News / Opinion / Columns
Several estimates place job losses due to the Covid-19 outbreak at three million in the immediate term and a further five million between now and whenever the economy begins to recover.
The general socioeconomic and political implications of this grim reality are all too obvious. What is as yet to be perceptible is the extent of its specific repercussions.
Equally uncertain is whether the broad leadership of South African society – in politics, the economy, labour, religion, academia, the arts and others – are at one in appreciating the state of the nation and the world so as to recognise the need to put together a united post-Covid-19 national recovery programme.
Ours is an era of all-round short-termism in which, as Eric Hobsbawm noted at the turn of the last century: “The only logic of investment that is now valid is that of participating in something that will produce an immediate premium.”
He also bemoaned the “depoliticisation of society” as “one of the most noticeable and complicated problems of our times” which portends “serious danger because it could lead to [the] mobilisation [of citizens] completely outside the modus operandi of all kinds of democratic politics”.
South Africa is not immune from the Hobsbawmian diagnosis.
Much of the Covid-19 discourse reflects this inasmuch as it illustrates that we are nowhere near forging a national consensus on the pressing challenges of the day.
Yet, for a socioeconomic and potential political earthquake of the magnitude we face, our real recovery will gain traction only to the extent that society broadly proceeds from a common perspective shared and driven by government business, labour and society at large.
In an ideal world, government would, as soon as possible, present a comprehensive recovery plan which it makes available to the nation to generate widespread discussion, followed by a government-convened national convention and parliamentary debate.
The government would place its resources on the table and honestly admit its deficiencies before the nation.
So would other social partners – acting in the best traditions of social partnership.
Such a process would at all costs avoid non-negotiables for the simple reason that these remain uncharted waters demanding the rethinking of many things.
One would hope that the risk of our social and political structures derailing for lack of an acceptable common strategy is now exercising the minds of the broad leadership of South African society.
For a country like South Africa, where race-based poverty resides in envious neighbourhood with opulence, the ramifications of such a derailment would be far-reaching.
Even if such a worst-case scenario did not come to pass, surely the leaders of the people of South Africa would find their moral conscience unsettled at the idea of business as usual?
Ideally, the enormity of the crisis should inspire South Africans to appreciate that we are, after all, a developing and African country whose every social policy endeavour ought not to lose sight of the imperative of united nonracial nation formation.
In this context, it is foolhardy to think that policies aimed at redressing colonial and apartheid inequities that were relevant before the coronavirus outbreak would cease to be germane now, when the economy is worse off.
The fact that some parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political players are determined, once and for all, to erase redress out of the purview of public policy is yet another factor that suggests that we may be far from the utopian ideal of an inclusive recovery plan.
Only last week, the Democratic Alliance (DA) wrote to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) asking it to place political conditionalities to prevent the government from utilising IMF loan money to achieve redress.
Despite the fact that SA’s Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court are yet to adjudicate on a finding by the High Court in Pretoria, which affirmed the correctness of redress, the DA’s adventure complicates matters.
It invites a foreign institution to impact on our sovereignty and can only divide the nation further.
Put mildly, it is thoroughly misguided.
And for an institution such as the IMF, with trust deficit challenges in much of the African continent and the developing world, heeding the DA’s counsel would amount to nothing but a kiss of death.
But it would help a great deal if the government were to speak with one voice on this matter.
It does not help that the department of trade and industry and entities such as the Industrial Development Corporation and the departments of tourism and small business are each singing from different hymn sheets, with no Cabinet clarity seemingly in the offing.
From the utopian vantage point of a newspaper columnist, a recovery plan would also be a good place to claw back on, among others, values of personal and collective self-reliance.
As other commentators have noted, the welcome indigent policy interventions announced by the government should ideally also encapsulate requirements for community service on the part of beneficiaries.
Such an enterprise would mobilise millions into the national development effort while at the same time, helping to push back what has, in some respects, become obscene levels of the tenderisation of the state.
In this regard, there is a lot to learn from the wider post-colonial African experience.
For instance, at independence in December 1961, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere conceived the slogan: “Uhuru na Kazi” – freedom and work – to rally the nation into the post-colonial development process.
“Under the government’s self-help programme,” wrote one of Nyerere’s political biographers, William Edgett Smith in 1973, “villagers all over the country donated a day’s work a week to a community project – a new road, a well, a school or clinic”.
And “according to one government announcement, the population built about £890,000 worth of projects during the first half of 1963, for which the government donated £70,000 in materials.”
We, too, can combine measures of indigent policy with the necessary dosage of individual and collective agency. It’s a matter of political will, starting with the will to cast the spell of the cult of the celebrity out of our politics.
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