At the dawn of democracy SA gave birth to a Gnu. In the midst of a global pandemic is it not time for a Goat?

I do not refer to animals, although Animal Farm remains the best take on politics ever written, but to a constitutional shorthand.

The government of national unity (GNU) mandated under our interim constitution held sway over SA from 1994 until 1996.

On passage of the final constitution in May 1996, FW de Klerk, then leader of the largest minority party – amid much controversy, not least from his own NP colleagues – withdrew from the arrangements. These were not formally continued afterward, even though the Inkatha Freedom Party retained its place in government for the next few years.

In January 1997, Nelson Mandela approached me – as leader of the Democratic Party (DP) – to join his cabinet. We could not reach agreement on the terms of participation, and disagreed on how public dissent from an agreed cabinet policy could be aired, or more precisely not ventilated, outside government.

However, the crucial motivation from the DP to respectfully decline Mandela’s generous invitation was the fledgling state of our democracy back then. In its first stage, the GNU embraced 94% of all MPs whose parties participated in the coalition government. Only a handful of parties and MPs were outside the collective responsibility of cabinet decision making.

This meant it was crucial, democratically vital in fact, for the concept of parliamentary opposition to be built and legitimated.

Even through the gauzy lens of retrospect, I think that decision has stood the test of time.

But today, as our country faces the greatest challenge of this century, and of our lifetimes, with a killer virus in our midst and locking down our lives and livelihoods, is it not time for a “Goat” – a “government of all the talents”?

Parliament has been shuttered and, despite the taxpayer-funded hi-tech and computer equipment available to each of 400 MPs, they are also (with the exception of the notorious Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams) in lockdown and not performing an oversight role.

Meantime, the country is governed by a National Command Council whose membership appears to be drawn entirely from the ranks of government ministers, several of them of doubtful ability and others channelling their inner bully or nursing pet grudges and translating these into ruling edicts. For every star performer like Dr Zwele Mkhize there are plenty of duds and dunderheads.

Meanwhile, civil society is more or less reduced to emergency aid measures or in-spanned to provide a cheering gallery for Cyril Ramaphosa’s weekly television appearances.

There is, of course, a lot of work and even more consultation in the background – at Nedlac, on the Solidarity Fund, in various business committees and in serial interactions between government or the command council and the private and trade union sectors.

But for all the appearance of “we are in this together” – a truism which this time happens to be 100% correct as the pathogen coronavirus does not discriminate on racial, status or national grounds – these arrangements are all ad hoc and the information flow and channels of accountability remain haphazard.

For example, doubtless galvanised by the complaint by News24 editor-in-chief Adrian Basson on Monday on the “critical failure of information sharing and communication” by the government about the virus, Ramaphosa ordered the public briefing by Mkhize and Prof Salim Abdool Karim the same evening. Taking the public into their confidence is an essential first step.

A second step is for all parties outside government. Ramaphosa has consulted party heads precisely twice: before the commencement of the lockdown on March 27 and just before its extension last Thursday.

On Monday, the DA, outside government and without a platform in the shut parliament, produced a carefully calibrated and well-researched plan for a “smart phase strategy” for the lockdown akin to stages of load-shedding. It would use the data to hand to move – under controlled circumstances – from red (strictest) to green (softest) via intermediate orange and yellow phases, depending on the course and virulence of the virus. And the economic costs.

But all the party can do right now is propose and hope that someone in the command council reads it and acts. The same is true for all other parties outside the ANC. And indeed in the non-state sector, where some of the smartest brains and talents in this country live and work.

SA and the world is in a war for survival against an enemy we cannot see and whom we can only right now feebly interdict. Abdool Karim confirms that we have delayed not halted the likelihood of repeating an Italian-like scenario on these shores later in 2020. This requires everyone to buy into future containment measures, especially the unpopular and necessary ones.

When the US faced its day of martial reckoning with a civil war, President Abraham Lincoln assembled his legendary “team of rivals” – a national unity government including representatives of the opposition – to best cement a strong foundation based on expertise not partisanship.

Max Hastings, in his new book Chastise – the Dambusters Story 1943, makes a telling point. He asks why the German army, the Wehrmacht, which in his view “from beginning to end showed itself more professionally skilful than either the British or American armies”, was ultimately beaten by both?

He offers one reason: “The Allies empowered many of the brightest people in their societies to deploy their talents with an imagination which the dictatorships never matched.” This included designing the dambuster rolling bombs, codebreaking and indeed nuclear weapons. And Britain throughout the war had a three-party coalition government.

It is quite possible that a lot of talent, technocratic expertise and ability and alternative wisdom lie outside the confines of the current national command council. Time to inspan them at this moment of national peril and economic meltdown and bring them into the heart of decision making.  It can be just for the duration of the crisis, until a treatment regime is found or a vaccine developed.

A “Goat” will also give Ramaphosa both political insurance cover and spread responsibility for the further tough calls which are needed. And quietly allow him to bin some of the counterproductive and illogical measures announced to date.

The economic contagion we face, here and everywhere in the world, could be even deadlier than the coronavirus. The only recent equivalent was the Great Depression. When that hit the US, newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 famously said that “the country demands bold, persistent experimentation … if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Wise words, then and now.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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