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As a comet passes like a ship in the night, let’s turn our thoughts to a post-Covid-19 ‘New Deal’

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

There can be no arguing about the fact that Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it — and as an unforgettable celestial event in the form of Comet SWAN occurs almost unnoticed, we grapple with the present. We also need to start thinking about the future and how to reimagine a post-Covid-19 South Africa, and the world.

I think that although we might disagree about many things concerning our approaches to this pandemic, be it testing and tracing, miscounting the dead or the various models and its stats, the one thing we all can agree on is: We need a grand strategy that will move our country forward post-Covid-19 or else we’re screwed.

So, may I offer my two cent’s worth?

Since the general election, which elected Cyril Ramaphosa, only took place in May 2019, and since the first Covid-19 cases became known in December of that same year, I suggest we classify this first term of Ramaphosa’s as the Covid-19 term. I propose this because his government will be preoccupied with the response strategy for at least another three years, if not longer, taking us to the next 2024 general election again.

This response would entail not only dealing with the ongoing health crisis and the constant pursuit of preserving life, but also to desperately attempt to ensure an enabling environment to fix the economy and sustain livelihoods.

When Ramaphosa won the governing party’s leadership race and subsequently became president of the republic, he had only two key mandates from the electorate: one, deal effectively with the State Capture phenomenon and put the country back on a good economic footing; and two, deal with the mess in the ANC because warring factions are simply not good for business all round.

No one anticipated a global health emergency and a plague of epic proportions to be thrown into the mix. The first-order effects of Covid-19 were disbelief and then a race to flatten the curve in many countries. Disbelief, at the speed of the spread of the virus and the mobility of the virus given our global village status.

In many ways, Covid-19 was airborne within a matter of days because of air travel. Disbelief at observing how first world countries’ health systems collapsed under the pressure of this pandemic, how the unemployment numbers reached millions and how no or little leadership was forthcoming in many of these admired countries. It was unadulterated disbelief.

Then there was the race to flatten the curve and boy, was there disagreement over how best to do that. Wear masks, don’t wear masks; produce ventilators as soon as possible, or no, they are actually killing us faster in certain instances; lockdown hard, no, open up the lockdown wide to get the economy going; and so much more.

We are told that the comet is rising only shortly before the sun and can be found near the horizon when dawn breaks. To find it requires skill and optical aid. I suspect most of you have not seen this comet, because of Covid-19.

We were so preoccupied that we never even stopped to observe an unforgettable celestial event in the form of Comet SWAN (Solar Wind Anisotropies).

We are told that the comet is rising only shortly before the sun and can be found near the horizon when dawn breaks. To find it requires skill and optical aid. I suspect most of you have not seen this comet, because of Covid-19.

“Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) is visible with good binoculars in Northern Hemisphere skies, too, although finding it required skill, with only a small window for locating it each day… This comet has already come closest to Earth (on 12-13 May 2020), at a distance of 51.7 million miles (83.2 million km). It is now heading toward its perihelion, or closest point to the sun, on 27 May 2020,” as the earthsky.org website told us.

Some experienced astrophotographers were able to capture amazing long-exposure images of comet SWAN, some of which show the comet’s tail as extremely long, as long as 20 times the apparent diameter of the full moon. Those observers were lucky to capture comet SWAN when it was high in the sky from their perspective. Its nearness to the horizon will subtract even more brightness from this (already not-so-bright), celestial visitor.

But alas, we are too focused on the immediate crisis and rightly so folks, however, this celestial phenomenon will soon be gone forever. So, moving on.

The second term for Ramaphosa, I propose must be, the term of the “New Deal”, where we look at the second-order effects of Covid-19. And in this regard, we must act locally, but think globally. It is apparent to me that the existing methods of coping no longer apply and that the economic recovery of our country must be the focus of our attention going forward.

It seems to me that we have an opportunity to reimagine our destiny in SA. If we so choose.

This would inevitably involve major systems interventions on the part of the government. Communications network intervention around data and data costs, broadband and making the spectrum available now. Energy systems which deal with Independent Power Producers and alternative energy sources for SA. Increasing automation in all sectors of the economy. You get the picture.

I don’t think so.

When we talk of the new normal, will we be considering what it means to open up our borders at some point? Customs regimes, what will our policy be, now that there are novel viruses out there? Are we still supporting open borders? What if anything, shall we do about realignment of geopolitical strategies? Will our international relations approaches remain the same?

During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933-1939, a series of programmes were implemented and the question we must ask is, can we do the same and do we have what it takes?

Wikipedia details that: “The New Deal was a series of programmes, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States between 1933 and 1939. It responded to needs for relief, reform, and recovery from the Great Depression. Major federal programs and agencies included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). They provided support for farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly. The New Deal included new constraints and safeguards on the banking industry and efforts to re-inflate the economy after prices had fallen sharply. New Deal programmes included both laws passed by Congress as well as presidential executive orders during the first term of the presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt.”

These programmes covered a vast amount of areas that we in South Africa will also have to interrogate in earnest if we are to move forward at all. In the US, these were:

Fiscal policy

The Economy Act was passed and proposed to balance the budget by cutting the salaries of government employees and cutting pensions to veterans by 15%, thus saving $500-million per year. Can Tito Mboweni propose this sort of measure and still hold on to his job? I doubt it. But this measure is necessary in our government.

Banking reform

Although Roosevelt and his government implemented measures of a different kind, we do require some banking reform post-Covid-19. Banks have done very little in supporting the middle class during this hardship and have not come to the party in terms of mortgage payment holidays or reducing bank charges and relaxing the pressure on loan repayments etc.  They have done nada. And I am of the opinion that the government could have legislated a bit more to assist in particular the middle class in this country. Notwithstanding that banks still charge pensioners and grant recipients bank charges on their already meagre incomes.

Monetary reform

Though in the US, this policy was in the main concerned with the gold standard, back here in SA, there remain numerous arguments on this front and the role our Reserve Bank can and should play.

Other programmes and interventions which I cannot go into detail here were:

  • Securities Act of 1933 (ensuring that companies on the stock exchange also played ball and contributed to the recovery effort);
  • Repeal of Prohibition (legalising the sale of alcohol brought much-needed tax into the coffers of Treasury);
  • Relief (this was to help one-third of the population with unemployment benefits);
  • Public Works (to cut unemployment, a major programme of public works was created, building schools, bridges, airports, hospitals etc);
  • Farm and Rural programmes (land redistribution/reform and rural infrastructure development);
  • Recovery (this was various programmes to restore the economy to normal health);
  • Housing Sector (this was to get the country building, and create more affordable housing);
  • Reform (here they sought to find common ground between labour, employers and government to prevent a repeat of the Depression in future); and
  • Trade Liberalisation (a relook at our trade matters, in terms of beneficiation, protectionism, tax holidays and so much more).

“The programmes focused on what historians refer to as the ‘3 Rs’: relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.” I ask again, can we implement such tough decisions? Do we have what it takes?

Now, the World Economic Forum talks of “Stakeholder Capitalism” while Japan talks of “Collective Capitalism”, Barack Obama some time ago spoke of “Inclusive Capitalism” – what will we be talking about?

I suspect more of the same really. The much sought-after social compact that will evidently propel us forward as a country will simply not happen because of our racist and classist environment. It is true that Covid-19 brought us with “warp speed” to the front door of the International Monetary Fund, but we can yet still have a grand strategy, a new deal that will see us paving a better life for all together. If we so choose.

In the end, the pain that goes as part of such a grand strategy will be immense to us all, but these must be our aspirations, surely? DM

Gallery

"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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