History shows that the reputation of politicians is often made or broken in a crisis. So far Cyril Ramaphosa is having a very good crisis as far as the middle classes, black and white, are concerned. The enthusiastic support for the President from the middle classes has often been rapturous.
This is understandable. Thabo Mbeki’s denialism with regard to the fact that AIDS is caused by the HI virus, and his paranoid conspiracy theories about the life saving treatments for people living with HIV, resulted in a huge social catastrophe. In stark contrast to Mbeki, Ramaphosa has a highly competent Minister of Health in ZweliMkhize, and is taking advice from people like Prof Salim Karim, the best medical scientist in our country.
Ramaphosa’s scientifically based response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a welcome change from Mbeki’s paranoid nationalism, and, also, the empty bombast of right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump, JairBolsonaro and Boris Johnson.
And, of course, it’s not difficult to see why people are in raptures of ecstatic excitement about Ramaphosa after years of living under Jacob Zuma’skleptocracy. We all shudder to think how egregiously Zuma would have mishandled this crisis. It really is a thought that is just too ghastly to contemplate.
However, Ramaphosa is making six serious mistakes and we need an honest and careful discussion about these mistakes. One mistake is that while the state moved fast to implement a national shutdown in line with best practice it did not start off well with testing large numbers – but it seems like it is now rolling out testing at sufficient speed and scale. International experience clearly shows that an effective response to Covid-19 requires both social isolation and mass testing. We have only got this equation half right so far.
Ramaphosa’s second mistake has been the aggressive attempt to centralise information in the hands of the government. It is certainly important to combat the epidemic of fake news and conspiracy theories circulating on social media. But science depends on free and open discussion. If medical professionals are not all encouraged to participate in a free and open debate, we risk making serious mistakes, and not being able to speedily rectify them. This may be one reason why there has not been enough open debate about our failures to implement testing at sufficient speed and scale.
Ramaphosa’s third mistake is that the state has operated as if the health question and the economic question can be dealt with as separate matters. This is not the case. In a country with mass unemployment in which millions of people have inadequate nutrition, no access to decent housing and sanitation, and worsening public health care, the economic crisis already had serious health implications before the arrival of Covid-19. The massive damage that the shutdown will do to the economy is going to make the existing crisis in public health vastly worse in the months and years to come.
The measures that have been put in place to mitigate the huge economic costs of the shutdown are altogether inadequate. Economic thinking in the ANC is dominated by neoliberals who are extremely reluctant to increase social spending. Our leading economists, people of the stature of Duma Gqubule and Vishnu Padayachee, have issued very clear warnings on this score. But, much like lemmings rushing to a cliff, the hawks in the Treasury are unwilling to bend. The result will be mass immiseration on a terrifying scale. And mass immiseration will lead to declining public health and escalating social instability. It will provide fertile ground for dangerous forms of populism within and outside of the ANC.
Ramaphosa’s fourth mistake has been to cede far too much power to the authoritarians in his cabinet. The national lockdown has been unnecessarily authoritarian in certain respects and bringing the army onto the streets was arguably an error of judgment. The conduct of the army, along with the police and private security companies, has frequently been highly abusive, and lives have been lost. The middle classes are generally treated with respect by the armed forces enforcing the lockdown but poor and working-class people have been subject to widespread abuses. In Durban and Cape Town this has included unlawful and violent evictions.
As recent press statements from trade unions and social movements show there is an increasing sense of desperation and anger in poor and working-class communities. Every time the police, the army or private security abuse a member of the public the social contract that legitimates the authority of the state is undermined. The way in which the lockdown is being policed is doing serious damage to the legitimacy of the state. The intersection of routine brutality in the policing of the lockdown with a devastating economic crisis could well result in serious social unrest.
Ramaphosa’s fifth mistake is his failure to include popular organisations in the planning of the state’s response to the Covid-19 lockdown. Business, and in particular finance capital, is gushing about its new relationship with government, and its inclusion in decision making. But social movements and trade unions are indicating, in an increasingly angry tone, that they are not being included in decision making.
Ramaphosa’s sixth mistake is that he has not been able to resolve the fundamental political contradiction on which his Presidency rests. Ramaphosa came to office with the support of two constituencies. One was big business and the few neoliberals in the ANC, people like Tito Mboweni and Trevor Manuel. The other was the left in the ANC, notably the SACP and Cosatu. The neoliberals and the left in the ANC had a shared interest in opposing Zuma’skleptocracy and both camps saw Ramaphosa as a viable alternative to Zuma and the kleptocrats that make up the RET faction of the ANC.
Ramaphosa will not be able to continue to hold the Presidency if the left in the ANC turn against him. However, the extraordinary violence against poor and working-class people that has characterised the lockdown risks turning the left’s constituency against Ramaphosa. Moreover, Mboweni and much of the right outside of the ANC is enthusiastically backing the prospect of an IMF bailout. This is something that the left in the ANC could never accept. An IMF bailout would mark the end of national autonomy over major economic and policy questions, and enforce a form of austerity that would be devastating to the poor and the working-class. Ramaphosa’s inability to square the circle and find an economic strategy to see us through the crisis that will satisfy both the neoliberals and the left puts him at real risk of losing the support of the left, and then the Presidency.
ImraanBuccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.