The Coronavirus Pandemic – Decisive leadership needed on all social fronts
20 March 2020
On Sunday, 15 March 2020 President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a wide-ranging and comprehensive address to the nation, announced a national state of disaster in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Ramaphosa’s address was widely, and correctly, commended across most of the social and political spectrum. It has once more underlined that, at its best (and it has not always been remotely at its best), a collective national-democratic leadership spearheaded by the ANC-led movement is the only force capable of providing cohesive, nation-building mobilisation in the complex and often fractious, post-apartheid reality of South Africa.
We will, of course, not escape the pandemic. It is still too early to assess just how effective the measures announced will be in helping to moderate the dire impact. But without a state-led, common effort within the context of these emergency measures the situation would become immeasurably more difficult.
Nation-building mobilisation based on a shared sense of solidarity, of an injury to one is an injury to all, is essential. It is needed not just to confront the coronavirus pandemic but our country’s numerous and interrelated developmental challenges – inequality, unemployment, poverty and the scourge of crime and gendered violence.
Imagine, for a moment, if this pandemic had struck South Africa under a President John Steenhuisen, or a President Helen Zille. Both might well be relatively competent centre-right politicians. But they would simply not have the social stature or breadth of authority or broad movement and solidaristic history behind them to harness the country behind the tough but decisive measures now required. (Even the most ardent DA supporters know this in their hearts.)
But this is not a time for narrow, party political partisanship – still less arrogance. Those of us in the ANC-led alliance need only imagine where we would be as a country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic if we were still under a Guptarised axis ruling in the name of the ANC and evoking a pseudo “radical economic transformation” agenda as a cover for laundering their loot in Dubai.
Ramaphosa has moved decisively and in detail. A national state of disaster has been declared. This gives the state important powers to close borders, to refuse visas, to close schools, to stop gatherings of more than a hundred persons, and much more. But an important feature of the presidential announcement is that it does not rely on state power alone. It is appealing to all South Africans to do their bit to take care of ourselves, to self-isolate where appropriate, to show solidarity with those most vulnerable, and not to panic. Time will tell how effectively we are able, collectively, to follow this approach – but it is the only feasible response to a pandemic that will affect us all.
But then a question arises. If our government is able to declare a national state of disaster with stringent measures including determined state interventions to restrict travel and other personal freedoms, and still receive widespread social support – why are we not able to declare a national state of disaster in the face of a 50 per cent plus youth unemployment rate, for instance?
Part of the answer is, of course, that the Coronavirus strikes the rich and poor alike. Indeed, the introduction of the Coronavirus into South Africa has come through those wealthy enough to take overseas holidays. There are, therefore, objective grounds for a broad, cross-class consensus on moving with urgency.
But a further part of the answer is a growing global awareness that some countries have got their responses relatively right – China, South Korea, Taiwan (China), Vietnam, Singapore. These Asian countries (with quite different ideological stances among them) have all, historically and now again, not been afraid to use state power to intervene actively in what they variously regard as the public interest. Other countries, the Nordics for instance, where social democratic public health systems have not been entirely gutted by the neo-liberal turn, have also been able to respond relatively effectively.
The contrast between these Asian and Nordic responses and those of bumbling, friends of the mega-rich, political leaderships in Italy, the UK and the US has been all too obvious. In these latter countries, doctors, epidemiologists, public health specialists and the public at large have been deeply critical of their governments.
South Africa is not China, South Korea or Sweden – but there are lessons to be learnt. We have been far too timid in driving forward a comprehensive National Health Insurance, the NHI. We have allowed our public health system to be hugely overstretched long before the arrival of the coronavirus, allowing the bulk of health resources to be enjoyed by the 16 per cent of South Africans with access to private health care. Poverty, unemployment, deep inequality and public health are all interacting realities.
If we can close many of our land ports, if we can shut down schools temporarily, if we can prevent visitors from most affected countries from entering our country – then why have we been so timid about introducing prescribed assets on a financial sector awash with billions of rands playing in the casino economy?
If we can use decisive state power in the public interest to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, why have we not used state power to shut down massive illegal capital flows out of our country? Why (see the forthcoming issue of the African Communist) did we not long ago build up a major, buffer sovereign wealth fund by imposing, amongst other things, a windfall tax on Sasol when it was still making super-profits out of its sale of petrol on our local markets? Why have we been so timid with urban land reform, perpetuating apartheid spatial patterns that will now expose millions of South Africans to crowded and potentially highly infectious minibus commutes?
Of course, it is pointless crying over lost opportunities. The point now is to learn honest lessons, and to follow the example set by President Ramaphosa on Sunday by expanding state decisiveness and broad popular mobilisation into the wider socio-economic crises.
*This article first appeared in the SACP's online journal Umsebenzi Online. It is an editorial from the forthcoming African Communist, Issue 202, 1st & 2nd Quarter 2020