Ramaphoria enjoys a revival

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the press reaction to the President's Covid-19 response


Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And that man is Cyril Ramaphosa.

Well, that’s the general tenor of the reaction to the president announcing a national lockdown. It’s a remarkably generous response, given the inert nature of Ramaphosa’s presidency over the past two years.

When the president delivered his lacklustre State of the Nation Address in February, the coronavirus was ravaging China and the world’s second-biggest economy had been in lockdown for three weeks already. Ramaphosa didn’t once mention coronavirus as a factor in his government’s plans.

A fortnight later came the finance minister’s annual Budget Speech, with also Europe by then engulfed in a Covid-19 conflagration. Again, not a single mention of the c-word.

While there famously are “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” that world leaders have to strategise around, there’re also the “known knowns”. Covid-19 should have been part of the Ramaphosa administration’s strategising for months, especially in a country with a fragile health infrastructure and an economy dependent on trade.

Solidarity is important at a time of great national crisis and it is appropriate to set aside partisanship for the moment. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Ramaphosa’s inspiringly courageous attempt to deal with the Covid-19 virus will, somehow, at long last extrapolate into an energetic eradication of the Zupta virus.

The adulatory reaction to Ramaphosa’s lockdown speech was encapsulated in a Business Day editorial. “When the country needed leadership at a time of crisis, it had a president ready to provide it.” 

The paper drew a comparison between the responses to South Africa’s two greatest public health challenges since 1994. Ramaphosa’s actions on Covid-19 “proved his mettle”, compared to the abject failure of Thabo Mbeki to address the HIV/Aids scourge.

During last year’s election, there was a clamour for opposition voters to vote ANC, in order to give CR a “mandate” to tackle state capture forces within his own party. So, it is not surprising that Peter Bruce, one of the leaders of the pro-CR media campaign, shared in the delight that Ramaphosa appears to have been roused from his habitual timorousness. Bruce wrote in one column that with the lockdown, Ramaphosa is “looking better by the day”; and in another, “We are broke and now sick, but at least we are well led.” 

Although the plaudits are premature and the popular support possibly short-lived, depending on how well the government performs over the next few challenging months, the revived enthusiasm for Ramaphosa is not only because he turned in a statesmanlike performance this week. There are also at least two other factors.

There’s palpable relief throughout the nation that former president Jacob Zuma’s feckless kleptocracy is not in overseeing the response to Covid-19. There is also the universal tendency to rally around a nation’s leader, how ever shite he or she may be at everyday governance, the moment that an existential crisis materialises.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s public approval rating has soared from 35%, three months ago, to 55% following this week’s lockdown, according to a YouGov poll. Most of the new support comes from opposition voters. Whereas only 10% of Labour voters previously had a favourable opinion of Johnson, now a quarter of them do.

In the United States, a Gallup poll shows that 60% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and his personal approval rating has gone up five points to 49%. That’s the highest of his presidency and, again, the new support is coming from the opposition. 

Democrat and independent voter antipathy to Trump was previously reflected in consistently single figure approval ratings. Now it has reached 27%.

Much is being made of Covid-19 giving Ramaphosa a popularity boost similar to these leaders. But so what? It’s not as if he needs it.

According to a February Ipsos poll, his approval rating is at 62% among all South Africans and 82% among ANC members. Ramaphosa has had persistently stellar approval ratings, despite his reluctance to use that over-sold general election “mandate” against the ANC factions that continue with impunity to impede his policies. 

Those predicting that the president will now act free of internal party constraints because Covid-19 has immunised him, are likely to be disappointed. Ramaphosa’s inertia is not about a lack of popularity among the wider electorate, nor among party members. It's about an excess of caution because he is terrified of splitting the ANC.

Covid-19 is going to cause massive upheaval in SA. Although there have not yet been any deaths, there will be many. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. And while Ramaphosa had no real option to the gamble of imposing the lockdown, even if it succeeds in containing the virus, it is a cure that could kill an economy that’s already reeling.

The dire nature of our situation is captured in a single statistic in Ramaphosa’s address on Monday: R150m. One hundred and fifty million rand. That is all that the government could scrape together to contribute towards its own, new national disaster vehicle, the Solidarity Fund. 

That’s pocket change. Compare it to the trillion rand estimated to have been looted by the Zupta forces of state capture. Or the more than R500bn needed to bail out SA’s state-owned entities. Or the national debt that is edging towards three trillion rand. Or the R250bn to R450bn that the ANC wants to spend on a new national health insurance. 

What a humiliating, albeit necessarily paltry, government contribution to a fund that Ramaphosa has charged with such ambitious goals: combating Covid-19, caring for the ill and supporting small businesses and their employees. It speaks tellingly of a fiscus bled dry. Or maybe we should say, in this specific case, bled white.

For it was left to routinely excoriated White Monopoly Capital, in the form of SA’s two wealthiest families, the Ruperts and the Oppenheimers, to kick in a billion rand each to the Fund. There was not a word, at this stage, from black economic empowerment’s own instant billionaires — including Ramaphosa himself — of any contribution.

As is often the case in SA, our new-found national solidarity was quickly eroded. Bheki “The Hat” Cele has been blustering and blundering about in fine bully-boy style. The man who has no antidote the violent crime that claims 58 murder victims a day has promised to unleash the full fury of the SA Police Service on anyone daring to walk their dogs, albeit in splendid isolation.

There was also an uproar when the Small Business Development ministry’s guidelines for emergency financial assistance to keep small businesses specified 51% black ownership as one of the criteria.

Although denounced by the minister as “fake news”, Afriforum was able to produce a snapshot of the SBD website showing the offending guidelines. The ministry then issued a statement explaining that a “rogue official” had mistakenly released what was only an “early draft” that was to have been discarded.

Then came another twist in the tail, although the media appears not to have noticed. In a television broadcast, SBD Minister Khumbuzo Ntshavheni reassured the country that businesses across all the nation’s population groups would be supported with emergency funds, “though we will make sure that there is [a] geographic spread and [a] demographic spread that is representative”. In other words, race and provincial quotas.

When it came to xenophobia there was even less embarrassment on the part of the minister. Spaza shops would be allowed to remain open and would be assisted by the government with bulk buying, said Ntshavheni. But “we must indicate that those spaza shops that will be open are strictly those that are owned by South Africans, managed and run by South Africans.”

It is one thing for a country, in normal times, to try to redress racial imbalances or to favour its nationals against competing foreigners. It is quite another to do so during a state of national disaster.

Such racial and national chauvinism has a momentum all of its own. If demographics is to be the basis of allotting emergency funds, how implausible is it that somewhere down the line scarce ICU beds might be filled not on medical criteria but demographic ones? Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema, for one, would certainly cheer that move.

It all sounds so very much like that old apartheid government. Cyril, who this week for the first time appeared on the podium fully decked in camouflage fatigues, like an aspirant Idi Amin, will be shocked.

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