On the eve of one of South Africa’s most momentous events, I walked from my office through streets that were as abandoned and eerie as the afterlife. Johannesburg — mining city, city of war — seemed to be experiencing a sensation unique in its history.
Not fear, which is its constant. But self-doubt.
Lockdown. Four days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa ushered us into the abnormality of the new normal. (Or is it the other way around?) He was late, but he was on form: calm, collected, and as un-Trump-like as it was possible to be. Then he imprisoned us in our homes for three weeks. It all made sense on paper, and the people cheered.
Since then, things have gotten increasingly dumb.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that the African National Congress, of which Ramaphosa is a stalwart member, has governed this country for the past 25 years.
Let’s also clarify that the ANC is no longer an “organisation” in the strictest sense of the term, but rather a framework through which power is acquired and expended; and a syndicate through which patronage is nurtured and maintained.
The upshot is that the national government functions as disconnected, often competing spheres of influence. Of particular concern here is the fact that the Executive has increasingly become its own separate fiefdom. Under Jacob Zuma, the Office of the President was fused with the security cluster, functioning as the world’s least environmentally-sustainable plastic straw, slurping up government money for their Mafia beneficiaries.
Under Zuma’s successor, the Presidency has been transformed into a modern technocracy that operates by consensus and rule of law, linked to formal systems of wealth creation — banks, big business; Western-style financial/monetary best practices. That’s not a qualitative assessment: since Ramaphosa’s ascension, South African life has not measurably improved. The ghosts of each system howl at each other endlessly, and the argument is never won.
This makes it hard enough to govern during peacetime. During a crisis, it’s a bit fucking embarrassing.
The ANC has never done trickle-down well, and nothing is trickling down now — every minister has embarked on his or her own bespoke Covid-19 policy initiative. Pet peeves and projects are rolled into briefs, and ministers are employing the shock of the crisis to goose the lockdown regulations. No booze? No ciggies? Welcome back, Calvinist overlords! And something else — a sort of deranged and gleeful megalomania that results in cowboy-movie lines like the following from Defence Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula:
“It will only be ‘skop, skiet en donder’ when circumstances determine that. For now, we’re a constitutional democracy.”
The support for the lockdown has been slowly evaporating on account of the fact that the clowns appear to be running the circus. The ancient ANC habit of placing politically expedient muppets in Cabinet positions has its downside that become most obvious in times of trouble. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula behaves like a cross between Tyler Perry’s Madea and Rambo; not a single portfolio he’s occupied has benefited from his involvement. Entirely on brand, he was unwatchably foolish during his briefing on Wednesday:
Can essential workers use Uber?
Only at peak hours.
How does the concept of “peak hours” gel with the concept of physical distancing?
Mbalula has competition. Police Minister Bheki Cele has always been a bad parody of a tough-guy patriarch, the kind of uncle who bloviates about the best cut of meat at a birthday braai. Cele seemed to take particular enjoyment in the fact that no booze will be available to purchase anywhere, at any time, during the lockdown period.
“For 21 days, please stay sober,” he told about 30 million of-drinking-age adult human beings.
These autocrats manqué derive their power from Regulation 11E of the lockdown rules, that states: “No person is entitled to compensation for any loss or damage arising out of any bona fide act or omission by an enforcement officer under these regulations.”
In other words, when the skop, skiet and dondering begins, you’re on your own.
The booze ban is just a hint of how creepy puritanical authoritarianism can become during a crisis. And while I acknowledge that this Covid-19 thing is a bastard, the absolute idiocy of these regulations does nothing to inspire confidence. Put it this way: the South African government has effectively decided, without consultation, to wean its population off alcohol (and nicotine) cold turkey, a decision that could end up killing more people than the virus it hopes to mitigate. Unmanaged cessation of alcohol consumption can result in death, which is just one obvious shortfall. The other is that people will either end up brewing their own nuclear-powered mampoer, and/or illegal liquor sellers will take hold of the market.
Meanwhile, the cigarette Mafia will be enjoying a halcyon age. (If you follow the news, you’ll know that ciggie smuggling kingpins enjoy close relationships with powerful politicians.) Add to this the fact that there is no support for the informal sector, on which 70% of South Africans depend, and it’s like the government is trying to create the perfect conditions for organised crime to flourish.
Through this troubled and roiling week, the Treasury was all but silent. Finance Minister Titi Mboweni has had his nose deep in the current G20 meetings — now brought to you by Zoom — while desperately trying to come up with a recipe to stave off a downgrade. He’s found one. The R12-billion stimulus package Ramaphosa announced on Monday ostensibly came from Mboweni’s vault. But the measures are less Viagra than Valium — the money earmarked for jumpstarting the doomed economy is about two zeroes away from being useful. (Boris Johnson, who can’t pronounce “John Maynard Keynes”, has committed 16.3% of Britain’s GDP to a stimulus package, which in South African terms would be the equivalent of R830-billion.) These non-moves are designed to mollify the Moody’s rating agency by insisting that South Africa is committed to austerity, no matter how many people starve to death in the process.
Over the road at the SA Reserve Bank, Governor Lesetja Kganyago is now minting money in order to buy government bonds, a practice commonly called quantitative easing. Kganyago has refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation — that we now join Obama/Trump’s America and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire as banana republics desperately printing currency until the rebel armies take over and kill us in our beds. A lesson for Ace Magashule and the Radical Economic Transformation brigade, who not so long ago demanded “quantity easing” to flush the economy with fake cash: stay patient, wait for the pandemic, and everything will come your way.
That isn’t a coherent financial policy. It’s Monopoly on mushrooms.
And who is watching the watchmen through all of the Lockdown lunacy? Well, it’s not the opposition parties. The DA has rendered itself meaningless. I haven’t been keeping up with Helen Zille, but no doubt she and her inner circle of slavering Ayn Rand-ians are expressing concern about how badly libertarianism is doing in the polls, while also objecting to the paltriness of the bailout package.
As far as the EFF is concerned, the most influential politician in the ANC is Julius Malema. While everyone in Ramaphosa’s walled-in citadel thinks the man is a fool, younger ANC members are minutely responsive to his proclamations, sharing the view that transformation is the single ideological imperative. For this, the Covid-19 crisis presents certain opportunities: slam dog-walking; diss jogging; flip-flop on everything else.
South Africa is not going to look the same after this. The Lockdown is a reminder that in the shadow of a crisis, authoritarianism looms. Liberalism, classical or otherwise, has not delivered on its promises, and so other methodologies will be sought and adopted. After all, as Conor O’Brian noted of African and Asian societies as far back as the 1960s, locals saw liberalism as an “ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs” and as an “ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society”.
Not much has changed, and yet everything has changed.
On the eve of the Lockdown, Cyril Ramaphosa engaged in some military cosplay, addressing the armed forces while dressed in fatigues. He looked absurd, and he spoke absurdly: “You are not a force of might,” he said to the men and women with guns, “but a force of kindness.” He alluded to the impact of this strange bug, which hits late-capitalist systems right in the crotch: it overruns the healthcare systems that help legitimise the state, a malevolent piece of genetic code which has come to remind us of how poorly we’ve prepared ourselves for the inevitability of its arrival.
The disease is a technocrat’s nightmare. If bested, it’s an autocrat’s dream.
The government will keep making adjustments as the Lockdown progresses; each day will come with surprises and calamities. About the progression of the disease, I make no predictions. But I will say this: Johannesburg has never felt so empty, so lacking in Johannesburg-ness. A paradox: this is a city that trains its inhabitants to expect the best while expecting the worst.
Has any place been more prepared for the unpreparable? Don’t say 21 days. No one knows what is coming, least of all our benevolent ruler. They’re making it up as they go. So should we. DM