Academic-turned-politician Prof Belinda Bozzoli MP recently noted that that there is “weird sort of millenarianism floating around in certain quarters”.
“Millenarianism” is a reference to the belief, usually religious or political, of a coming fundamental transformation of society in which “all things will be changed”.
In Bozzoli’s view this manifests itself here in the belief that that letting the economy be destroyed by harsh lockdown measures is no bad thing; out of the ruins of the old unequal and intractable SA, a “new wonderful more equal society will emerge”. She is quick to dismiss this as delusional: cruel and doomed to fail, a form of “magical thinking” which in reality means “the more you destroy the less there will be to base any sort of rebuilding on”.
Or as scholar Walter Russell Mead said of countries tearing down the old order in hope of erecting a brave new economic world: “It is far easier to convert an aquarium into fish soup, than convert fish soup into an aquarium.”
There is no shortage of evidence for the idea currently circulating in the national command council which, quite extraordinarily, and arguably contra our constitution, now governs us. The lockdown was put in place seven weeks ago not to stop the coronavirus (impossible), nor to cure it (ditto), nor to enact some fantastical new economic order on the smoldering ruins of the old. None of that is provided for in the National Disaster Management Act under which it was declared.
The only purpose of the lockdown was to flatten the curve, delay the infections by putting in place aggressive testing and tracing regimes and preparing hospitals for a big caseload of Covid-19 cases. Anything else is beyond the scope and limits of the legislation and outside the contemplation of the constitution.
But if you have regard for the warmth with which Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has spoken of how we now have the opportunity to commit “class suicide” in quest of a new economic order, or Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent remarks that the “gloves are off” in the pursuit, under Covid, of “radical economic transformation”, it seems a public health crisis could become our own millenarian moment.
You just don’t want to be around when it happens – it might be far worse than the disease we currently confront and will last a whole lot longer.
Pol Pot in Cambodia had such a vision. He and his comrades of the extreme communist persuasion, the Khmer Rouge, passionately believed the old order in that war-torn country was corrupt, unequal and debased. They decided in April 1975, on taking over the country, that all culture and economics in the country must be destroyed and replaced with a revolutionary regime; the history and culture before Year Zero was irrelevant and the people previously in power must be purged and killed. Members of the old government were singled out for death and whole communities forced into the countryside. It ended in the estimated death, through disease and starvation, of around 2 million out of a population of 8 million Cambodians until the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge four years later.
Of course, the Khmer Rouge had a staunch ally in Mao’s China. And he too had various millenarian visions on class relations and the ascendancy of the rural peasantry. His “great leap forward” was an economic catastrophe of unequalled proportion. It cost somewhere between 18 million and 45 million lives, through starvation, famine and executions. It too was based on the transformation idea: frog-marching the country into communism.
In SA the most famous and tragic millenarian cult was the Xhosa cattle killings based on the visions of Nongqawuse in 1856. She told her believers that the “whole community will rise from the dead” provided the cattle now living were slaughtered. This resulted in the killing of huge cattle herds and most crops. Historians are divided on whether it was an apocalyptic mass suicide or an early example of resistance against colonial invaders. But the result was total immiseration. There is an interesting parallel between that tragedy and our current response to Covid-19, made by Johannes Wessels of the Enterprise Observatory.
I very much doubt that the current government has anything as drastic in mind as these extreme examples. And it is true that all history is baroque. It does not repeat itself, but as Mark Twain noted, “sometimes it rhymes” or eddies back and forth. And when notes are sounded about using a health crisis to rearrange the economy, contrary to sound economic principles, then it is decidedly off-key. And some warnings from the past are in order.
The point is that we have a pandemic to confront. This is not the time to perfect utopian schemes of a brave new economic order. Preserving what we have, the jobs, the infrastructure and the investment, should be the only economic imperative right now. Battening down the health hatches to cope with the coming storm should consume all of the government’s effort. Not using public goodwill, rapidly being squandered through a raft of madcap or half-baked measures, to perfect an economic order which has failed wherever tried, often with disastrous results.
Finance minister Tito Mboweni warned DA leader John Steenhuizen recently to “stay in your lane”. So should the government in which he serves.