ANALYSIS

Level 3 – a slightly less terrible option

By Stephen Grootes 26 May 2020
Caption
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Siphiwe Sibeko / Pool | GCIS)

In a situation where no realistic options are good, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government will have no choice but to accept the less terrible ones.

The Sunday night announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that we will be moving to Level 3 of the lockdown regulations from 1 June reveals much about what is going on in our politics and the power brokers’ top echelons. It also shows how close to impossible governance in a democracy during a pandemic such as this is. 

Ramaphosa’s announcement was widely expected, and gave some important details about what will happen next. But much still needs to be fleshed out before the publication of the specific regulations.

In Level 4 and Level 5 all activities were prohibited, with a few exceptions. Unless something was on a list, you could not do it.

Under this new level, it appears that things are going the other way. All activities are allowed, unless explicitly listed as prohibited on the list.

This is a crucial shift, because it moves the onus of prohibiting actions on to government. The onus is no longer on individuals or groups to argue their case the other way. 

Under Level 3, life will certainly resume a semblance of the “normality” we once knew, in that most of our rights are returned to us (even though, legally, they could never have been removed).

It would be simple at this point to state that there are “winners” and “losers” in these decisions, and that this suggests there is a power struggle in Cabinet.

Of course, it is nowhere near as simple as that, although there are some Cabinet ministers who appear to have emerged from this with their power much diminished.

The first is certainly Police Minister Bheki Cele. He has continued to argue, forcefully, for the ban on alcohol to continue. To listen to him would be to believe that alcohol, and only alcohol, is responsible for almost all violence and most of the casualties in our hospitals. While the link between violence and alcohol is well-established (and proven every weekend night) Cele refused to acknowledge that car accidents became almost non-existent during the lockdown, because people were not travelling on the roads.

Also, his view did not take into account that people would make illegal alcohol anyway. There have been several instances of desperate drinkers dying from imbibing their home-brewed alcohol. If this ban had continued for much longer, those cases would only increase, and so would the load on hospitals.

Now, the ban has been removed and Cele may feel that the rug under him is not as immovable as it once was.

Just because the government issues an order, that does not mean it will be obeyed. And society’s buy-in needs to be taken into account, otherwise the law of unintended consequences takes over.

Then there is the Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel. Two weeks ago he published a long list of clothes that could be manufactured, sold and purchased. He was lampooned for the details of the list, which allowed T-shirts to be sold only if they were part of “winter wear”. What is “winter wear” in Musina, where the forecast high on Monday was 28℃, is likely to be very different to what one would wear in Sutherland, with a forecast high Monday of 9℃. How can a bureaucrat in Pretoria decide such a thing?

It’s now been rendered null and void, but the list that Patel produced (after consulting with the industry and labour) will live in infamy long after him. It will be brought up again and again, and could be an enduring symbol of the lockdown’s loonier aspects. It will be used by his opponents to delegitimise him, and thus government as a whole.

And all of this for a list that will only have been in operation for three weeks. Great work.

Then there is the result of what was clearly an intense debate around smoking and the sale of cigarettes. It was widely reported in the days before Ramaphosa’s announcement that Cooperative Governance Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was pushing hard in Cabinet and National Coronavirus Command Council discussions for the ban to continue. 

It is not known if Ramaphosa opposed her, but it is known that she had support from Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla.

While it is well-known that smoking indeed kills, Dlamini Zuma and others appear to believe that stopping the sale of cigarettes stops people smoking. It obviously does not achieve such results. Instead, it bolsters an already large illicit industry. Also, in the longer run it may actually lead to cheaper cigarettes. When the ban is over, the legal tobacco firms may decide to drop their prices to recoup market share lost to the illicit industry. That would allow more people to smoke than before the lockdown started. Which would be the complete opposite of government’s stated intention.

This appears to come from a misunderstanding of our society. Just because the government issues an order, that does not mean it will be obeyed. And society’s buy-in needs to be taken into account, otherwise the law of unintended consequences takes over.

While Dlamini Zuma has won the day, for now, this could easily be undone in court. The tobacco lobby has confirmed it will press ahead with its case, and should the government be defeated in court, that would prove Dlamini Zuma had been able to prevail in a legally irrational argument over the rest of Cabinet.

This is a government led by Ramaphosa and he too would suffer politically as a result.

One of the bigger problems is the perception that Cabinet ministers are now delivering mixed messages and that government is not unified on many issues. Considering that our Cabinet represents many different constituencies, and that all of these issues are complex questions of governance, this is not surprising.

But this impression of disunity at the highest level will dilute any message from the government. Any mistakes, changes of mind, or court losses erode the government’s legitimacy and weaken the lockdown measures it is imposing.

Similar problems are emerging in other democracies. In Brazil, the mixed messages from its president, Jair Bolsonaro, and other authorities means that public gatherings are still occurring on a regular basis. In the US, with its sometimes paralysing political dysfunction, this entire issue has become hopelessly politicised. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s own special adviser, Dominic Cummings, is under intense pressure to quit after he broke his government’s own regulations.

How will the next few weeks and months reflect on South Africa and the ANC government? While there’s only one way to find out, things are not looking too good for Ramaphosa and his government’s ability to maintain a firm grip on reality. In a situation where no realistic options are good, they will have no choice but to accept the less terrible ones. 

The damage caused to the country, where fanciful political dreams become a daily nightmare, could be too difficult to bear for millions of South Africans. DM

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