Government response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a reassuring reminder that leadership matters. It has presented Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa with an opportunity to demonstrate his grit, values and ability to lead.
However, the pandemic has also highlighted the structural realities of South Africa, and the failures of our government to meaningfully address unemployment, inequality and poverty. This moment has highlighted the costs of keeping delinquents in Cabinet, and how our state struggles to implement and deliver as the capable developmental state has been torn down and collapsed.
Hundreds of thousands of South Africans have been exposed to delays in receiving their social grants and food relief coupled with the unmitigated and senseless overreach by law enforcement and government officials. Ramaphosa and his administration will need to do a great deal more to reassure South Africa that the lockdown and its measures are rational and effective, but also to provide clarity on what the path to a resumption of economic activity means while safeguarding the well-being and health of our nation.
This global health crisis and the associated social and economic consequences have been striking in how divisive the issue of poverty has been, particularly at a local level where some cities have pressed on with evictions and forced removals (and they whitewash their illegality by pretending that they are seized with a “de-densification” project).
The economic toll of Covid-19 is yet to be counted, but the overwhelming sense is that the economic consequences of this will continue to have a devastating impact on ordinary people. People who will now go hungrier, will become poorer and, in some instances, will encounter violence by criminal elements, but even sadder, violence that is meted out by our government itself. People who are not insulated by their class, power, position or allegiance. People who are forced to deal with these consequences, often alone, in the wake of a country and government that has been decapacitated, redirected and corrupted for more than a decade.
Since the dawn of our democracy, there has been a need to reconstruct and rebuild, to reimagine and build from afresh our economic structures, but critically there has been a desperate need to design and create a new social compact. South Africa has struggled to reimagine its future, and this is in spite of the extensive work that took place to develop and adopt the National Development Plan (NDP), which incidentally was adopted almost eight years ago by Parliament.
I want to say without fear of contradiction (a common phrase used by former president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki) that South Africa has not been able to unite, to galvanise the efforts of its citizens, to grow an inclusive economy or to enhance the capability of the state and its leaders to serve the people and find solutions to complex issues. This failure is not only unfortunate for the architects, contributors and creators of the NDP, but more importantly this failure has stolen the livelihood and opportunity from generations of South Africans.
The NDP does not present the only type of ideation that has taken place, but rather builds on a series of “scenarios” that have been developed, workshopped and thought through by luminaries, Struggle icons, heroes, titans of industry, trade unionists and the state, and yet all of this has fallen flat. Instead, corruption has festered across the public and private sector, ownership patterns in our formal economy have remained fixed and South Africans have grown poorer, hungrier and more abused.
South Africa is poorly served by its politics, politicians and its elected public representatives, and this moment in our history should serve as notice to all of them. The crafting of our collective solutions will not be driven by them, and we have seen our communities band together and collaborate across structural barriers, class, race and language in the form of collective action networks (CANs). However, this type of social compact is in its nascent stage, and we will need to support its development, refinement and expansion if we are ever going to respond meaningfully to our collective challenges.
There will, of course, be a danger in this moment of crisis to believe that in this unprecedented moment South Africa must be galvanised to move towards an agenda that mimics the initial vision of what the NDP was supposed to do.
South Africans do require a plan, but that plan must respond to their immediate needs and requirements – to prevent more people from slipping below the poverty line, saving as many jobs as possible, managing the health crisis and effectively ensuring our social security blanket protects South Africans with dignity.
The government led by Ramaphosa must embrace the custodial and stewardship nature of its role and move with greater urgency to respond to the hunger and frustration of its people.
South Africa can ill-afford another scenario-building exercise while dealing with the devastating consequences of Covid-19, especially after more than a decade of poor governance, expediency, corruption and deception.
South Africans require meaningful relief in the immediate term that seeks to protect them as much as possible from the devastating economic fallout coupled with the massive humanitarian crisis and deep hunger prevalent in this country.
South Africa not only requires leaders such as Ramaphosa to be seized by the moment, but it requires all of us to support the model that many CANs have adopted, the civil society organisations seeking to hold government power in check and accountable. DM