Last week Cyril Ramaphosa declared that it was now time for us all to “pull together and grow South Africa”. He and his colleagues have made this call on umpteen occasions, sometimes phrasing it as putting “shoulders to the wheel” or getting “all hands on deck”, or some other formulation.
How do they think what’s left of the economy survives except by people working together to create and buy and sell things despite all the obstacles placed in their way by Mr Ramaphosa and his government and party ever since they came to power? Perhaps they have not noticed. Perhaps they have never stopped to think how a mine or a factory or a restaurant or a bank or a supermarket or even a spaza shop operates.
Farmers are denigrated, their farms threatened with confiscation, murders on farms airbrushed away, lockdown regulations used in efforts to thwart their own security arrangements, and supplies of diesel interrupted by thievery – yet farmers and farmworkers have just brought in the second biggest maize crop in the country’s history.
The government prattles on about “food security”, but thousands in the private agricultural and food distribution sectors actually make it possible. While politicians and bureaucrats delay or hijack food parcels intended for hungry people, thousands of charitable organisations “pull together” to feed them.
Charities and independent entrepreneurs, many of them older women, provide most “early childhood development” in South Africa, but in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis the government was more concerned to enforce compliance with regulations than to assist these vital institutions.
One of the most striking things about the crisis has indeed been the contrast between ministerial and bureaucratic callousness on the one hand and, on the other, the efforts of thousands of ordinary people to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and supply water to the poor.
Millions of people get to work daily on hazardous roads or railways, while looted stations, signals, cables, and rail lines litter town and country. All around us, in township, suburb, and city centre, small entrepreneurs in the so-called informal sector provide thousands of different goods and services to millions of people. The response of those in authority is to confiscate their goods, demand permits or bribes, issue threats, and gazette ever more controls.
Right across the country, thousands of businesses of all shapes and sizes have continued to operate despite ever-more stringent racial and other regulatory requirements, never mind the surrounding eco-system of crime and corruption (and lockdown regulation). What makes them successful is not “pulling together” in response to some government cox in a boat, but the market system.
There is now, once again, increasing talk that South Africa is on the way to becoming a failed state. Whether Mr Ramaphosa and his colleagues, who have always admired their comrades in Zimbabwe, care about this one way or the other is not clear. What is clear is that they are incapable of doing very much about it. They prate on about recovery plans and “social compacts”. These are earnestly analysed in the media, which thereby makes itself party to this never-ending game of “let’s pretend”.
As Adolf Hitler’s regime crumbled and the Allies closed in from both West and East, he droned on ceaselessly about his new “wonderweapons” that would turn everything around. Mr Ramaphosa’s plans and compacts are just as delusory: the only question is whether or not he himself believes in them.
As for his pronouncements, they are more and more contradictory. Many years ago he said the ANC strategy towards whites would be to boil them alive slowly like frogs. He has also stigmatised whites as land thieves and monopoly capitalists. Last week on Heritage Day he spoke of building “a united nation” and seeking “social cohesion”. But he also said statues and monuments “glorifying our divisive past should be repositioned and relocated”. Now he wants everybody to “pull together”, land thieves, monopoly capitalists, white amphibians and all.
South Africa’s success in responding to its “unprecedented” unemployment crisis, Mr Ramaphosa says, “will be measured by the speed of our labour market recovery”. True enough. It implies millions more people of all races “pulling together” to produce goods and services. This would happen quite naturally, as it always does, except that Mr Ramaphosa shows no sign of permitting it.
When the economy recovers, it will have far less to do with recovery plans, “presidential employment stimuli”, the cabinet’s promised “programme for a return to growth and a rebound in employment”, yet more infrastructure investment commitments, or the “structural reforms” supposedly on the way, than with the removal of lockdown restrictions.
Remove all the pre-lockdown restrictions, and recovery will be even faster. Most South Africans realise this. Their government does not.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.