MCEBISI JONAS | SA has lots of plans but who is in charge?

19 July 2020 - 00:00
A team of workers disinfect the Babilonia slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last Sunday as the country recorded 659 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours, reaching a total of 72,151 deaths (76,822 this week). Populist leaders such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump in the US have have been found wanting when confronted by the real life-anddeath challenges of the pandemic.
A team of workers disinfect the Babilonia slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last Sunday as the country recorded 659 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours, reaching a total of 72,151 deaths (76,822 this week). Populist leaders such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump in the US have have been found wanting when confronted by the real life-anddeath challenges of the pandemic.
Image: Fabio Teixeira/ NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a widely discussed article published in Foreign Affairs magazine this month, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that those countries that had done well with their pandemic responses have the qualities of state capacity, social trust and leadership. In short, effective government.

SA's response to the twin health and economic crises has been mixed.

The leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa and health minister Zweli Mkhize and their willingness to listen to experts and base policy on science, the country's early action to implement travel restrictions, a lockdown and other measures were widely praised here and abroad.

As Covid numbers rise in the middle of winter we are told that the "storm" is upon us. But this is hardly what was planned for.

There are huge testing backlogs and those who test positive are being sent back into crowded environments where there is no possibility of quarantine. Every indicator is moving in the wrong direction, and Gauteng and the Eastern Cape are running out of hospital beds, nurses, doctors and even oxygen.

For SA, still in recovery from more than a decade of state capture and institutional destruction, the pandemic came at the worst time.

Nowhere is the decay of institutions that have undermined the capacity for effective governance more profound, in the context of a pandemic, than in our provincial health departments.

Our doctors and health workers are performing a heroic task. Many have become infected with the virus and some have died. They are being stretched to capacity and we must ask why, with four months to prepare, we have still been found wanting.

Just as in the health crisis, the pandemic caught the economy in a weakened state. But where leadership in the health crisis was decisive, the stewardship of the economic crisis has not been.

We have been presented with a multitude of plans, but little sense that anyone is in charge. Debates are often stuck between competing ideological positions rather than developing and driving real practical ideas to grow the economy, improve productivity and provide jobs.

Where the focus should be on rebuilding the institutions that were hollowed out under the previous administration, the budget process has been balkanised, and with each new set of policy proposals the process grows more confused.

The Treasury, the department supposed to co-ordinate macroeconomics, has been warning of fiscal collapse over the medium to long term, but is increasingly a voice in the wilderness. It is a false dichotomy to have to choose between reducing the fiscal deficit to avoid a sovereign debt crisis or spending our way to recovery.

Plans that are out there only obscure the deeper problem that the centre is not holding, accentuated by the inherent weaknesses in the government and ruling party. The weak state runs the risk of gaps in both power and policy arising in society. The best example is the view that we can print our way out of trouble, with rising deficits and debt, that all that needs to happen is for the Reserve Bank to print money to finance all our needs.

This notion is couched in populist terms that marginalise the Bank and the Treasury as being conservative and neo-liberal. This is the beginning of a road to economic populism, which Latin America has shown is a swift one to economic ruin and rising poverty and inequality.

Fukuyama describes the pandemic as a global political stress test. "Countries with capable, legitimate governments will come through relatively well and may embrace reforms that make them even stronger and more resilient, thus facilitating their future outperformance. Countries with weak state capacity or poor leadership will be in trouble, set for stagnation, if not impoverishment and instability."

By this standard, everywhere in the world where populists hold power they are failing.

In Brazil, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who once dismissed Covid-19 as the "sniffles", has tested positive. By this week 78,000 people have died and his approval rating is 32%.

In the US, as the death toll reaches 142,000, Donald Trump's poll numbers keep sinking despite attempts to whip up his base with racial fury.

From Latin America to India and the Philippines, nations ruled by populists are among those faring worst in the pandemic.

Politicians who came to power by basing their appeal on bluster and resentment, who have polarised society and scapegoated minorities, have been found wanting when confronted by the real life-and-death challenges of the pandemic.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel says the pandemic has exposed the limits of "fact-denying populism".

We know the countries that have come through stronger: South Korea, Germany, New Zealand and so on. Countries in Africa that appear to be passing the stress test include Rwanda, which is its usual model of efficiency, but also democracies such as Ghana, Senegal and Mauritius.

Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad learnt from the Ebola epidemic of 2014 and imposed health measures to stop the virus in its tracks.

A key lesson of previous epidemics was the importance of good communication so that people understand how their behaviour - wearing masks, social distancing, not overcrowding public transport - protects their health. Chad sent traditional singers and storytellers into remote provinces on donkeys, horses and camels to raise awareness about Covid-19.

It does not take massive resources to combat the pandemic. The US, the richest country in the world, is proving that by failing.

There is a growing fear that SA could fall into Fukuyama's second category of countries that are "set for stagnation, impoverishment and instability". We are realising, with horror, that our state is not fit to meet the challenge of Covid-19. The state, in its centrality of directing society, has banished decades of neo-liberal ideology. Yet everything else is dependent on the state.

We have no choice but to take on the now more urgent reform of our democracy, restructuring our economy, rebuilding our institutions and public services and reawakening the spirit of citizenship.

The ill health of the nation can be gauged by the huge numbers of unemployed - estimated at up to a third of those who could be working - and the many who are hungry.

Nevertheless, the people by and large have kept faith with the government - though the latest impositions via power cuts and the renewed prohibition on alcohol are testing their resolution.

This is the moment that civil society, the private sector and the citizenry at large need to awaken and demand an alternative future.

The real danger is that alongside the mounting socio-economic decline, we have just run out of ideas. Unless we get our act together, start thinking creatively and delivering real change, the people will not be so forgiving forever.

• Jonas is chairman of MTN and former deputy finance minister

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