Shifting lockdown gears

SAPS and SANDF members assist at Boxer store in Duncan Village as hundreds of residents gather for food parcels on Freedom Day.
SAPS and SANDF members assist at Boxer store in Duncan Village as hundreds of residents gather for food parcels on Freedom Day.
Ongama Mtimka
Ongama Mtimka

Until there can be guarantees that the health and wellbeing of every South African can be protected, the government should not be bullied into recklessly opening the economy by those with the power to litigate or inflict limitations on state action.

The government should not be pressured into acceding to the demands of the rich and powerful in ways that could endanger the rest of society. This would simply give the former a free pass to escape back to their globally orientated risky lifestyle while the poor bear the burden.

The state is obliged to ensure the benefits of measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic outweigh their negative consequences. And so far its risk-adjusted approach, with its varying levels of state-led responses, is generally being supported.

The various levels reflect a cautious approach that balances socioeconomic imperatives with risk management concerns. It reflects careful balancing between the various freedom rights and the right to life.

However, what is crucial in the decision-making processes of the state is sufficient quantitative and qualitative data about the impact of its measures, the spread of the virus, and the economy. With all the modelling exercises that our information-driven world has been able to produce and rely on, it should not be that difficult to come up with holistic scenarios for discussion.

Quite sadly, that data has not been forthcoming, or it has been skewed towards narrow economic projections with no regard for social and environmental aspects. However, economic determinism in policymaking would be gravely short-sighted.

Those pressurising the government to hastily reopen the economy miss this point. Among other things, it includes the failure to be completely transparent about who may gain or lose from the various approaches government may take and what their aggregated consequences may be for the country.

Many people in SA acknowledge, even wholeheartedly, that there is inequality in the country and that various crises affect everyone differently. All political parties mention it in their manifestos and claim to have ways to address it, from a level of opportunity to outcome.

Despite this general agreement, few accord it the necessary recognition when it matters most in our politics and choices. Instead, we are prone to engage in rhetoric and politics that reveal biases and ideological positions more than sensitivity to our underlying issues or rationality.

For instance, incomes drawn from the economy mostly benefit a tiny fraction of people in the country. That is because socioeconomic life in SA is divided into a core and a periphery. The core is globally integrated and advanced with economic and social infrastructure that belie our “developing country” status.

Economic determinism in policy making would be gravely short-sighted

This core draws on and continues to suppress the growth of the periphery — that part of SA life in which there is poverty, poor social and economic infrastructure, and government neglect.

Former president Thabo Mbeki called these the first and second economies, but they are dimensions of the same system.

Throughout history the periphery was created by force. It includes remnants of an economic system whose advancement was violently stopped to ensure the growth of colonial capitalism.

It had to be suppressed so its citizens could continue to be cheap and docile labourers to the core, as Sampie Terreblanche and Tembeka Ngcukaitobi state in their seminal works.

It is widely documented, including in the accounts of Ngcukaitobi and Terreblanche, that for SA capitalism to thrive, the independent economy of Africans had to be destroyed as they would not otherwise have availed themselves as labourers in the numbers that were desired in commercial agriculture, mining and manufacturing.

This resulted in skewed development in the country with some parts highly developed while others were systematically marginalised, creating two nations in one country.

This dual nature of socioeconomic reality in SA is not some historical fact whose consequences are locked in somewhere in the not-so-distant past. It influences current politics about whether to open the economy in practical rather than ideological terms.

It determines whose voice is listened to the most and who is better able to intimidate the state to capitulate on crucial policy positions.

When one follows the spread of Covid-19 in its early phases, one trend was dominant — the greater an economy was integrated into the world economy, the more likely it would have high infections and the less integrated it was, the fewer the cases of Covid-19.

Police officers and members of the SANDF patrol the streets of Alexandra amid the nationwide lockdown.
Police officers and members of the SANDF patrol the streets of Alexandra amid the nationwide lockdown.

For instance, Covid-19 has hit harder in global financial centres.

This trend means  the world is in crisis because the rich and globally orientated middle classes were the initial carriers of the virus through activities like trade and tourism. The trend was similar in SA.

Economic hubs like Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town were harder hit than other cities in the country for the longest time. In the Eastern Cape, the pattern has remained, with Buffalo City Metro, Nelson Mandela Bay, Komani and Mthatha taking the lion’s share of infections to date.

After we reached the stage in which Covid-19 spreads a lot more from community infections than specific contacts with a traveller, that trend began to change and global orientation, which was a vital condition of initial proliferation, took on a lesser role. This is until conditions like travelling and international trade permit its resurfacing.

Back to the dual nature of life in SA, the rich and middle classes could simply continue with their lives despite the spread of Covid-19, enjoying the protection of medical insurance cover and excellent health facilities as well as well-resourced, less-crowded schools.

However, the poor would sadly die in droves due to an inaccessible and collapsing health system, overcrowded houses, and impractical living conditions in badly planned settlements.

Therefore, while everyone including the rich and powerful must be heard by a democratic government, the myth that we all stand to suffer and or gain equally if the lockdown continues or when the economy reopens must be exposed.

Ways to measure economic well-being are disproportionately generous to the rich and middle classes around the world. GDP, for example, records total output in a country regardless of who benefits from it.

A nuclear project in which R300bn a  year was spent would reflect as growth in national accounts. However, “following the money” would reveal the true beneficiaries of the deal, ranging from international finance capital, foreign contractors and powerful politicians, with a tiny fraction going to workers and local suppliers.  

Therefore, economic arguments cannot be the sole driver of the national debate, though they remain important.

Another point to consider is the attitude of the state and society towards the poor after the lockdown. While some have suddenly become recipients of more food and income during this time, they may be abandoned and left to fend for themselves, as the false idea would be created that they are free to generate enough income to sustain themselves just as their middle class and rich counterparts.

There must be guarantees that this would  not be allowed before government can reopen the economy.

It is hoped that the government does the right thing. If it accedes to the demands of lobbyists, it must do so mindful of the plight of all South Africans.

Anything else will be a perpetuation of an inhumane political economic system whose focus is not the total common good, but the extraction of rents and profits.

Ongama Mtimka lectures in SA politics, international political economy, democratisation and state transformation at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity.