Prepare now for a post-Covid-19 SA

Ernst Roets on what to watch out for in the short, medium and long-term

We must start preparing for post-corona now already

When problems are noted before they occur, it is easy to remedy them. But if you wait until they approach, the medicine is too late because the illness has become incurable.

Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote the above, isn’t quite famous for the fine work ethics that he advocated. The advice he gives in The Prince is so controversial that some speculate that he meant the book as a satire. Yet, there are many important lessons one can learn from Machiavelli – even if it is only to be prepared on how the state will possibly behave itself. He continues:

This also happens in affairs of state, for when the evils that arise have been predicted (which only wise man can do), they can be quickly dealt with. But when, through not having been predicted, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy.

In the heat of the corona confusion it becomes easy to get entangled in the hysteria and the waves of media information. It can have a debilitating effect on us, which results in us being so caught up in the present that we can no longer see what is happening around us – how the world is changing, and that we will also change because of these circumstances.

The world after corona

Foreign Policy went as far as to state: “The pandemic will change the world forever.” It may sound like a dramatic statement and may even be an exaggeration. The world will indeed be different after the corona pandemic – but it will not be a different world.

Major political changes are currently taking place. We can see this on international, national and community level. At the same time things will remain the same. The political landscape will indeed change, but the tension between East and West will continue; the ANC will still be the ANC; conspiracy theories will still exist (and may even become more prominent); and the “take back the land” group will not disappear – to name but a few examples.

We can accept that those who are intent on restricting our rights have already started to adapt their strategies to these changes. If we do not do so too, there will be no remedy to react to this after the crisis – as Machiavelli warns.

We can already identify changes and may already speculate about the consequences. In this way we can be prepared for what may probably happen in the future.


This is why Sun Tzu says:

He who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease, and he who comes later to the scene and rushes into the fight is weary. And, therefore, those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by the enemy.

He also says that a good general analyses his opponent’s plans in order to identify strong and weak points beforehand, and then provides for these in his own strategy.

The coronavirus will most probably result in a rearranging of priorities, also for governments. We must be able to provide for these shifts in priorities with reasonable certainty, but – even more importantly – identify these swiftly when it does find favour. It obviously entails that we should rethink what we will be spending our energies on.

Preview – South Africa

The possible effects of the lockdown are more comprehensive than we realise. It is especially important to consider the effect of the lockdown on politics, civil rights and the economy.

In terms of politics, Cyril Ramaphosa is lauded far and wide for his actions to limit the spread of the virus – especially by his critics. His approval ratings are probably higher than ever before. Ironically, it seems that people who have not voted for him are following his orders, however, while those who actually voted for him do not seem to bother much. Ramaphosa will most probably act with a greater degree of confidence, but competition and suspicion within the ruling party will most probably also increase. Greater public trust in the President may have the opposite effect in the ruling party.

Regarding civil rights, there is almost no civil right that has not yet been limited. The limitations on our right to freedom of movement (we may only leave our homes under certain conditions), to economic activities (businesses had to close their doors) and to freedom of speech (you can be jailed for spreading fake news about the virus) are obvious.

There are also other rights that are limited, for example our right to privacy (cell phone technology is used to track people who tested positive for COVID-19, as well as those with whom they had contact), to education (schools had to be closed necessarily) and to freedom and security of person (you may be forced to undergo corona tests) – to name but a few.

The legal system came to a standstill for all practical purposes because only urgent courts may function. We must also consider people accused in thousands of criminal cases who are not currently in court and are either on street or detained without trial (in which case there is a further burden on the state).

We will not even mention the so-called guarantees in the Constitution that will be even less realistic when the economic effects of the lockdown become apparent. I refer here to the so-called second-generation rights in the Constitution, for example the right to housing, the right to work and the right to food.

We should have no illusion about what will happen to the economy: The economy is severely affected by the lockdown. Businesses will close their doors in large numbers; more than 1 million will most probably lose their jobs; national debt will probably increase to 70% of GDP; and the economy will most probably shrink with 5%.

Moreover, these figures were based on the assumption that government would not have extended the lockdown. A few respected economists informed me that these figures are but a conservative estimate … Moody’s Investors Service’s recent downgrade of South Africa’s credit rating to junk status will not make things easier. And please note: The downgrade mostly relates to poor government actions and policy and the results thereof, and not only to the corona virus.

Ideological interpretation

Liberals, conservative and leftist thinkers are now all saying that they will tell the world after this crisis: “We told you so.” Our ideologies are the spectacles through which we look at the world, the filters we unknowingly use to make sense of what is happening around us.

To claim that you do not have an ideology or frame of mind simply speak of a lack of self-knowledge – we all have one and we use it daily, whether we know it or not. This explains why people rationalise the current state of affairs within the context of their own ideological frames of reference and confidently believe that the correctness of their ideas is thus confirmed. We should therefore not believe that any political ideology is defeated as a result of a crisis like this one. Not even the fall of the Berlin Wall was enough to stop Marxism in its tracks!

People’s sentiments will however indeed be influenced, which is good and bad news for different ideologies. Socialists and transformationists – as Prof. Koos Malan calls them – will say that more state power and centralisation of power are necessary to fight the crisis. They will say that the free market should be regulated and that capitalism does not offer solutions, especially since the decisions of Western capitalist governments such as the UK and Italy are viewed as the reason why the impact of COVID-19 is so significant in these states.

People who have always wanted to destroy the economy obtained a comfortable excuse for demanding this from the moral high ground – and if you disagree, it is said that you do not care if people die. On the other hand, state incompetence will expose the inefficiency of larger governments and centralised power in these times, which is bad news for socialists.

Liberals and libertarians will point to the failures of the state as the reason why the centralisation of power is not a good idea. After the crisis, liberals will find it a bit more difficult to convince people that their proposal – i.e. the absolutized freedom of the individual – is the solution. After the crisis, people will be more in favour of coordinated group action and less inclined to an ideology which argues that individuals should decide their own actions. Think of the negative reaction to the news that there are people who give a fig for the lockdown.

On the other hand, the lockdown will probably lead to a strengthening of conservative ideas. Whereas liberals dislike borders because it limits the individual, conservatives want borders and want to see these controlled. The corona crisis will strengthen the argument for border control.

Just like liberals, the conservatives are also sceptical about state authority, but conservatives argue that authority should be decentralised and established in communities. Conservative ideas will find more favour as a result of the crisis. This does not mean in the least, however, that politicians in a place like South Africa will suddenly turn conservative.  

To argue that the spread of the virus should be contained, does not have to mean the economy should be destroyed. To save the economy does not mean that one need not do anything about the virus. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance. If the virus is curbed, but people can no longer put bread on the table, it will in any case lead to great unrest, looting, unemployment, famine and death.

The long-term effects of it can be even more serious than those of the virus itself. Arguing against the lockdown for the preservation of the economy is in many people’s mind a morally indefensible argument, especially if one does not have an alternative plan.

The argument for the preservation of the economy – and, therefore, that people should still be able to work and care for their families – is indeed a moral argument, although many people do not see it this way. AfriForum’s viewpoint is that steps should indeed be taken to limit the spread of the virus. This does not mean a carte blanche on state interference, however.

It is better to learn from countries other than China, for example South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. South Africa’s ruling elite is ideologically, politically and otherwise strongly bound to China, however. This influences their objectivity and may be a hurdle to identifying and following other more suitable and successful approaches.

World politics

The tension between the East and the West will not subside. We may possibly see an accelerated power shift from the West to the East. Countries like South Korea and Singapore are viewed as countries that have reacted the best to the corona crisis – also because these countries have more direct experience with pandemics as well as with China.

China also alleges that they have the crisis under control, and they are praised for this (although China’s figures are suspect). The reaction from Western countries was slow, uncoordinated and characterised by division and faction politics. The East seemingly talks from one mouth and their message is consistent. The West seems to be fickle.

States that are homogenous (mainly one cultural group) and financially relatively strong, will be stronger and more unified. Liberal commentators warn that the world will be more nationalistic. This is of course a cynical way to express that people’s own communities will become more important to them – with which there is nothing wrong. Self-preservation of communities will become a more important priority for most people.

Different from what liberal commentators would want us to believe, self-preservation need not necessarily lead to more tension between communities. It may just as well lead to alignment, cooperation and mutual respect and recognition. It is not to say, however, that it will necessarily and in all cases play out as such. Countries that fight the virus successfully, will be more unified; countries that manage it less effectively will witness greater tension between communities.

However, it is not only about how efficiently the virus is managed, but about the sense of trust between people and their governments. In other words: the perception of the government’s actions will be more important than the actions themselves. Politics are more about perception and persuasion than about facts. Political leaders who succeed in persuading their voters that they had acted effectively against the virus will be stronger. Political leaders who do not succeed in persuading their voters of this will simply not take it on the chin and will most probably blame others for their failures. This may lead to increased tension between states.

Although people like Gordon Brown are now asking for a world government, globalisation will most probably suffer a setback – and this is not bad news either. Any Westerner who thinks that a world government will not be driven by a strong Oriental-African alliance, and that this government will not promote strong anti-Western sentiments, is naïve – to put it lightly.

Italy’s plea to the EU to help them and the lack of action by the EU severely damaged this international organisation’s reputation. The EU’s blundering in managing the crisis will most probably result in a loss of trust in this institution – as well as in the idea of some or other world government. This does not mean that globalists will cease their demand for it; they will only struggle to convince people.

People will turn more to their own governments for solutions – provided that they feel their governments do represent them. (Homogenous states, as I mentioned earlier, will therefore become stronger.) Communities who experience that their interests aren’t served by their governments will look more to themselves for these solutions. In terms of the degree to which globalisation strengthens, it will probably be dominated more strongly by the East, for reasons that I mentioned above.

China will play a more significant role especially in Africa. China may be viewed as the pariah of the world in certain regions, but in Africa China is seen as the saviour who brings relief and helps struggling governments.

Whether Trump will emerge from this stronger does not depend on what he does, but on the Americans’ perception of his actions. If his opponents succeed in convincing the neutrals that the corona deaths can be laid at his door, he will suffer losses. On the other hand: His economic record may just count in his favour in the sense that neutrals are so worried about their jobs and income that they are willing to give him their votes in exchange for getting the economy on track again.

Having said that, we should remember the most important lesson of the American presidential election: You need not primarily convince the neutrals in the middle, but your own supporters should feel so strongly about you that they are prepared to turn out in droves to vote for you. With this in mind, Trump’s chances may seem good.

In times of crisis, decisive leadership is rewarded with loyalty. Think of George W. Bush, who had an approval rating of 92% after the 9/11 attacks; or Winston Churchill’s popularity during the Second World War. World leaders who manage crises correctly in the eyes of their followers will be more popular than before. This kind of approval, however, is sometimes of short duration: George W. Bush’s popularity diminished after 9/11; Churchill was voted out after the War.

Where we should keep an eye on the ANC and government

This crisis will result in a shift in priorities for most governments. The extent of these shifts is still to be seen. On the one hand, the shifts will be the result of a changing world; on the other hand, however, ruling parties – and especially Marxist parties like the ANC – will be tempted to hold tightly onto the power they obtained in this time. We will have to watch the following carefully:

- The ANC is driven primarily by its National Democratic Revolution (NDR). Some of its cadres even describe it as the ANC’s religion. The aim of the NDR is to place South Africa on the road to socialism, and the means to the end is to obtain more and more control over the “levers of power”, as the ANC puts it. The ANC will not part with it.

- Medical policies such as National Health Insurance will probably be higher on the list of priorities.

- As a result of the lockdown, the ANC government vested itself with a lot of power that it would normally not have, as explained above. The party will no doubt be tempted to hold onto this power. The risk is not that everything will remain as it currently is, but rather that the ANC will only give up this power in part (or will at least try to do so).

- The ANC will be under more pressure than ever before to stimulate economic growth. This is where our greatest opportunity lies. If we do not apply the necessary pressure, chances are very small that they would do anything to address the crisis. After the corona crisis, taxpayers will have to increase pressure and put more effective pressure on the government than ever before to put in place the necessary measures to empower the private sector to grow the economy.

- The ANC still looks to China for answers and solutions. The role that China will play on ideological and practical level in South Africa will probably grow.

- If there is a shift in ANC priorities, it will obviously mean that certain issues high on the list of priorities will move down. It is simply impossible to treat everything as a core priority. It is still too early, however, to speculate what will happen to issues such as expropriation without compensation.

What we have to do now

There are a few practical things that should be a priority now – and these priorities may change as circumstances change.

- Every community must take up the responsibility to look after themselves. The government definitely does not have the interest of minorities at heart. If we simply wait for government to look after communities, we will slowly waste away. Communities worldwide will increasingly have to look after themselves, which also creates opportunities for us to connect with each other and build bridges.

- Own safety must be enhanced. Community safety should not be a priority only during a crisis. We should build on this, and especially in South Africa communities should realise that a people can only save itself, as Dr J.D. Kestell said. This may very well be essential when unrest breaks out due to more economic pressure.

- Especially Afrikaners have a history of self-help. The Helpmekaar Movement of the previous century and the work that the Solidarity Movement now does are the best examples of this. People from all over the world can learn from Afrikaners what self-help entails. Afrikaners do not expect charity. The saying “A Boer makes a plan” did not come into existence by accident. It is a strong point that Afrikaners – and also other communities – should use. We may of course be on our own side and help ourselves, and if we don’t help ourselves, no-one would do it.

- Globalisation can be utilised to our benefit. The availability of technology to connect internationally creates many an opportunity. It makes it easier to build networks with influential international role-players and package our own case internationally, which may influence the balances of power (to use the ANC’s term) to our benefit.

- We have to identify the gaps and amend our action plans accordingly. To the extent that government and the ruling party reprioritise, new challenges and new opportunities will come to the fore. Gaps that currently exist will probably have to be filled. New gaps will be created as a result. We must adapt our action plans accordingly.

- Tax must now be used as leverage. Government’s socialist DNA will not change and the NDR will continue. There is one big problem, however: To succeed in this, they are dependent on tax income. To boycott tax isn’t easy, but we must realise that we have a strong lever to our disposal to apply pressure and ensure that the correct decisions are made – or at least to prevent a few wrong decisions.

- We have to verbalise and promote workable, practical alternative plans and frames of thought to show people that there are better possibilities than socialist centralism – and also better examples than China.

Although this piece opened with a quotation from the cynical Machiavelli, it is better suited to end on a positive note. There are indeed great challenges and also ample reason to feel despondent. History is filled with many such examples, however. Every generation has its own challenges, and this is but one of many challenges that we will experience in our lifetime (or have already experienced). In times like these it is important to keep a level head. We should not be naïve, but it is important to remain carefully optimistic. The Harvard professor of Economics and History, David Landes, perfectly concluded:

In this world, the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive. Even when they are wrong they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success. Educated, eye-open optimism pays.

Ernst Roets
Ernst is Head of Policy and Action at AfriForum
Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ErnstRoets