There are limits to what a capitalist government can do in this crisis


The South African government must be called what it is: a capitalist government that has the responsibility of managing a developing country. It does not have the resources and institutions that governments of developed capitalist countries have at their disposal. It does not rest on vast sums of wealth accumulated by many decades of capitalist development,  colonial conquests and continuing imperialist domination. The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing capitalist crisis has left the governments of these advanced countries unable to cope. They have watched their health systems overwhelmed and their economies tank. What does this mean for a developing country such as South Africa?

The government is expected to jump into action and solve the crisis of access to basic necessities that millions of ordinary working-class people face on a daily basis. But can it? Is such a task within its powers? The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed this ongoing crisis to many who did not know about it or had forgotten it was there. It has prompted the government to implement measures and policies to address aspects of this crisis that many would not have believed possible a few months ago, including an unprecedented financial package and income grant for the unemployed. 

There have been arguments that the government is not doing enough, that it should be doing more. But there are limits to what this government can do. The question has to be asked: does this government have the capacity to solve this crisis? Does it have the power? And if it doesn’t, what then? Must people continue to struggle to survive, must people continue to live in poverty, or are there other alternatives to look towards? If capitalism and capitalist governments cannot solve this crisis, real alternatives need to make their way on to the agenda.

A crisis of basic necessities

The Covid-19 crisis has made it clear that most people living in South Africa do not have safe and secure access to basics such as water, sanitation, food and healthcare. But to be clear, these were issues before the crisis and they will be there after it. What this crisis has done is expose these issues and it has exacerbated them.

In the early stages of the outbreak of the virus in South Africa, there were calls from government and health experts for ordinary people to prioritise personal hygiene in order to avoid catching the virus. In this drive, it became clear that many people could not “just” wash their hands.

Now, some weeks into the lockdown, it is becoming clear that people do not have adequate and secure access to food. There has been a drive to provide people with food parcels, but it is not clear who will get this assistance – those on South African Social Security Agency (Sassa)  grants, those who applied, or everyone who needs food? The competition for scarce resources, combined with these unclear and insufficient measures, results in opportunism and will lead to more chaos. There is growing frustration and anger. Social grants will not solve the key issue: systemic hunger.

Access to healthcare is soon to become an even bigger issue than it already is. Public healthcare is notoriously overcrowded and under-resourced, and it will only be further overwhelmed. In the past few weeks it may, at times, have seemed that the worst could be escaped, that we have avoided the runaway outbreak of the virus which has overwhelmed other countries’ health systems. 

But it is becoming obvious that the worst has only been delayed. The shutdown has afforded the government some time to prepare the health sector, but the reality is that despite these efforts it will still be woefully underprepared for what is to come. In the coming weeks and months, the numbers and capacities of healthcare workers will be stretched beyond their limits. Personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers is already an issue, while the number of ventilators is another. As hospitals fill up and staff get sick, people will have even less access to healthcare than before.

The government’s Covid-19 interventions

It is true that the state has moved quicker than many will have expected or believed possible. But it is also clear that even this hasn’t and won’t be enough. 

In terms of water, millions of rands have been reprioritised from existing water and sanitation projects to implement stopgap measures. This recent article suggests that about 70 bulk water and sanitation projects will have to be delayed, meaning 21-million people across South Africa will have to continue living without a regular supply of clean water. The quick-fix solution has been for the already bankrupt department of human settlements, water and sanitation to throw money at procuring water tanks and pipes at high cost, but with no guarantee that water will flow through these pipes and into the tanks. Furthermore, it notes that there are still 24 areas (informal settlements and rural areas) around the country that are struggling for basic access to water.

The distribution and content of food parcels have proven contentious. There have been reports of food parcels being used for political gain. Trucks carrying food parcels have been ambushed by desperate people. And, this study shows the nutritional inadequacies of the standard parcels being distributed. On top of these issues, the distribution of parcels has been an organisational disaster. Massive demand has shut down call centres and departments have had to set strict criteria as to who qualifies. Government recently announced that another 250 000 parcels will be distributed across the country. This while South Africa’s population exceeds 55-million, a large proportion of whom are in need of assistance.

The government has also announced a temporary six-month coronavirus grant. This grant will mean that child support grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R300 in May and R500 for the remaining five months, while all other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 a month. A special social relief of distress grant of R350 a month will be paid to individuals who are currently unemployed and not receiving other grants. But these grants will do little to nothing in changing the livelihoods of households already in distress. R350 can possibly last one person a few days, or be stretched to a week. 

The health system is currently fragmented between the public and private sectors. It is highly inefficient at the best of times and will be weakened by Covid-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called on governments to repurpose and engage all available public, community and private sector capacity to rapidly scale up the public health system. This article urges the national department of health to follow the examples of Spain and Ireland to take complete public administration of the private sector, in contrast to the UK where the NHS has been forced to contract beds from the private sector at exorbitant rates. The latter approach could be catastrophic, potentially resulting in a bankrupt public health sector, while the former has no guarantees but would at least increase capacities and resources necessary to face what is to come.

Will any of this be enough?

From the above, it is clear that these interventions will be insufficient. They may limit but will not stop the spread of the virus. They most definitely will not solve the crisis of everyday life faced by the millions. The situation of many will get worse. Poverty will continue. All the government is able to do is try to manage the situation, to redistribute and repackage poverty. It can make it a little more bearable for some. It can focus its energies on alleviating this or that aspect. It can focus on this or that place. But it cannot solve the crisis. The millions will continue to struggle to survive.

Broader approaches will fare a little better. Interventions such as a universal basic income grant will not provide basic economic security to individuals and households as proclaimed by their proponents. That is unless they cover all the basics households require — in other words, unless they pay the equivalent of a living wage to all who require it. But this is well beyond the reach of what the government can do. It does not have that kind of money.

Poverty is an intractable problem that clever calculations cannot solve. Arithmetic and money won’t fix the situation.

Government’s limits and alternatives

No matter the sincerity of the initiatives undertaken, the broadness of the policies adopted, or the quantities of money spent, the government does not have the answers to make this crisis go away. None of the measures at its disposal can bring real solutions that will last. And as long as this is the case, people will be forced to struggle to survive, one way or another. Poverty will continue to engulf the millions and remain lingering on the doorstep of many others.

The politics of the government is first and foremost to protect the interests of the capitalist class. The government, which is responsible for upholding the Constitution and is bound by it, cannot venture too far beyond the laws of private property and profits the Constitution enshrines, even in times of emergency. And so it cannot take control of the means necessary to bring solutions. It will not take control of the wealth and redistribute it on the basis of need — an action that is necessary to deal with the crisis faced by the millions. 

This is the real issue here. That any real alternatives or solutions to the crisis of everyday life cannot come from a capitalist government. More is necessary. It is necessary to start pushing the government to do what it would otherwise not do. The focus is already shifted elsewhere, it is about those doing the pushing, those fighting for a different future. And it matters how this is done — with what kind of politics and to what end.

Socialism is not just a good idea, it is a basic requirement for the masses. It is a basic necessity. It is a real answer to the totalising problems faced by the millions. 

It is a vision of an alternative future, fundamentally different from the current barbaric conditions created by capitalism. It is based on planned production and distribution according to what people need (not driven by profits and the anarchy of the free market). And it requires that the ownership and control of these resources be socialised (not reside in private hands). 

Only a workers’ government that upholds working class politics and prioritises meeting the needs of the working class can solve the totalising crisis of everyday life that millions and billions of people are forced to endure today.

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Greg Dor
Greg Dor is a researcher with the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town

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