Covid-19 lockdown: ‘Democracy has not been suspended’

women still behind

Prof. Elmien du Plessis is a leading expert in land and expropriation law. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

North-West University law professor Elmien du Plessis certainly doesn’t shy away from engaging in difficult debates. As an expert in land and expropriation law she is often under scrutiny, but in the last five weeks she had to face her toughest audience ever: her own three children.

Like many South African parents, Du Plessis has had to find constructive ways to talk to her children about the covid-19 pandemic. This time around, though, she could not rely on years of comprehensive research and legal frameworks. Her children needed answers and they needed them fast.

“My older two are 8 and 11. They are great fans of (The Daily Show host) Trevor Noah, so I let him do the talking and we sort of discussed what he said,” Du Plessis tells Food For Mzansi during a recording of the popular Farmer’s Inside Track podcast.

Helping children understand the virus

Of course, Noah’s show is focused on a US audience, and she obviously had to find another way of talking to her four-year-old about the coronavirus lockdown. This was when she discovered a children’s book that helped her youngest child understand the virus.

She says, “There are a lot of nice stories for the younger ones. And the one story that I particularly liked was this story about butterflies. It said sometimes the butterflies go into a cocoon. While they are in a cocoon to become butterflies, it is really messy. It is yucky sometimes and I said, ‘This butterfly is in a cocoon. In our house we are also in a cocoon, but when all of this is over, we are going to emerge as butterflies.’”

Du Plessis certainly was not sugar-coating the sharp, direct and immediate impact of covid-19. “My father is quite old and he’s in a vulnerable group. My children know that I am worried. So, I think I am quite honest about my emotions and we deal with it. We say how we feel, but while this is messy and scary and we are sometimes sad because we can’t see our parents, grandparents or friends, in the end, maybe, we can emerge as butterflies out of it.”

Read more: Free lockdown learning tips for children

While the unprecedented lockdown has given Du Plessis and her husband more time to bond with their children, the family discussions are also worlds apart from the usual discussions on the structural problems of land redistribution in South Africa. As a NWU lecturer and constitutional law expert she has become one of the nation’s top thought leaders.

Previously, she was also invited to address pres. Cyril Ramaphosa’s land reform panel – an experience she won’t easily forget.

“I always ask myself, ‘Did I get my message across in a way that showed that I understood the human need, but also that the law regulates society?’ So, on a very personal level, I would have perhaps tried to do this in a way that was more empathetic, but since I didn’t formally serve on the panel, I did not really have the power to do things differently. I’m happy with the advice that I gave them.”

Agbiz chief economist Wandile Sihlobo and prof. Elmien du Plessis.

Also, she describes the final report of the presidential advisory panel as a “mixed fruit of various ideas which is great, but there wasn’t one definite goal that said: ‘This is what we want to achieve. It is very important to have a goal that you want to work towards to. Why do we want land reform? Why is it important? What do people want when they say they want land reform? Do they want to farm, or do they just want land to ensure that they won’t be removed from the land?”

In the podcast she also delves into new regulations to try and curb the spread of covid-19.

“It is difficult because on the one hand we are making laws by ministerial decree, and we must always be vigilant about that because ministers can abuse power. But it is also a time of quick decision-making so there are going to be many mistakes made. We must navigate our way through this always remembering that we remain a constitutional democracy. There are no rights that have been suspended. Democracy has not been suspended.”