The coronavirus’ greatest threat to South Africa’s future may not lie in any swathe of death that it leaves in its wake. Nor in the pandemic’s crippling of the economy, which will take years to recover from.
Potentially more devastating is the opportunity it provides an innately authoritarian and interventionist African National Congress government to use the disease as a cover to attempt some far-reaching social, political and economic engineering. There are many on the radical left, both within the ANC and civic formations ideologically aligned to the Economic Freedom Fighters, to champion such a potentially destructive course of action.
Although not the first to do so, the Black Management Foundation’s Dumisani Mpafa articulated this strategy of burning down the house to be rid of the mice, during a webinar held this week by management consultants BEE Novation, on the relevance of black empowerment in the light of COVID-19. Mpafa, the BMF’s deputy-president, nailed his ideological colours to the mast by greeting his audiences with the salutation “comrades” and said that the coronavirus was a “gifted chance”, since black empowerment had so far disappointed.
“We are dealing with a solid economic architecture, so strong, unless something drastic happens, you can’t sabotage it. You’ve got to bring it to its knees and start afresh.”
In the ruins of the old, SA will have a chance “to start all over to build a new economy”. Very stirring, revolutionary stuff, albeit from a leader of a managerial forum.
It’s also a statement, a way of thinking, that riffs with the cynical dogmatism infamously articulated during the Vietnam war. Entirely seriously, a United States officer explained to the media that a village “had to be destroyed in order to save it [from the Viet Cong]”.
Such die-hardism is widespread in the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) lobby. Many of RET’s fervid proponents remain powerful within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration, including their stalking horse for the presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. COVID is a chance to fan those RET embers.
Dr Mukovhe Masutha — an old gabba of Jacob Zuma and now reincarnated in Ramaphosa’s administration as a manager in the ANC’s policy unit — recently argued in Mail & Guardian that SA’s “neoliberal economic order … will gradually undermine the very democracy that many South Africans died for”. It would instead deliver “a tyranny of investors and lenders”.
Masutha wants the National Command Council (NCC), which started off as the National Coronavirus Command Council but has surreptitiously shed its medical aspect, to be made permanent. This will ensure the “rapid implementation of the government’s programmes of action”. The State of Disaster, he enthuses, is an unprecedented opportunity to refashion every aspect of our society: “It is time for us to guard against the tyranny of the markets … even if it means risking everything”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who some will have us believe is playing a devilishly clever game against former president Jacob Zuma’s state capture clique by merely pretending to support their RET goals, sings from the same hymn sheet as Masutha. A couple of weeks back, speaking to the KwaZulu-Natal “command council”, Ramaphosa said the pandemic “quite frankly” gave SA an opportunity to reconstruct the economy and to ensure that RET “must underpin the economic future”.
Political economist Moeletsi Mbeki, also one of the BEE Novation webinar panellists, reiterated his long-held views that black empowerment — and arguably, by extension, RET — was never about the creation of new assets by encouraging entrepreneurship. It was all about the redistribution of existing assets among an elite, without the addition of any economic value.
BBB-EEE was a corporate ploy to buy the political support of the ANC leadership. The new black wealthy class, he laments, has continued the tradition of betraying the poor and, like its wealthy white predecessors, keeps its money offshore.
Afterwards, I spoke with Mbeki specifically about the recent weaponising of BBB-EEE during COVID, by declaring that race criteria will form the basis on which national disaster funds will be disbursed to financially stricken SMMEs. It’s a policy that has passed High Court support, while the Constitutional Court rather strangely has declined to hear an urgent application on the matter.
The priority, says Mbeki, is obvious. It should be to save jobs and businesses during the pandemic. That black-ownership criteria had instead become a political tool indicates how distant the ANC leadership has become from the lives of most South Africans.
“They have no clue of how small businesses survive, they have no clue of how the real South Africa operates, they have no clue of how the common people live.” So, when Cyril talks RET, says Mbeki, it is nothing more than to play to the gallery — except that “Cyril is so out of touch with reality that he’s not sure which gallery it is”.
The commentariat’s mistake is to analyse the situation in terms of personalities and their relative power in the ANC alliance. Too much attention, says Mbeki, is given to pondering the strength of Ramaphosa within the ANC.
“The ANC itself is enfeebled. The players within the ANC are not substantive.
“COVID can very easily be a tipping point to disaster. The ANC has, for instance, totally ignored massive rural/urban migration, something that should have been central to government policy.”
When something like COVID happens, such policy failures become more obvious. The government reaction, a “recipe for disaster” is then based on the belief that “through the army, it can compel the people.”
The NCC is a “huge, huge, huge risk” for SA. The ANC knows it had lost the trust of the people and is now turning to structures that bypass accountable democratic structures.
Fortunately for the ANC, the official opposition is weak. “Had it an effective opposition, it would be in deep trouble,” says Mbeki.
Mbeki is too sanguine in this apparent assumption that the struggle between the RET and mixed-economy factions of the alliance does not much matter. That it is all simply hot air emanating from what is, in any case, a steadily deflating balloon. That time is on our side.
How it is resolved — which largely depends on where Ramaphosa truly stands and whether he can survive as president — will shape the South African post-COVID terrain for a generation. At this moment, the lay of that land looks to be sloping downhill.