Covid-19: No wake-up call after all

William Saunderson-Meyer says our ruling elite remains as oblivious to hard realities as ever


One might justifiably have hoped that the Covid-19 pandemic wouldn’t be all bad. That there would inadvertently be a few happy side effects.

For example, the pandemic might galvanise Cyril Ramaphosa’s languorous style of government. Previously, this seemed based on the delusion that he had ahead of him a 20-year presidency, backed by an African National Congress that would be in power until — as his predecessor phrased it — Jesus returns.

Conceivably, Covid might even encourage the ANC to dump some of the more grotesque skeletons stored in its attic. If #RhodesMustFall, why not Marx, Lenin and Stalin? Or at least pacify us with those long-promised, top-level Zupta arrests, which the ANC’s media cheerleaders promised would happen no later than December last year.

Unfortunately, nothing doing. Those outcomes were always in the realm of fairies, no more likely to materialise than Tinker Bell.

Nevertheless, the pandemic's disastrous economic effects surely meant coming to terms with some hard realities. The fiscal cupboard was now undeniably bare and some government expenditure was no longer sustainable. 

The national airline, SAA, would have to fold. It had a crushing debt overhang of R28bn and had been run into the ground.

It had the wrong planes and was flying the wrong routes. Out of the 90 destinations to which SAA flew, only five were profitable.

It had more than 10,000 staff, giving SAA a staff-to-plane ratio of about 200:1. Best international practice is 120-130:1 for overseas routes and 90-100:1 for domestic routes.

Add the pandemic-induced additional burden of a global turndown in tourism, which left even the efficiently run airlines gasping for survival, it meant that SAA was surely dead? But no, while waiting for Jesus, the ANC is going to pull off a modern-day Lazarus — Minister Pravin Gordhan has decreed that SAA will rise from the dead and fly again.

Such strength of political faith on the part of the governing tripartite alliance would be inspiring, were it not so scary. Our future is in the hands of ideological true-believers, colloquially known as fanatics, who skrik vir niks.

As with any group that thinks of itself as the Chosen, its members never feel that they have to examine their privilege. The unionised workforce, already a minority within a relatively small working aristocracy, has emerged from the Covid lockdown feeling mightily hard done by.

Hundreds of thousands of private-sector workers lost jobs and, if fortunate enough to remain employed, forfeited leave and had salaries cut. Public sector workers did virtually zero work during lockdown but remained fully paid, lost no benefits, and face no imminent threat of job cuts.

Yet, despite the economic pit that the country is in, with increased health expenditure, substantially decreased tax revenue, and a large increase in unemployment, the public sector unions want more. They are wrangling to get the 8% salary increases agreed upon in a three-year pay deal that was struck during a different economic era.

The cadres running South Africa's local authorities are similarly untroubled by reality. The predictions are of an economic contraction of between 8-15%, while they are bidding, on average, for a 6.5% increase in pay. 

These are entities that have long abandoned any pretence at the provision of services. They now exist almost solely as a mechanism to transform rates into councillor and staff salaries.

Far from being enervated by Covid, the unions have been invigorated. Like recalcitrant school children, the teaching unions have been trying every trick in the malingerer book to avoid going back. The health worker unions have been worse, actively sabotaging clinics and hospitals. 

Port Elizabeth’s Livingstone Hospital, one of the badly affected Eastern Cape’s only three Covid treatment facilities, has been brought to its knees by two weeks of industrial action by support staff. They wanted unrestricted overtime pay and management has now capitulated.

During the dispute, the casualty unit had to be closed. Patients, sleeping on bare mattresses in the bitterly cold Eastern Cape winter, had to assist the nurses in cleaning the wards and putting out meals. In defiance of militant protestors, doctors were smuggling out their surgical gowns to launder at home, so that they could continue to treat the desperately ill.

Defending the decision to cave-in, the superintendent-general of Eastern Cape Health, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, said this week that the department had no option. “Those workers refused to go even one extra mile for us,” he said disconsolately.

Mbengashe is right, there was no option but to pay up. The union movement is uncontrollable and lacks any sense of wider social responsibility. 

The ANC panders to these union whims because, as a political party, it would struggle to achieve an electoral majority without Cosatu support. President Cyril Ramaphosa — the alliance’s stand-in for JC until the Rapture occurs — is similarly dependent on union support to retain the leadership of the party and hence the country.

Fortunately, the ANC and Ramaphosa have in hand some crafty dodges to avoid the economic pain brought by Covid. They’re seriously considering simply printing more money to solve our budgetary woes (it worked so well in Zimbabwe) and/or forcing asset managers to invest in state enterprises and government bonds (it worked so well for the apartheid regime).

Just in case these strategies falter, respected constitutional expert Pierre de Vos is punting another solution: doing away with inheritances or, at the very least, imposing swingeing death duties. This will put a stop to the ability of whites to transfer “intergenerational wealth” that has over centuries of colonial and apartheid rule made them wealthy.

De Vos is vague on the detail of his plan, saying, “I am not a tax expert, so have avoided speaking about practicality.” He also concedes obstacles other than the peskily inconvenient belief by South Africans, of all races, that they should be able to decide what happens to their possessions when they die. 

Says De Vos, “For the state just to take your property is probably going to be difficult to justify in terms of our Constitution. Obviously, it would require a complete overhaul of the current law of succession …that is the problem. These are such mundane words — “probably” and “obviously” — but in this context loaded with menace. 

It’s difficult to know what to make of De Vos’ startling proposal. He may just have had a rush of blood to the head, what with being able to buy booze again. Or he may be angling for that spot on the Constitutional Court that is reserved for white men who can demonstrate fanatical redistributionist beliefs. 

Either way, in a country where the normally unthinkable is regrettably readily elevated into law, his is a suggestion that might well find traction in ANC circles. After all, if the expropriation of land without compensation is so easily justified, inheritance seizures may be a logical next step.

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