Freedom Day 2020 was the most baleful in SA’s recent history since we spent it under house arrest. That phantom from our past, ostensibly banished by our 1996 constitution, is back with a vengeance due to a viral pathogen we cannot see, cannot interdict effectively but can, under stringent conditions, delay.
And since so little is known about a virus which is – in every deadly sense – “novel” who knows under what condition we will “celebrate” Freedom Day in 2021 or even 2022?
Our novel Covid-19 Freedom Day meant the banishment of the normal state pageantry and political rallies customary on April 27. This obliged the political class to communicate their exhortations online and virtually, absent of the crowds and the cheering.
The three largest political parties here, in their messaging, provided a study in contrasts: the infantile (EFF); the aspirational (ANC) and the technocratic (DA). Perhaps this reflects the hopes and limits of each of them.
In the left corner emerged a recent graduate from the armchair faculty of virology, “Dr” Julius Malema. In his considered view “the rushed and senseless reopening of the South African economy” could lead to charges of “murder” against companies prematurely reopening their businesses. And the EFF will hold the government responsible for “attempted genocide” in the event of any worker contracting the disease in such circumstances.
While subtlety, reasoning and nuance are not the strong suit of the red berets, I suppose this inflammation of rhetoric is a step up from the initial response of the EFF to the emergence of coronavirus here in March: imprisoning all infected people on Robben Island.
And while Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system and not the brain, one has to wonder what planet the brains trust of the EFF inhabits: there has been near universal approval for the exemplary and ultra-cautious approach Cyril Ramaphosa has taken to first imposing and now very gradually lifting the lockdown. Saving the economy is not dependent on killing people as the EFF suggests.
Perhaps the most accurate response to the Malema came from Cape Town businessman Ryan Charton. He noted on Twitter: “It suits him perfectly to have a broken economy and the anarchy that goes with that.” Exactly. Or as the most famous scholar of modern authoritarianism, Hanna Arendt, wrote: “Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think.” Malema is a certified graduate of that school at least.
In his address, Ramaphosa suggested that after Covid-19 passes, whenever that is, “we will have to find exceptional and innovative ways” to confront a wrecked economy. Indeed. However, some of the economic measures announced to date by his government – banning most online shopping, pumping billions we don’t have into state companies, arbitrary decisions based on “fairness” not public health considerations – suggest that old-school ideology, not modern best practice, is the government’s new normal.
And while Ramaphosa has received an A+ for his health measures, he deserves an F grade for failing over the past two years to right-size the economy for the storm through which it is now passing.
The DA response will not set the pulses racing, but its Freedom Day publications of “A Smart Lockdown that trusts the People” offers a “yes, but” sensible critique as the country this Friday moves from stage 5 to slightly less restrictive Stage 4 of the lockdown. It bears the hallmarks of the party’s general approach and applies it to the pandemic: verifiable data, decentralised decision making, and an emphasis on civil liberties. It also suggests that experts, not politicians, be entrusted with some of the key decisions.
Of course every politician is acting with imperfect data – no one actually can forecast the essential spread or perfect containment measures or predict the re-emergence of the disease. Every time a political leader says “we will base our decisions on science” you must know that the science itself is imperfect and the scientific community is divided. Looking at the same models, Britain for example went for a shutdown after initially resisting, while Sweden went in the opposite direction and kept the country largely open to allow “herd immunity” to take hold of its citizenry. Matthew Parris in The Times suggests that “trusting the science” is basically a cop-out or a cover for the political hard choices that rest on the government and the consequences for which it will bear responsibility.
Few governments will be held responsible for being over-cautious on the health front, but they might be found guilty later on for destroying their economies. Prioritising the economy over infection is a false choice, perhaps, but some risks will have to be taken if the medicine prescribed is not to be found even more destructive than the killer virus.
None of this is easy, but as a veteran MP once said to me when I complained about some aspect of parliamentary life: “No one forced you to be here.” Politicians and presidents sign up for the uncertainty and the buck-stopping decisions that crises require.
In this sense, political extremism will be the worst antidote, every bit as lethal as President Donald Trump’s parodied disinfectant by injection. And that means a rejection of the idea that this virus can be cured by an excessively simplistic diagnosis of the remedies and the belief that there are identifiable villains to blame for it.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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