Opinionista Imraan Buccus 26 March 2020

Covid 19 and the chance for Ramaphosa’s reputation to soar

The coronavirus pandemic is a black swan event. In the few months since the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China, in November 2019, all kinds of things have changed. Many of the world’s great cities are shut down and governments are intervening in economies in ways that were unimaginable in November 2019.

As the Coronavirus crisis gathers momentum our lives will continue to change in dramatic ways, and the global health crisis seems sure to turn into a serious and global economic crisis. China has emerged from the crisis with its reputation greatly enhanced. There are many legitimate criticisms of the Chinese state but it’s now generally acknowledged that China dealt with the crisis in a manner far superior to that of right-wing populists like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson. 

Our own government had been suffering a serious legitimation crisis in the wake of its collapse into kleptocracy under Jacob Zuma, and perceptions of Cyril Ramaphosa’s weakness in dealing with the remnants of the kleptocrats. It is true that there have been significant failures, such as the inclusion of tainted people in government, and the failure to effect arrests and prosecutions of politicians, and the leaders of local mafia-type organisations such as the Delangokubona SA Business Forum. 

But there have been significant advances too. In Durban, which was the real seat of Zuma’s power, there has been decisive and ongoing action against the kleptocrats, including the removal of Zandile Gumede from her position as mayor, and the recent arrest of city manager Sipho Nzuza.

But a crisis can make or break a politician or government. Ramaphosa’s decisive action in response to the coronavirus pandemic has, almost overnight, restored his credibility to the heights of the short-lived Thuma Mina period. Suddenly everyone from grassroots activists to senior business people are speaking of Ramaphosa with respect. Zweli Mkhize, who had seemed irredeemably tainted by his failure to take a clear stand against the kleptocracy, has also quickly become a credible and respected figure. If he has a good crisis he could be our next president.

If Ramaphosa, and his best ministers, continue to take decisive action to secure South Africans against the real dangers of the pandemic their reputation will continue to soar. And the more political credibility they win in this crisis the more standing they will have to act against the kleptocrats. Of course, the neoliberal path for a way forward, which takes the form of austerity, attacks on government workers and reducing the regulations imposed on capital is now dead in the water. With the economic crisis that is sure to follow the health crisis any attempt at imposing neoliberal policies would have devastating social costs and sink Ramaphosa’s presidency.

At the end of February, the neoliberals were cheering on Tito Mboweni’s Budget speech and seriously thinking that they had a chance at imposing political hegemony. A month later that possibility seems like a quaint relic from another time. Today, as a serious economic crisis looms, it is clear that Ramaphosa will not be able to govern without the support of Cosatu and the SACP, both of which have now moved away from their disastrous support for the Zuma project, and are offering useful contributions to discussions about the way forward. 

Given Numsa’s explosive growth in recent years, including among SAA and Eskom workers, the deal that Ramaphosa has to make with the left to navigate the treacherous waters ahead will probably have to include Saftu as well as Cosatu and the SACP if it is to secure a viable foundation for a social compact that can move us into the future. And with people living in informal settlements most at risk from the Coronavirus pandemic, Ramaphosa would also be wise to bring Abahlali baseMjondolo and other social movements into discussions about forging a new social compact.

A month ago, many on the left would have dismissed Ramaphosa as a billionaire indebted to capital and unable to grapple with our social crisis. The vision for the future would have continued to take the form of a twenty-year project to build a socialist party supported by mass movements and to contest for state power at the ballot box while simultaneously building popular power from below. 

But this crisis changes everything. It has given Ramaphosa broad social legitimacy. It has also put the question of inequality and poverty at the centre of the national debate. In ordinary times people with private access to healthcare, education and security often don’t give a second thought to the poor and the working class. This health crisis has suddenly made it clear that our futures are interconnected. An informal settlement that doesn’t have an adequate supply of water is suddenly a threat to everyone, and not just the people that live there. 

A month ago, neoliberal commentators were gleefully calling for mass retrenchments at state-owned enterprises. Now even the most dogmatic and ruthless neoliberal can see that mass retrenchment are simply not a viable option in an economy in which consumer demand is crashing in all kinds of commercial sectors. 

And the coming economic crisis is not ours alone. Of course, we do have a unique burden to carry in terms of the toxic legacy of the looting and destruction of institutions that characterised the Zuma years. We also have a unique threat in terms of the fact that there is an organised faction in the ANC that aims to restore the kleptocracy, and that it is supported by the authoritarian nationalists in the EFF. But around the world the health crisis caused by the coronavirus is doing huge damage to economies, and, as a result, governments are implementing extraordinary measures. 

The extraordinary measures that are being implemented include nationalisation, suspension of rents, loans and mortgages, cash transfers, huge subsidies for socially important enterprises, moratoriums on evictions and more. As the crisis deepens these economic measures will expand. Since the 1970s it has been clear that if a government in Africa or Latin America moves against market orthodoxy it will be vilified, isolated and quite possibly overthrown, as we have recently seen in the case of Bolivia.

But now that governments in Europe and other parts of the West, including Canada, are acting to put social interests before commercial interests a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity has opened to finally break with the neoliberal economic consensus first imposed on Chile via a violent US-backed coup in 1973, and then made mainstream by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and imposed on the Global South via the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the US military and all the rest of the apparatus of contemporary imperialism. 

Any government that has tried to take even modest steps outside of the limits of neoliberalism has very quickly found itself contained, if not simply removed from power. But now that the health crisis is forcing a rapid collapse of the neoliberal economic consensus in the heartlands of the West governments elsewhere will be able to take measures that were impossible just a few months ago. 

This means that Ramaphosa is suddenly in a position to make a real social compact with the left, including substantive changes in our economic and social systems. If this is undertaken successfully the kleptocrats will be defeated, and we could make real social advances. If such a social compact is possible Ramaphosa’s motivation will only be that he wants to build the political support to enable him to survive the coming economic crisis. Ramaphosa does not have a socialist bone in his body. But politics is often about deals and compromises and if the left drives a hard bargain in exchange for political support against the kleptocrats real progress could be made. DM 

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