First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Throughout, thankfully, we’ve had the health minister and a phalanx of white-coated scientists and doctors as our tutors, regularly and patiently talking us through the health issues, whose complexities and jargon would otherwise have overwhelmed and disorientated us.
The regular appearance of health officials on television is no small thing, helping to bolster our knowledge of the new, deadly disease, and assure us that at some level somebody of authority was in charge, coordinating the rescue plan, and above all concerned about our wellbeing. Comms 101.
The pandemic is, however, and equally, an economic issue, with an inescapable impact on income, employment, debt and investment, taxes, inflation and asset prices, and many other facets of our daily lives.
Yet, the ministers in the economic cluster have been conspicuous by their absence from the public debate, and deliberations about understanding and surviving what was, even before the pandemic struck, the worst and longest economic crisis SA has ever faced outside of periods of civil strife – something that has come to bear in recent days.
The finance minister, the minister of trade and industry, the labour minister, minister of small business, the entire brains trust in the Cabinet tasked with steering us out of the economic quicksand, have largely taken a back seat, disappearing themselves in a smoke bomb of press releases and tweets, and the odd, orchestrated monologue in televised speeches. Speeches so often delivered in distant, and drab, jargon-jammed language that any prolonged exposure would be dangerous and dispiriting to the listener.
In the vacuum left by the absent figureheads of public economic policy, the anxieties of millions of South Africans, faced with diminishing access to money, jobs, and a route to a better life, have been left to fester in the silence, and metastasise into bitterness, frustration and despair.
Historians and political scientists have been careful not to call the violence around the country “bread riots”. Not yet, partly because of the menacing suspicion that the riots were in part driven by an agenda of political sabotage and organised criminality.
Yet the parallels to the protests in Tunisia that ultimately sparked the Arab Spring more than a decade ago, which began as protests over economic immiseration and hunger, but quickly morphed into something bigger aimed at the heart of the political and economic status quo, are striking.
Simmering just beneath the surface of the scores of protests in North African and Arab nations were soaring food prices, unemployment and poverty – and once bread became unaffordable for many of the people, there was nothing to lose. It is a story that has repeated throughout history; the economic dimensions of popular upheaval loom large and bold.
South Africa, with nearly half of its people unemployed and living in or close to poverty, and the other half sliding towards that red line, and close to breaking under the weight of carrying their relatives on thinning resources, was always ripe for bread riots of some kind. Yet you would not know it from the response of our economic czars. The indifference of economic policy makers is most vividly captured in the response (or non-response) to the argument that South Africa should take steps to implement a universal basic income (UBI) grant, or at least maintain the emergency unemployment grant of R350 received by more than 6.5 million people, that was pulled in April this year.
The executive and the National Treasury’s counter-argument has largely been the technocratic, cold line that any kind of universal welfare grant is unaffordable, with the country teetering perilously on the edge of a fiscal cliff more than 10 years in the making. Fiscal discipline and austerity is our only option, they intimated, suggesting that the decision has already been made despite evidence that the economic impact of Covid-19 is deepening and quickly crushing households.
And fair enough, South Africa is severely strapped for cash and shorn of life-giving investment. But when President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Monday evening as the riots in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal swelled, and failed to say a word about the economic hardship and desperation faced by millions in the country, it was akin to tossing petrol on to the fumes. He failed to directly address the economic crisis at the core of South Africa’s problems.
In their silence, their failure to communicate, sympathise, and openly talk about what a solution may look like – even if it is not a UBI grant – beyond balancing the books and tightening our belts, the ministers in the economic cluster have done the same. They have poured kerosene on an open flame. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.