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Time for a Marshall Plan for South Africa

Last week’s closure of shopping malls, destruction of  infrastructure and burning of transport vehicles has many employees facing the prospect of economic exclusion. 

As small businesses were burnt to the ground, the usual problems associated with running a small business — underinsurance, high reliance on foot traffic and few support mechanisms — were again highlighted. 

The South African Special Risks Insurance Association (Sasria), became a feature of the national conversation due to its role as an insurer that specifically covers commotion, public order and strikes. Last week’s looting means many businesses will be able to claim with Sasria. For those who are outside the insurance coverage net, whether they can survive is a matter of financial resources and the courage to start again.

The consequences were not just limited to the business sector. The current wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the country forced into level four lockdown. One positive development had been the increase in the vaccination roll-out. 

In the week before the unrest (5 to 9 July), in KwaZulu-Natal, the second most-populous province, the number of vaccines administered in a day ranged from 30 141 to 42 701, according to the data-driven journalism organisation Media Hack. On Monday 12 July 2021, the vaccination rate in that province plateaued to just 5 209 dosages and 3 023 on the Tuesday thanks to the chaos that gripped the province. Numbers stayed low until 19 July. 

The trigger of the unrest, the incarceration of Jacob Zuma, had already proved to be a setback in efforts to contain the virus. As hundreds of supporters landed in Nkandla, social distancing protocols and measures were abandoned. The optics of so many people breaking the rules with little law enforcement intervention further widened the trust gap between citizens and the state. 

The inevitable consequence of the breakdown in social distancing practices and the stagnation in the vaccination drive is a reversal of the fight against the virus, which can only extend the third wave. 

The new Delta variant may do even more harm to the country’s pandemic management.

The question of how the country got to this crisis point allows us to revisit another Delta — the US’s Delta Council. Founded in 1935 to promote the interests of farmers and agriculture, the council’s seminal moment was in May 1947 when it invited the US Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson to deliver its annual address. 

Two years earlier, World War II had ended and left swathes of Europe in need of restoration. The idea of assisting Europe through the transition was first mentioned in that address and ignited a spark for what would eventually become the grand plan of post-war intervention. 

Weeks later, at a Harvard graduation ceremony, the blueprint of post-war economic reconstruction would be more cogently articulated by Secretary of State George Marshall. Marshall outlined the grand plan as a new element of US foreign policy and specifically stated that “our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos”.

Superpowers may be driven by benevolence, or the permanent tensions between self-interest and a desire to see the world become a better place. Either way, the eventually named Marshall Plan was not designed as a reaction to any country or doctrine, the rise of Stalin’s Russia and the spread of communism across Europe were significant. 

Keeping Russia and communism at bay and aiding Europe’s recovery were complementary aims. Nevertheless, the other focus of the grand plan — fighting poverty, desperation, hunger and chaos — remains an important dimension of analysing the intentions, if not the execution, of the Marshall Plan.

Having been devastated by the war that left ruins across the continent, postwar Europe was indeed facing an elevated risk of social disintegration. The fact that Europe survived and prospered till today, while communism collapsed, means the plan was more success than failure. 

The effectiveness of the plan — like any other intervention of its nature — has been debated since then and in some cases proposed as a way of solving the problems of states that teetered on the brink of collapse. The irony, however, is that some of the states that found themselves on the brink, such as Libya and Afghanistan, would be justified in pointing the finger at American aggression or complicity in fomenting chaos, which leads them instead to seek out their own grand plans.

For South Africa, its plethora of problems — unemployment, hunger, desperation and inequality — mirror much of what Marshall referred to in 1947. How we got here is more complex; consequently, the solutions mix needs to have much more than a Marshallian approach. 

Over the past year, as the pandemic has decimated lives and livelihoods and added to the existing challenges and fracture points, the need to initiate widespread and fundamental reforms has been accelerated. 

The 1994 transition to democratic rule seems to have achieved significant milestones on the political stability front. On the socioeconomic variables, however, the outcomes have turned out to be less than laudable. In trying to identify a blueprint to tackle all the challenges at once and ensure the intergenerational effects of apartheid is not passed on to the next generation, the government has done more tinkering than anchoring.

The economic roadmaps adopted since 1996, from Gear, through Asgisa and to the National Development Plan, have collectively failed to address the challenges of a society as diverse as it is fractured. Rather, the consequence has been the widening of the wealth and income divide across racial lines. In the 2019 UN human development index, which tracks the plight of citizens across multiple dimensions, South Africa was ranked a lowly 116th. Disturbingly, when mapped by racial groups, black South Africans ranked 116 and white South Africans 100 places higher, at 16. 

This indicates a gap in living standards that is by common consensus completely untenable.

As the looting spread across the country last week, the question of why so many citizens would participate was key. While the political players who instigated it were no doubt driven by political games, many of those who eventually mutated into foot soldiers have little political proximity. Rather, what distinguishes them is a shared sense of desperation and a loss of faith in institutions. 

This loss of faith is in institutions that ought to provide socioeconomic support, and are evidently failing; and those that exist to uphold law enforcement, which are expected to fail. The inability of the police force to manage the hotspots led to the government calling on the army for support. That reaction, aimed at containing the fallout rather than addressing root causes, is the single biggest gridlock hampering the nation.

For President Cyril Ramaphosa, who finds chunks of his time consumed by the ANC’s internal warfare, his legacy will now hinge on how he formulates a response to this crisis. His preferred practice of governing through consensus is rapidly becoming the undoing of his stranglehold on the state. Those who supported his bid in 2017 — particularly the business elite — watch as his serene approach to governance has seemed increasingly detached from the embers of national discontent.

As 2022 approaches and the ANC deliberates on whether Ramaphosa deserves another term at the heart of the fractured alliance, balancing those micro-considerations against the larger, universal problems will be his greatest challenge. Putting together a plan that transcends the political paralysis of the ANC is far more important than keeping a checklist of the step-aside rules.

Such a state of affairs is not without precedent. When President Harry Truman decided to champion the Marshall Plan, the option of calling it the Truman Plan was on the table. However, having seen the Republicans rise to dominate the legislature in the middle of his term, Truman understood that any policy reform with his name attached to it would be condemned to die. Unlike politicians who tend to centre themselves at every turn, Truman had the presence of mind to allow Marshall to attach his name to the plan. 

While Ramaphosa’s name carries less negative baggage than Truman feared his name might, whatever reforms he opts for during these trying times may benefit from being seen as South African solutions rather than another iteration of the ANC’s disastrous attempt at pretending it has an economic roadmap that is responsive to the unique problems we face.

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Khaya Sithole
Khaya Sithole is a chartered accountant, academic and activist who writes regularly for the Mail & Guardian and discusses the issues raised in his columns on his Kaya FM show, On The Agenda, every Monday from 8pm to 9pm

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