Richard Calland: CR’s tough test amid politics of pandemic

In politics there are always winners and losers. It is rarely anything other than a zero sum game. And at a time of extreme crisis, the stakes are not only higher, but the price of defeat — or the spoils of victory — can be even greater than at other times.

To borrow the crisp definition of politics coined by pioneer political scientist Harold Lasswell early in the last century, the question of “who gets what, when, and how” is a fundamental one for governments to answer at this time of crisis.

Unstated, at least in explicit terms, is the undercurrent that runs through the global response to the pandemic: Who should be protected and how?

Equally, a great deal of attention is directed to how decisions are taken and by whom. Hence, the understandable, though somewhat exaggerated, concern about the legal authority of the government’s National Coronavirus Command Council.

As a more contemporary political scientist, Adrian Leftwich, puts it, “politics is the process by which decisions are taken about the allocation of resources”. This is never more so or more acutely important than at a time of national disaster.


This is one part of the political dimension to the pandemic. Another concerns the partisan interests of competing political parties and factions. The government is in the limelight, inevitably, so, for the ruling party, Covid-19 provides an opportunity to rebuild lost trust with citizens, to recast a fractured social compact and to cement its grip on power.

For opposition parties, the focus should be on winning the “peace” rather than the “war”, since it is hard for them to find real space at a time when people are instinctively looking to the government to govern and take care of them at a time of personal precarity and uncertainty.

This means developing, and articulating, a strong and compelling vision for the post-Covid-19 future. When societies emerge, blinking, into the bright light of a post-crisis world they tend to not only be more open to, but also more expectant that leaders will be able to offer a very different vision for society and the economy and the state’s role in it.

Remember that in Britain, after World War II, it was not the “great” wartime leader Winston Churchill who won the post-war election, but Labour’s great reforming leader, Clement Attlee.

For President Cyril Ramaphosa this is a salutary lesson of political history.

Intriguingly, in the South African context this political axiom applies as much to factions in the ruling party as it does to opposition parties. So, for instance, in so far as it can properly be described as a “faction” — and it probably can’t, because of its lack of organisational structure and political muscle and coherence — those in the ANC and the Cabinet who are strong supporters of Ramaphosa’s reform agenda will do their level best to ensure that the crisis is not “wasted” and that certain structural reforms are fast-tracked.

This is what the market is hoping for; that advocates for structural reforms in the state-owned sector, for example, will now be more likely to overcome political resistance in the Cabinet and the ANC’s national executive committee than before the pandemic arrived.

By the same token, there is an enormous opportunity to fast-track the energy transition in South Africa towards a “green” low-carbon economy and away from the country’s deeply damaging dependency on coal.

Do not hold your breath on either score. A deeply entrenched political economy does not dissipate by itself — it will happen only if those in power are willing to use their power to chisel a transformational path through the swamp of vested interests.

So far, there is little sign that the president is able to see beyond the day-to-day management of the crisis or to overcome the stark differences in opinion among Cabinet colleagues about the extent of state ownership in the economy.

This is part of the leadership test that Ramaphosa faces.

The other part is directly connected to the government’s response to the pandemic. Unavoidably at such a time, a head of government cannot easily hide behind the Cabinet, however much they may wish to do so. An anxious society wants to hear from the leader — and regularly, which is why the long (almost three-week) gap between Ramaphosa’s third and fourth televised address to the nation was a blunder, because he is by far the government’s best communicator.

In that time, the credibility of the government’s response was stretched to breaking point.

Governing through the “collective” is an admirable mode of decision-making in many respects, especially when dealing with such a complex crisis. But a collective is only as strong as its weakest links. And Ramaphosa’s collective contains many links that are either unstable or else completely bonkers (Exhibit A: Bheki Cele, the minister for police).

Even though the macro strategy for combating Covid-19 was, and remains, sound, the government has tripped up on the micro. But if some issues — such as booze and fags, and exercise times — have been the proverbial peas in the princess’s bed, the irrational and reckless decision to permit religious gatherings throws a blood-covered horse’s head onto the mattress and undermines the credibility of the government’s strategy.

Not surprisingly, seasoned political heavyweights such as the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the trade and industry minister, Ebrahim Patel, have used the extra authority of their respective roles in the Covid-19 “inner Cabinet” to advance their own political agendas.

One should expect nothing less. Political leopards do not change their spots overnight. Dlamini-Zuma is not going to relinquish her decades-old distaste for smoking and the tobacco industry, nor suspend a deeply held belief that the state should step in to “nanny” it’s citizens.

No less comfortable with centralist governmental control and intervention, albeit with a different ideological hue, Patel will also see the crisis as an opportunity to advance “fair competition” and to use the Covid-19 trading regulations to loosen some of the market over-concentration that justifiably sticks in his socialist craw.

This is how ideology seeps into the pandemic response — slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but with increasing velocity as crisis management moves through its various phases.

It is no coincidence that four of the top five in the world league table for Covid-19 infections are countries led by nationalist populist leaders whose approach to mitigating the public health risk of the pandemic were at best reckless and at worse calculatingly callous, in keeping with their underlying ideological make-up: the United States (Donald Trump), Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro), Russia (Vladimir Putin) and the United Kingdom (Boris Johnson).

In the end, when the conundrum for government is how to strike a reasonable balance between the public health mitigation and economic recovery imperatives, the ideological slip of key political protagonists will begin to show.

How else to explain the Democratic Alliance’s flip-flop from “smart lockdown” to “hard exit” in the blink of an opportunistic eyelid? A political misread of historic proportions, it plays to its wealthy, capital-owning, business-elite base, but in terms of longer-term strategy it may well do great harm to its already fragile standing among the wider, more diverse electorate.

In contrast, the Economic Freedom Fighters have played a longer game, and have so far not succumbed to the trap that the DA has now fallen into of trying to “win the war”.

Yet, no sooner had Ramaphosa offered his fifth “May God Bless South Africa” on Sunday evening than the EFF had opened up its first front against the ANC government, accusing it of callously abandoning its public healthcare strategy.

Of course, this is nonsense. The government’s strategy all along — rightly — has been to use the lockdown to delay (not prevent) the spread of Covid-19 transmission, to give it time to put in place the necessary capacity to cope with the inevitable rise in infections and illness.

A great deal will now hinge on whether it has done so effectively.

The EFF’s strategy is clear: having waited patiently in the wings, surprising people by its constructive, almost muted stance, it is now positioning itself to blame Ramaphosa for future Covid-19 deaths and for “abandoning the poor”.

What will be important and fascinating to watch will be the extent to which the EFF’s positioning aligns with the fightback faction in the ANC, which has been almost entirely sidelined by the pandemic.

For the longer term, and for Ramaphosa’s future prospects, including whether he will get a second term, this is the political relationship to watch most closely.

This will be a delicate time, politically and socially. As the infection and death rates spike, the EFF will eagerly add fuel to the flames, while the DA will have boxed itself into a corner, lured by its hubris into a not-so-smart political lockdown of its own making.

For Ramaphosa, leadership will never be lonelier.

Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of political risk advisory, the Paternoster Group

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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