A Covid-19 coup d'état?

Jeremy Gordin on whether the Ramaphosa govt is using the lockdown for ulterior purposes, and what these may be


Presumably the most immediate concern for most South Africans, and our many “visitors” from north of the Zambezi, is how to obtain food for themselves and their children.

However, for we happy few living above the two bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, other issues including various debates have emerged – and this is so even for those who’ve used large amounts of intellectual and emotional energy wondering how to get our mitts and mouths on liquor and tobacco or in pursuing tedious debates about whether we might be arrested for exercising sans a face mask.

Boiled down, one basic question under discussion is this.

Is the government – President Cyril Ramaphosa, his cabinet, the National Command Council (NCC) and perhaps the ANC too – dealing as best as they can with the local manifestation of Covid-19, or are Ramaphosa et al using the national crisis for more nefarious purposes?

The “events” that have precipitated the second part of the question include, among other things, debates about whether a lockdown was the correct strategy – whether it was applied at the right time and/or using the correct parameters; the martial law type deployment of the SANDF; and foolish and inept elements of the lockdown.

Such elements range from no sales of tobacco, alcohol or hot food, the (initial) ban on exercise outside one’s compound, mansion, home, flat or shack, and the quashing of e-commerce by Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel, to the deaths of at least two people at the hands of the “security forces,” the unpleasant harassment of Moslem worshippers, arresting the parents of a toddler who ran onto a Cape Town beach, the fact that you can still be locked up for exercising after 9am, and the countermanding of Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize (regarding exercise) and Ramaphosa (regarding sales of tobacco products), allegedly by the NCC “collective”.

Above all, the question (“Just what the hell are Ramaphosa and his government doing?”) has been ignited by the destruction of the economy, especially the wiping out of opportunities for many thousands of hungry people to earn some money.

Millions of South Africans are either self-employed, unemployed, earn what they can in the informal sector or survive on a social grant. Under lockdown conditions none of these people is able to lay his or her hands on money except those who get a social grant; and collecting one of these has been plagued by the usual mismanagement and alleged “systems” glitches – in response to which some apparently well-fed laaitie tenders a fatuous apology.

As for the SA Revenue Service and the formal sector, from airlines to media houses, the situation is truly grave. “News” about this is generally known, so I won’t traverse it – now.

In short, to put it politely, Ramaphosa and his government are displaying a terrifying absence of any proportionality, rationality or flexibility; and their inane and patronizing responses to attempts to “engage” on the situation don’t help.

So, returning to the question asked above, are Ramaphosa et al dealing as best they can with the local manifestation of Covid-19 – i.e. are they in many respects merely bumbling and probably frightened incompetents, as are probably many governments throughout the world? – or are they simultaneously up to something else?

At this point, the debate usually takes one of two directions.

The first is that our lockdown is following universal best practice, though some of the local regulations are clearly silly and mistakes have been made, but we need to appreciate that unprecedented economic disaster is an obvious result of Covid-19; look at other countries. I.e., the government is doing the best they can.

The second direction has been well captured by Paul Hoffman of Accountability Now commenting on Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s remarks about the pandemic at an April 25 press conference. Hoffman wrote that NDZ’s “sentiments are not the incoherent mumblings of a frustrated ideologue; they are the seriously expressed intent of a person who came within 169 votes of succeeding her ex-husband as president of SA. They also reveal a commitment to the ideology behind the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) devised by Lenin, one still dreamt of by some in the ANC, despite their failure to launch it in 25 years in national government in SA”.

In other words, the ANC, or large elements of it, many of whom are clearly in the NCC and cabinet, are still pursuing the NDR and the lockdown is a dream come true for the Stalinists (or Leninists) in the ANC, NDZ being one of them. Suddenly people like NDZ have acquired all the powers that they feared would remain forever beyond their grasp following the collapse of Communism. These totalitarian tools have now been handed to them, nicely wrapped with a bow on top, by the doctors, epidemiologists and public health experts. Hence, for example, the countermanding of Mkhize and Ramaphosa who seemed to believe – until they were shown the errors of their ways – that some attention should be paid to rationality, flexibility and the desires of some people.

Hoffman’s cogent argument goes even further: “The window of opportunity arising from the declaration of a state of disaster seems to be viewed by [NDZ] as a bridgehead for introducing economic ‘transformation’ of a kind not seen in 25 years of ANC-led governance.”

Hoffman is referring to some variation of Radical Economic Transformation (RET). One is not entirely sure what RET will comprise. But most of us are old enough and ugly enough to know that, based on recent history, it means that the crooks, while spouting some sort of quasi-Marxist codswallop, intend to find more ways of stealing the country’s and the people’s money.


Let’s take a few minutes to think about Ramaphosa – assuming, for the purposes of this article anyway, that whatever else he might be, the president is no fool, and nor are those who chat to him in his kitchen in the dark reaches of the night. Or rather, given the lockdown and modern habits, talk to him on his private cellphone.

I have read two biographies and countless articles about the man. For what it’s worth, I know people who know him (or knew him in his unionist youth) and they – and many other ostensibly “decent” people – seem devoted to him.

They say he is a man of integrity. Overall, though, it seems Ramaphosa is a very opaque person. Ramaphosa remarked once to his biographer Anthony Butler that “I am an enigma, you know”. One person who worked for a company with which Ramaphosa was involved did say, however, that Ramaphosa is lazy. He lets other people do the heavy lifting.

Then consider, even if it’s a minor matter, Ramaphosa’s behaviour regarding the sale of tobacco products. He promised the country that the ban on legal tobacco sales would be ended. But then NDZ came along some days later and said that it would not be. It appeared to the world that he had been publicly over-ruled, and therefore surely embarrassed, by a hierarchical minion, NDZ. Being the exemplary party man that he is, he soon came to her defence, saying that the (irrational) backtrack on tobacco products “was a collective decision and the public statements by both myself and the Minister were done on behalf of, and mandated by, the collective I lead”. In the immortal words of Willie Madisha, “hong, hong, hong”.

An apparently well-sourced article by Pieter du Toit tells us that this was no great factional play. In between his announcement and NDZ’s, Ramaphosa had been persuaded, by Zweli Mkhize and NDZ, of the error of his initial announcement and simply changed his mind. The whole business, however, did make Ramaphosa look tremendously feeble. A better/stronger politician would have put his foot down in the NCC for just this reason.

Ramaphosa was looking good at that point; people had practically swooned over his “decisiveness” regarding the lockdown. Then suddenly, Ramaphosa comes across more as a hostage than a leader; suddenly he looks like a bemused Teletubby. Given the powers a president has, and which Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma wielded so effectively to their political advantage, it is no mean feat for Ramaphosa to to often come across, at critical moments, as pusillanimous and easily pushed around. 

It makes one wonder.

And don’t forget that Ramaphosa has been pushed around before on numerous occasions, apparently by Ace Magashule and others – viz. the selection of ministers, selection of MPs, selection of parliamentary committee heads, and much of the “policy” stuff such as expropriation without compensation.

Anyway, what seems clear is that, when necessary, Ramaphosa lets others do the hard work and second, that he’s not in charge – he’s got to mind his Ps and Qs in the ANC – and the cabinet and NCC are, let’s face it, the ANC.

There’s a third point. Some people, including me, tend to pass over that Ramaphosa, notwithstanding having been a trade union firebrand, has been playing on the “high” Capitalist playing fields since 1996, so much so that when he returned to active politics in 2012 he was one of the country’s richest people.


In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the US Congress enacted copious legislation designed explicitly to expand the powers of federal, state and local governments to protect what was then America’s apparently beleaguered “national security”.

These powers, draconian to their core, effectively granted the military, the National Guard, the coastguard and virtually every other law enforcement agency, including even traffic police, dogcatchers, and postmen, the right and duty to identify (intuitively, if necessary) individuals as terrorists simply because they looked like Arabs, or Asians, or Latinos, or immigrants with swarthy skins, or if they dressed like letter boxes or wore hoodies.

Such suspicious miscreants, whether strolling to mosque, or gathered on street corners whispering about Abou ben Adam’s wet dream, or merely taking flying lessons, could be and often were surveilled by peeping toms posing as concerned citizens, or had their mobile phones tapped, correspondence opened, emails hacked, computers cloned and travel movements monitored, by any or every authority – without warrants if given approval by some patriotic judge.

Facial recognition helped too. With the passage of time, such surveillance has been extended to every American (and others) suspected of terrorism, whether rightly or wrongly. Suffice to say, none of these laws have been repealed since 9/11, only refined or tweaked to disguise their true intent.

Suffice it also to say, these laws have been adopted by most of the US’s traditional allies (read: countries dependent on America for money, aid or military protection), especially its other “Five Eyes” partners, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom must obviously wear patches on their left eyes.

They, too, have curtailed the liberties of their citizens, and, hence attenuated their democracies, in the name of fighting a “legitimate” war against terrorism. And they, like the US, have also used the cover of this war to crack down on all dissidents and dissent within their own countries, typically by broadening the definition of dissent to include “disruptive” trade union(ist) activity and socialists bent on upending the rule-governed world order established after the Second World War.

Unspoken in the political narratives of all today’s right-leaning and increasingly illiberal democracies are thus two easily answered but pertinent questions. Who made the above-mentioned rules and what sort of order are they designed to uphold?

The answer is that the US made the rules to uphold a specifically global capitalist order of which it was the hegemon. Consequently, as that world order crashed under the weight of its own excesses, so too did the rest of the world crash – brought to its knees by the 2008/9 financial crisis that began in New York (not Wuhan) and that spread virus-like across the entire planet.

It was into this global order that South Africa was ensnared as a very junior partner way back in 1945, notwithstanding the fact that the country had been beholden to foreign capital from the day diamonds were first discovered in the late 1880s. And it is the misfortunes of this global order that beget the misfortunes of South Africa as it, too, moves to the right to defend its own dysfunctional, skewed capitalist economy sucked dry not only by “state capture” but by some companies pumping profits out of the country faster than ordure flies off a shovel.

Having long wanted to “reform” our economy by making it easier to hire and fire workers, lower taxes by paring the number of civil servants and by cutting back on welfare benefits, would it not also be in the interests of corporate South Africa to seize the opportunity provided by Covid-19 to press the state to borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and thereby achieve these goals?

Workers beware, structural adjustment here we come.


Just making the point that Draconian measures, even if they’re arguably more subtle than our present lockdown ones, have been around for some time, and are in the hands of the CIA, MI6 and Mossad, not only the (former) KGB or the Stasi [Editor’s note: they no longer even exist]; and they’re aimed mainly at those who get in the way of the rules of the rule-governed world as designed for us by what we call “Western democracies”.

But this is just by the way.

Much more importantly, Ramaphosa has indeed been handed a gift in terms of the lockdown – but, whatever pipe dreams NDZ and other useful idiots might be smoking, this gift has precious little to do with the NDR, RET, or Stalin.

Ramaphosa and those around him surely know perfectly well that South Africa is machulah – broke, bust, bankrupt. Tons of money have been stolen (mostly by members or supporters of the ruling party), the SOEs are down the tubes, the public sector wage bill is bloated, national debt is out of control, unemployment is higher than a kite can fly, the state is incapable, and people are hungry.

Now among those around Ramaphosa are so-called captains of industry or, rather, the captains of investment banks, the corporatists – and here’s a quick reality check. Remember when President Jacob Zuma fired former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene on 9 December 2015, the rand tanked and so much else went to hell? Who swung into action? When the markets plummet, it’s the money men who start banging pots and pans vigorously.

So, for some time now, there’s been Ramaphosa and Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni and some captains of money, and perhaps others too, maybe Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan – though definitely not NDZ, Patel and other Marxist pipe-dreamers – and Ramaphosa and friends realized something had to be done.

Difficulty has been, and is, that Ramaphosa is walking two or three tightropes at the same time and, if he slips off one or two or three, well, you know what happens. If you don’t break your head on the ground below, you end up with a rope between your legs, which is painful. Ramaphosa has thus had to play the game via proxies.

So, maybe Ramaphosa could speak to the Chinese, maybe he has already. Trouble with the Chinese is that “they” are like those private equity outfits – what you sell them, they strip down faster than you can say Cabral, including the attached pension funds. And if you ask the Chinese to build stuff for you, they will, but on their own terms and with their own workers. That’ll go down big with local workers, especially ones without jobs.

If Ramaphosa controlled a large majority within the ANC’s top echelon, he could have done what he wanted to do. But, as noted, he’s not even allowed to let people have a smoke. 

So, it’s to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) he must go. But Ramaphosa can’t be seen to be doing this – the ANC is in a tri-partite alliance with Cosatu and the SACP and it’s common cause that the IMF will request structural adjustments including massive retrenchments and/or pay cuts in the civil service and maybe also a properly functioning Prasa, Eskom and national airline.

To put it delicately, Ramaphosa would have to tell the unions that, unfortunately, to save the country, they must eat shxt; millions of their members will be unemployed or have their pay sliced. Or, to put it even more delicately, Ramaphosa would have to explain that the only way SA can get the money from the IMF is if the unions can find a way of screwing themselves in the posterior.

In short, Ramaphosa must know and have known for a while that the country needs massive loans but with these will require massive sacrifices and even lead to mass civil unrest.  

Then along comes Covid-19 and the lockdown. What a gift! Now Ramaphosa can tell the public sector workers/unions that it’s a crisis, we must go to the IMF (what choice do we have?), but to get money from the IMF, we must make compromises. Sorry fellers, we – er, which means you – are going to have to deal with massive pay cuts and retrenchments, while the rest of us with money are going to, well, soldier on.

And Draconian rules work well in such a situation, especially running a curfew and deploying the SANDF. A curfew keeps people off the streets and the real reason for the army is stop food riots and unrest.

Ramaphosa, having been, as it were, handed the lockdown, is able to execute a cunning plan to obliterate the difficulties presented by the RET adherents, Cosatu and the SACP – and he can also ensure that capitalism will triumph in the end.


Or that, I suggest, is what wily Ramaphosa probably tells the leading corporatists, money people and fellow elitists: I’ve been able to free my hands, at least as far as the so-called Left is concerned and can get on with setting things right for all of us. Don’t worry, I have a plan. (Isn’t that what he’s just said to the British American Tobacco company, so it’d withdraw its legal action?)

There is, alas, a catch – the small matter of the harsh reality of the effects of this lockdown.

In his book on writing, Stephen King says authors should eschew adverbs. Maybe – but this economy is going speedily down the toilet – now. Between three and seven million people stand to lose their jobs. SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter foresees a revenue shortfall of about R285bn for this financial year, with the excise loss on alcohol and cigarettes in April alone amounting to R1,7bn.

As RW Johnson has recently written, “[F]or the moment, politics is mainly about grumbles about alcohol and tobacco. But this is Lilliputian stuff. Before long Gulliver [the “realisation” of a massive loss of GDP and of jobs and of what this portends] will awake and then the whole game changes”. Or, as the Financial Mail remarked on Thursday: “It’s starting to look as if SA’s lockdown was a huge overreaction – one that is going to cause more lasting economic damage than any harm the virus could mete out”.

So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the President sitting back enjoying his handiwork, and dreaming of Henry Ford, Michael Milken and other well-shod gents; or NDZ relishing her role and dreaming of Stalin, Kaganovich, and Pol Pot; or even Patel, with your fingers in your mouth as you reflect on having given the middle finger to economic estimates as mere “thumb-sucks”.

Bottom line is that there’s a massive hole in the bottom of the already-leaking boat; and if Ramaphosa and the government don’t radically re-tool or lift the lockdown quickly, many more people are going to drown. So never mind Radical Economic Transformation. As things stand now, there’s not going to be any economic transformation at all. There might not even be anything resembling an economy.