OPINION

A national sacrifice, for nothing -John Steenhuisen

DA leader says the ANC govt's lockdown inflicted economic carnage on South Africa

ASEAN diplomat address

28 July 2020

Like every other country in the world, South Africa has been severely affected by the global spread of the coronavirus. But what sets our case apart from the rest of the world is that the vast majority of the economic carnage was not inflicted by the virus but by our very own government.

With our Covid infections now climbing into the really big numbers, the full picture of our government’s failure these past four months is just starting to emerge.

President Ramaphosa was initially lauded for the swift decision, back in March, to send the country into lockdown and curb all social and economic activity in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus.

South Africa seemed to have acted faster and more aggressively in taking this decision than virtually any other country in the world. This was perceived and described, at the time, as bold leadership.

It didn’t take long, however, for that myth to be busted. Shutting down the economy, it turns out, was the easy part.

The hard part was using this precious lockdown period, during which people had to watch helplessly as everything crumbled, for its intended purpose. Which was to bolster the country’s healthcare and testing response before the wave of infections hit us.

And also, to put in place a workable economic relief plan for South African households facing unimaginable hardship and hunger due to the lockdown, as well as for thousands of businesses that wouldn’t otherwise survive weeks, let alone months, with no turnover.

But neither of these two things materialised in any meaningful way during a lockdown that was meant to last three weeks, but ended up dragging on for over three months.

The longest hard lockdown in the world, in a country that could least afford it.

The result now is catastrophic and irreparable damage to the country’s economy with absolutely nothing to show for it.

South Africans were asked by the president to make unthinkable sacrifices so that government could have a little time to set up field hospitals, source ventilators and oxygen, procure PPE, redeploy medical staff and put in place a methodical and sizable testing and tracing programme.

None of that happened. People sacrificed everything they had for nothing.

I say none of that happened, but that’s not entirely true. One of the nine provinces managed to put together a very impressive response in a very short time, which included several fully operational field hospitals.

But in the other eight provinces the state of the healthcare response is just nowhere, as was highlighted in a recent BBC report on the horror hospitals of the Eastern Cape.

That one province that got it right just happens to be the only one run by the DA, while every other ANC-run province is floundering right now.

And we’re told not to politicise this crisis. But the nightmare of our country’s failed Covid response is entirely political. Every misstep by the ANC national government or the ANC provincial governments is a result of bad ANC politics and ideology.

As we have seen throughout the world in recent months, a crisis like this Covid pandemic shines a bright spotlight on a government’s ability to make big decisions quickly, and then implement these decisions across different spheres of government.

It is a test our government has failed. And the main reason for this is that our state has been systematically hollowed out through two and a half decades of cadre deployment, where the only criteria for holding a position is loyalty to the ANC.

This cadre deployment has been an official ANC policy since the late 90’s, when they unashamedly stated their intention to control all levers of power in the state by deploying party loyalists to key positions. This has stripped government departments, local governments and state-owned companies of critical managerial and technical skills.

Before anyone had even heard of Covid19, the ANC’s cadre deployment had already brought our economy to its knees, with billions pumped into failed parastatals every year, and just about every ANC-run municipality unable to provide even the most basic of services.

The pandemic, however, has magnified the destructive effects of cadre deployment tenfold, as we watched a wholly incapable state reel from one catastrophic decision to the next, while our already fragile economy drained away like water from a cracked bucket.

Back in March, many mistook that first decision to lock down the economy for boldness and courage. In hindsight, it was the exact opposite. It was the easiest decision the president could make, because whatever happened afterwards could simply be pinned on the pandemic.

And he has been doing precisely that. He and his ministers have used every possible opportunity to scapegoat Covid19 for all the self-inflicted ills in our country.

The truth is, our economy was already in recession before Covid19. Our two consecutive quarters of negative growth – the definition of a recession – came in quarters three and four of 2019.

Before that there was another recession after the first two quarters of 2018. Our economic growth for 2019 was just 0.2%.

Our economy had already been torpedoed by a government with an outdated 20th Century worldview and catastrophically poor policies, long before the Coronavirus hit our shores.

But our incapable state is not the sole reason for our government’s terrible response to this crisis. Their stubborn refusal to co-opt the necessary skills from beyond government has played a massive role too.

For them, anyone outside of the ANC and its alliance partners is considered an ideological enemy, and cannot be trusted. The private sector is often treated with open hostility, and tax-paying businesses and individuals are merely necessary evils.

And so, when we required agile and informed decision-making structures that could swiftly respond to the fast-changing situation of this pandemic, government largely shunned the help they desperately needed.

Instead we got an authoritarian and opaque cluster of cabinet ministers who answered to no one and ruled by decree.

Yes, government has a Ministerial Advisory Committee that comprises some of the country’s top scientists. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this committee will be circumvented or just plainly ignored if it offers scientific advice that doesn’t align with government’s pre-determined ideas.

A perfect example of this is the recent decision to close all public schools again. This went against the recommendations of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, and it flat-out ignored the science.

What it didn’t ignore, however, was the demands of one of its political allies and an important source of votes, the teacher’s trade union SADTU. Just as it had earlier caved to the demands of another strategic ally, the taxi industry.

And that has been the story of our government’s response to this crisis these past four months: Ignore the science, side-line the experts, hide the data and rule by decree.

Incapable of doing the things that really make a difference – building field hospitals, increasing intensive care and critical care beds, sourcing PPE, deploying private sector doctors and nurses where they’re needed, dramatically ramping up testing numbers and executing a thorough tracking and tracing programme – they turned to the petty things that they could control.

Every minister on the National Command Council used this crisis as an opportunity to flex their authoritarian muscles and drive their own agendas, because they knew no one could stop them. The lack of parliamentary oversight during a state of disaster meant they could get away with it.

And so, instead of taking smart steps to slow the spread of infections, we had regulations, issued with the stroke of a pen, that outlawed cooked food, cigarettes, alcohol, summer clothing and footwear, exercise, e-commerce and just about every other form of economic activity.

We even had regulations banning the feeding of the poor and hungry through soup kitchens and school feeding programmes. Let that sink in – a government that calls itself pro-poor, arresting good Samaritans for dishing out food to starving citizens.

It just became a free-for-all for ministers hopped up on unchecked power to do whatever they wanted and, in the process, criminalise thousands of peaceful, law-abiding citizens who simply want to survive and feed their families.

Just last week one of the ugliest of these scenes played out in Cape Town, when a peaceful protest to parliament by restaurant workers begging government to let them work was met with stun grenades, water cannons and arrests.

These are people who had, for four months, done exactly what the president had asked of them. They had sacrificed everything, and yet they were treated like common criminals and thugs by their own government.

It was a shameful day for our government, to go along with the many other shameful days in which ordinary citizens had been brutalised and criminalised, shot at, beaten and even killed, all under the guise of enforcing a slew of senseless lockdown regulations.

Throughout this lockdown the DA has challenged, through the courts, these irrational regulations and heavy-handed overreach by government.

If there had been proper parliamentary oversight over the decisions of the National Command Council, many of these legal challenges would not have been necessary.

And it is for this reason that we challenged the very constitutionality of the Disaster Management Act itself, asking for parliamentary oversight to be restored to decisions taken under a State of Disaster.

Not all of our legal challenges succeeded immediately – we weren’t granted direct access to the Constitutional Court in the Disaster Management Act case, which means we now have to take the longer route through the courts to correct this constitutional flaw.

But we have achieved some significant victories, such as the right of NGOs to feed the poor. And in some cases the mere prospect of a court defeat was enough to have indefensible regulations revoked, such as the ban on e-commerce and the right of the personal care industry to return to work.

There are, however, still many irrational and destructive regulations in place, and we will continue to fight to have them reversed so that people can begin to pick up the pieces of their lives and the economy destroyed by our government.

And that is what lies at the heart of the DA’s approach to this crisis: rationality and common sense.

Since the very beginning of this crisis we have implored President Ramaphosa to act in the best interest of all South Africans by applying a simple rationality test to each and every decision.

We have repeatedly made the point to him that these decisions can never be seen as a choice between lives and livelihoods. Because by destroying livelihoods you are also destroying lives, and far more than the virus ever will. Poverty kills.

We have asked the president to trust the science experts on his advisory committee, and to play open cards with the people of South Africa when it comes to the data and recommendations that inform decisions.

We have implored him to reach out to more outside help – the private sector, NGOs, opposition parties etc – because this task is too big for a government that already couldn’t cope.

We offered him our own solutions and plans, many of which were based on valuable experience gained in the Western Cape, where the first Covid spikes occurred. We extended a hand of cooperation wherever we could.

But it seems we were talking to the wrong person.

The president, it turns out, is little more than a spectator in all of this. His old nemesis from the ANC’s leadership race, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has managed to overshadow and overrule him, thanks to the powers handed to her through the Disaster Management Act.

And those in her camp have wasted no time digging themselves in. This Covid crisis has handed power to them on a platter, and they will not let go easily.

Given the perilous state of our economy and the massive unemployment numbers even before the pandemic hit, we should have used this crisis as an opportunity to hit the reset button.

We should have used this opportunity to drive through all the reforms needed to rebuild and re-organise our economy into one fit for the 21st century.

At the very start of the crisis, President Ramaphosa and his Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, had all the public support they needed to do so. If they were truly the reformers in the party, as many would have us believe, this should have been their moment.

But they squandered it. They allowed the worst of the ANC to run the show while they looked on from the side-lines. And instead of using the Covid crisis as an opportunity for reform, it now looks likely that the crisis will be used as an opportunity to push through even more destructive, backward-looking ANC policy.

Instead of cutting loose, splitting up or selling off failed state-owned entities like SAA and Eskom, government has committed billions more in taxpayer bailouts.

Instead of walking away from investment killing policies like property expropriation, National Health Insurance and asset prescription, government is doubling down on all of them.

Instead of admitting that Black Economic Empowerment has, for decades, been little more than an enrichment scheme for connected cadres and has done nothing to redress economic imbalances in our society, government has in fact decided to apply these race classifications in deciding who is deserving of emergency Covid relief and who isn’t.

The truth is, there are no reformers in the ANC. Or if there are, their wings are clipped very soon and any talk of economic reform amounts to nothing.

Any turnaround strategy for South Africa will have to come from outside the ruling party. And, given the history of voting patterns and traditional loyalties, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our future lies in coalition politics.

While other countries have to try and rebuild post-covid economies, we’ll have to completely realign our politics so that we can rebuild a post-ANC economy.

At the heart of this realignment will be the DA’s vision for an open, opportunity-driven economy, enabled by a fit-for-purpose and capable state. Whoever shares this vision will be our allies in this project.

A year or two ago it seemed unlikely that the DA would be in a position to say this. We had started to lose our principled moorings – something many of our voters had noticed – and we had, for the first time ever, gone backwards at the polls.

We had shed votes to the left and the right – an indication that we hadn’t shifted ideologically as much as we had simply drifted around.

What followed was the most intensive period of introspection and scrutiny in our party’s history. Our wide-ranging internal review process confirmed many of the things we had suspected, and made recommendations that would no doubt shake our party to the core, but also put us firmly back on the right path.

And that’s precisely what happened. The DA that so many had written off in 2019 is unrecognisable from the DA today. We have rediscovered our purpose and we have a burning desire once more to make our vision for South Africa a reality.

If this Covid crisis has exposed the failures of the ANC, it has also exposed the strengths of the DA.

No other party stepped up to the plate like the Democratic Alliance did.

Whether it’s the DA as a party fighting for the rights and survival of all South Africans, or the DA in government showing how a province and a metro can adequately respond to this crisis, I could not be prouder.

Our country may be at an all time low and our economy may be on its knees, but we are not beaten yet. Because I know the quality of this party of ours.

And if this is what the core of a future governing coalition looks like, South Africa is in good hands.

I thank you.

Issued by AzolaMboniswa, Spokesperson to the DA Leader, 28 July 2020