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Lack of adequate economic responses to Covid-19 poses a mortal threat to SA’s constitutional democracy


In real life, Professor Balthazar is one of South Africa’s foremost legal minds. He chooses to remain anonymous, so it doesn’t interfere with his daily duties.

The pandemic has the potential to dramatically alter the manner in which we (and here ‘we’ does not exclusively denote South Africans) are governed in the post-Covid-19 period.

Writing in the prestigious journal Foreign Policy, Harvard professor Stephen Walt says: “Coronavirus will accelerate the shift of power and influence from West to East. South Korea and Singapore have shown the best response and China has managed well in the aftermath of its initial mistakes. The governments’ response in Europe and the US has been very sceptical and likely to weaken the power of the Western brand.”

In similar fashion, Stanford’s Larry Diamond argues in The Atlantic that “unlike authoritarian regimes—which can use force, fear, and fraud to control their populations—democracies rely on open information and the consent of the governed. Unlike China, democracies cannot cover up their failures for very long. If citizens lose faith in the legitimacy of democracy as the best form of government — if their institutions cannot function effectively during a crisis, and especially if a view takes hold that authoritarian regimes are managing the crisis more “decisively” — many democracies will be at grave risk of failure.”

Some will counter this gloomy prediction and point, for example, to South Korea as proof that democracy can provide better responses to Covid-19 and hence can still present the “Western brand” in the best possible light. Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, however, has argued that a total reassessment of the global supply chain is now necessary. He suggests that the pandemic has shown the drawbacks of concentrating production of medical supplies. As a result, the purchase of a range of imports will go down and the production of domestically sourced goods will go up. As he says, South Korea may gain kudos, but lose markets.

The upshot is that the post-Covid-19 world could strengthen the hand of nationalism and those who argue in favour of a president with total authority or a leader who is the commander-in-chief.

Quite obviously, these concerns are of the greatest relevance to South Africa. While most of the commentariat focus on the immediate problem, in this case, the excesses advocated by securocrats such as Police Minister Bheki Cele, as important as it is to hold the feet of this faction of the government to the legal fire, it’s the longer-term implications that require urgent attention.

Take the warning of Professor Stiglitz of the turn to economic nationalism. That turn is already advocated by a clutch of local economists who claim to be of the left, as well as influential politicians. As an example, it has been argued recently that South Africa cannot look to the IMF for a loan as the kind of conditions that the IMF will impose before the grant of a loan will radically curtail our national sovereignty.

Hence it is suggested that South Africa would be better advised to turn to China or Russia for a loan, as if these two countries are so generous that they will dish out huge amounts of cash without any contemplation of extracting rents or other advantages from South Africa! Ironically, the IMF, given the Covid-19 crisis and the profound effect on the developing world, is now more inclined to ensure the complete jettisoning of the remnants of the Washington consensus. If it still existed, the consensus itself would definitely have been an insurmountable obstacle to accepting an IMF loan.

But if the myopic view prevails, the possibility of an IMF loan of, say, $12-billion, would not take place. An amount of some R200-billion, at the very least, is needed to add to our own resources if the country is to respond properly to the consequences of the lockdown and the restrictions that will doubtless follow. The Institute for Economic Justice (download the full report here, and the summary here) has recently calculated that, inclusive of the loss of tax revenue caused by close to a 10% decline in GDP over this fiscal year, an amount of R415-billion is needed to support workers, the unemployed, the informal sector and business.

There are two further challenges: the capacity of the state to deliver to South Africans and residents most in need and the consequences of failure. To date, the distribution of money to those most in need has simply not taken place in any meaningful way and this after more than three weeks since the commencement of the lockdown.

It is small wonder that there have been outbreaks of protest in townships that sadly resemble scenes from the 1980s during the sustained resistance to the apartheid regime. A devastating combination of incompetence, bureaucratic bungling, and an almost anal-like insistence on compliance with legal requirements that never contemplated this kind of disaster has meant that the extreme urgency and the desperation lived by millions of people on a daily basis has not been grasped.

We should be doing better than Trump’s rapidly imploding country.

The legitimacy of a state that is incapable of rising to the present emergency will doubtless be called into question. As social unrest expands, securocrats gain the upper hand and increased repression follows each protest. Populists now enter the centre of the political stage, arguing for nationalisation of a range of industries and financial institutions as constituting the solution to the problem, together with expanded levels of expropriation without compensation. At the same time, they will argue that the country needs a decisive commander-in-chief, a leader empowered with absolute authority to solve the crisis.

In a country with egregious levels of inequality, where the Constitution has already been under attack on the basis that it has not helped to change the lives of millions, the danger of the collapse of constitutional democracy cannot be discounted.

In summary, the Covid-19 pandemic may well bring profound change to national governance. Instead of the logical response of better international governance (of which more in a subsequent column) following the catastrophe that has engulfed the globe, increased nationalism and populism are as likely to happen.

The decisive, statesmanlike and caring responses of President Ramaphosa notwithstanding, the lack of adequate economic responses and, at best tepid delivery to those most in need, pose a huge danger to the continuation of constitutional democracy in this country. DM


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