulnerable mindset applies to most African governments too.
Africa acted fast and decisively
After all, this is a continent where tuberculosis (TB), HIV, malaria and dysentery still kill – despite impressive recent improvements in public health – millions of people each year.
Six main causes of death in Africa
1) Lower respiratory infections (10.4% of deaths): 916,851
2) HIV/Aids (8.1%): 718,800
3) Diarrhoeal diseases (7.4%): 652,791
4) Ischaemic heart disease (5.8%): 511,916
5) Malaria (4.6%)408,125
6) TB (4.6%): 405,496
Source: WHO – figures from 2016
And so, governments across the continent are already hard-wired to respond to new public health challenges like Ebola or Covid-19.
That is why they didn’t dither in the early stages of the outbreak.