A shadow is cast across the nation. The spectre of death, the hopelessness of sudden loss and, in many cases, the indignity of suffering that deepens the pain.
Those political leaders who foolishly spoke of Covid-19 as “just a bad flu” have, thankfully, fallen quiet — shamed, I hope, into silence, embarrassed by their cruel, unthinking assessment of the risk that lay ahead.
These are the hardest times, as they were always going to be. The hard lockdown could never hope to contain the coronavirus, merely delay its surge.
The sharp question that must be posed in the inquiry that must in due course follow, will be whether the government used the two months that the lockdown bought it to prepare the public healthcare system as effectively as possible for the later spike in serious illness. But that is a question for another time.
Now is not the time to point fingers and play the blame game. Those opposition politicians who seek to exploit the death and misery that is increasing by the day will be judged as rash and callous opportunists.
Yet nor should the need for unity and solidarity at a time of grave national crisis be an excuse for avoiding the truth — the pandemic turns a piercing spotlight on both the shortcomings in public administration, exposing all of the many weak links from the top to the bottom and from east to west and north to south, and on the structural inequality that means that well-off South Africans can get excellent private healthcare while poor and working class people are exposed to a public system that is woefully inadequate.
Although the government has won most of the legal challenges — primarily over middle-class frustration with “unreasonable” regulatory restrictions — it has also lost two that are painfully revealing.
First, in the Collins Khoza case in May, the attempt to cover up the unlawful killing of an innocent civilian by the army. Second, last week, the high court’s withering judgment over the suspension of the national schools nutrition programme, which has caused hardship and hunger.
These represent failures of the highest order, for which the respective cabinet ministers should have been held to account by the president. His apparent failure to do so reflects poorly on his judgment and strength in office.
Perhaps a society that has become accustomed to cruel behaviour from its government is now so inured to being treated with contempt that it will not make a difference. Or perhaps, along with the pain of personal loss caused by Covid-19, it will be the last straw.
In the end, the political — and then electoral — assessment that people will have to make will be this: Does the performance of this government, led by this president, make up for the failures of the ANC in power over the past nearly three decades?
Again, that time will come — next year with the municipal elections. A great deal of political and economic water will have flowed under the proverbial bridge by then, rendering any predictions about the likely effect of the pandemic largely useless at this point.
But on the policy front, the early contours of a post-Covid-19 society and economy are beginning to form — or at least, the outline of a vision of what might be possible.
Already the contestation over control of “the future economy” has begun. Position papers have been prepared and published by, among others, the ANC, Business South Africa and progressive economists led by Institute for Economic Justice, with 350.org and the Climate Justice Initiative, which is well worth a read.
Now it is the government’s turn. What can it come up with and who will take up the baton and run fastest with it? Therein lies a sub-level of contestation. There are competing worldviews in the cabinet. In many respects, although most of the venally corrupt authoritarian populists have been excised, at least from that echelon of government, the cabinet represents an amalgam of many of the different ideological pieces of the ANC.
Ramaphosa’s leadership task is to overcome the contradictions and to defuse the dog-fights to ensure that they do not clog up the decision-making system in the way they have repeatedly done since he came to power over two years ago. Disputes essentially centre on the role of the state and the extent to which the government is willing to cede ground to private investment, especially in relation to Eskom’s tortuous re-structuring and, of course, in terms of what to do with beleaguered SAA.
The ANC paper, produced by its economic transformation committee, offers this interesting recalibration of what the development state is: “A developmental state does not necessarily mean higher levels of state ownership, but it does require that the state is able to provide strategic guidance to the operation and direction.”
In cabinet, Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel is eager to think beyond the immediate crisis and to identify the strategic levers that could unlock trapped economic development potential and exploit new opportunities that arise from the global effect of the pandemic — such as the need to shorten supply chains and create greater resilience to such system-level shocks though enhanced industrial and agricultural “localisation”.
Economies are complex and skittish creatures. Given deep-lying weaknesses in both human resources (that is, shamefully poor public education) and in government administration — not to mention the ongoing threat posed by chronic levels of corruption — the options are ostensibly limited.
Much greater imagination and “thinking out of the box” is required. Necessity must be the mother of all invention.
Despite the fiscal constraints, there are at least three potential game changers. One is a basic income grant, which in recent days has emerged as a serious runner almost 20 years after it was first proposed by the BIG (Basic Income Grant) coalition in 2004, but which was contemptuously swatted aside by the Mbeki administration as being unaffordable (and distasteful politically, thanks to the unwelcome support of the Democratic Alliance).
Now the question is: Can South Africa afford not to introduce it? The current welfare system — perhaps the greatest achievement of the ANC government since 1994 — only goes so far. It plugs gaps. But it does not address a core need in a society where employment is now as rare as hen’s teeth. The case for it has grown and may now be unanswerable.
Second, a similar effect may happen to the National Health Insurance. A just society cannot tolerate subjecting the majority to people to inadequate health services.
The pandemic is making another unanswerable case.
Having a basic income grant and the National Health Insurance will require tough, brave decisions involving reallocations of the national budget and probably higher taxation. Those paying tax will have the right to ask for some things in return: an end to state corruption, and accountability and jail for those who loot; an end to internal squabbles about policy and the removal from cabinet of people such as the minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, who defiantly obstruct progress on a “green energy revolution” away from a high carbon economy.
This is another game-changing opportunity that was outlined in the State of the Nation address by Ramaphosa in February and on which there has been no action to execute any of the six elements in the months since.
This is inexcusable. The president not flexing his muscle to insist on urgent action reveals either a meekness or a lack of strategic wit. One may be forced to conclude that it is asking too much of Ramaphosa, who has many strengths and qualities, but who may have reached the limits of his leadership capability.
He has to show that he is not just a “good executive level manager”, but a true leader capable of stretching the “art of the possible” as far as the moment in history demands.
That is not to incite autocracy, but to implore the use of the authority of the presidency, and the urgency of the moment, to really lead.
That kind of leadership means taking political risks. It is time to shed the dead weights, duds and the mavericks in the cabinet. A reshuffle is urgently required, even in the middle of a crisis. If necessary, Ramaphosa should form a government of national unity. (Unfortunately, the Constitution limits the number of “outside talents” that can be appointed from beyond the ranks of parliament to two. Instead space must be made for expert technocrats to co-ordinate policy and strategy from the top of government).
If the Ramaphosa presidency is to add up to more than a string of undelivered promises, then he must make policy choices that may be internally unpopular — and even hazardous — but which are needed if the post-Covid-19 economy is to be anything other than a dishevelled stumble back to the old, dysfunction “normal”.
This is the moment, Mr President. Now or never. Seize it.