What a gift Covid has been to SA

William Saunderson-Meyer says the epidemic has provided a heaven-sent chance to blow the economy up


Many on South Africa’s hard-left aver that it’s pointless to tinker with an economic system that sustained race discrimination for aeons. Just blow up the whole damn thing and start all over, taking as a template the role that the state played in the development of China.

To such ideological Bravehearts, the Covid pandemic is not a disaster. It’s an opportunity to restructure the racist, colonialist, capitalist edifice of economic exploitation and to replace it with a state-driven socialist transformation that is based entirely on black economic empowerment (BEE).

Earlier this year, the Black Management Forum’s deputy-president, Dumisani Mpafa, outlined, somewhat inarticulately, this thinking at a BEE Novation webinar. This was in May, just as the government was getting into the swing of aggravating an already damaging global pandemic with its personal act of self-harm, the world’s harshest lockdown.

Mpafa said, and I’ll quote him verbatim, because it’s important: “We’ve been trying but we have not been able to, you know, achieve sustainable progress in terms of transformation. My view is that this is because we are dealing with a solid economic architecture that is so strong that unless something drastic happens it simply perpetuates racial inequality.

“And, of course, there are voices that argue that the architecture of this South African economy is so strong and structural that you can’t sabotage from [within] it. You have to bring it to its knees and rebuild it afresh if you want to achieve transformation.

“And, well, it is not a social campaign that has brought it to its knees, strangely, it’s the coronavirus and so one can argue that Covid has gifted the country with an opportunity to build a new economy, an economy with explicit, you like, defined, you like, new economic edifice that does not exist in the economy we have in this country.”

What I interpreted Mpafa to be suggesting — as were and still do RET thinkers influential in the tripartite alliance — was a course of action metaphorically akin to burning down the house to get rid of the white mice. That’s an interpretation that the webinar organisers took umbrage at. What Mpafa was actually saying, they earnestly explained, was the exact opposite: “The part about bringing the economy to its knees and starting afresh isn’t Mpafa’s own opinion, but an opinion he’s rightly disturbed to have heard from others.”

The incident merits retelling partly because it illustrates an intellectual dishonesty that’s widespread in South Africa — that of advancing startlingly destructive scenarios but refusing to take responsibility for this so by doing it at a spurious arm's length. But, far more importantly, because the “something drastic” that the ideologues were hoping for, has now happened.

The economy, indeed, has been “brought to its knees”. Whether it is going to result in the sustainable progress to transformation that Mpafa and pals are hoping for, is another matter.

Quickly seizing the Covid opportunity, the government has done great and unnecessary damage to the alcohol and tobacco industries with ridiculous trading bans. Not only were billions lost in revenue but further billions of planned investment in new infrastructure by the breweries and glass manufacturers were put on hold. Relief intended for small tourist operators was disbursed on racial criteria and the government’s decision to do so survived a court challenge by the Democratic Alliance.

Following the sustained hard lockdown, gross domestic product shrunk by 51% on an annualised basis. While there are encouraging economic signs and there is optimistic talk of a “swoosh” recovery, it may nevertheless take as long as eight years to recover the lost ground. Similarly to those patients that suffer from “long Covid”, who remain debilitated long after being discharged, SA, too, will have to undergo a slow and painful rehabilitation.

This week the NIDS-CRAM survey released further bleak findings. It transpires that the 2.8m jobs that were lost in lockdown are yet to “swoosh” back. On the contrary, at the expanded definition, unemployment now exceeds 50% and youth unemployment is around 70%. Less than half of the workers who were temporarily laid off have been able to return to work.

Most South Africans, especially those whose lives have been ripped asunder, will understand this to be an unparalleled disaster. The ideologues, however, see the silver lining: a new economy is emerging, free from the shackles of white monopoly capital.

For instance, demeaning work is, at last, being eradicated. According to StatsSA, in the first three months of the lockdown more than a quarter of a million domestic worker jobs were lost. Add in other poor souls indentured into domestic servitude — gardeners, butlers, pool cleaners, drivers and private security guards — and the total freed from slavery rises to 311,000.

RET is also intended to bring about big infrastructural changes. This, too, is happening.

As President Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed during one of his annual forays into magical thinking, otherwise known as the State of the Nation Address, our future lies in smart cities and bullet trains. The latter will travel “from Musina to Cape Town, via Pretoria, Johannesburg and Buffalo City”, he outlined with curious specificity,

In service of this goal, the RET squaddies have been hard at work. Never mind the Cecil John Rhodes’ statues being removed from public places. Also being removed is the entire steel highway which that arch-imperialist had dreamed would one day connect Cape Town to Cairo.

To be more exact, the railroad is being dug up by thieves, kilometre by kilometre, as meticulously as it was laid in the past century. Along the way, in broad daylight, railway stations are being painstakingly but speedily dismantled. And overhead power lines have been rolled up and carted off for sale, to the delight of the scrap merchants and to the relief of a load-shedding Eskom.

To see the photographs of this destruction on social media and in a Daily Maverick special report this week, is not only struck dumb by the perverse and self-defeating enthusiasm that so many have in destroying our national assets — the torching of schools, clinics, libraries, offices, trains and long haul trucks — but that these acts are carried out with impunity. Brazen, uncontrolled looting on this scale can only happen if law enforcement is cowed or complicit.

Ours is a government that is slowly losing control. It’s a government afraid to act against lawlessness and every sequential failure at maintaining public order — the scale of destruction, especially over the past decade, is that of a small war — makes inevitable the next outrage.

But, hey, wait until you see the new economic edifice that the zealots intend to build. A shining smart-city on the hill and, down in the valley, bullet trains streaking past communally owned unicorn farms.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

Daily Maverick’s report on Gauteng’s rail destruction here.