Ramaphosa’s prescription for recovery magnifies SA’s vulnerabilities - Businesslive

14 April 2020 - The strange unreality of the lockdown is less the seeming desertedness of usually bustling places but that most of us in the tens of millions have gone separately to our homes in the teeming townships and the still streets of suburbia as if there remains a law that still separates us by the inerasable logic of apartheid.

Michael Morris

The strange unreality of the lockdown is less the seeming desertedness of usually bustling places but that most of us  in the tens of millions have gone separately to our homes in the teeming townships and the still streets of suburbia as if there remains a law that still separates us by the inerasable logic of apartheid.

There is, of course, still such a “law” — the law of economics — which is more compelling than any autocratic diktat. I might add more punishing, too. That such discriminatory dynamics play out on a global scale was borne out by a Financial Times editorial republished on BusinessLIVE on April 5, “A post-pandemic social contract needs to benefit all”.

“If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic,” the FT says, “it is that it has injected a sense of togetherness into polarised societies. But the virus, and the economic lockdowns needed to combat it, also shine a glaring light on existing inequalities ….”

South Africans are only too aware of this. The challenge, the FT says, is for societies to “offer a social contract that benefits everyone”. But the coronavirus is “laying bare how far many rich societies fall short of this ideal”. Lockdowns around the world “are imposing the greatest cost on those already worst off’” with millions losing jobs and livelihoods, “while better-paid knowledge workers often face only the nuisance of working from home”.

This, too, is true for South Africans. As for what should be done, the FT is unequivocal: “Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy ... (seeing) public services as investments rather than liabilities, and (making) labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies ... such as basic income and wealth taxes will have to be in the mix.”

At a time in world history when more people are free from autocracy, and free from want because they live in societies in which the power of the state to make choices for them has been rolled back, the FT’s prescription is jarring. But why should it be? If democratically elected governments are held to account, why should they not be effective? And if our collective vulnerability, whether to an undiscriminating virus or menacing social instability, is increased by inequality, can legislated redistribution be faulted?

Not absolutely, is the best answer,  but it’s not the whole answer. The real test of the good society — free, but also fair — is its reliability, its trustworthiness and capacity to perform consistently well. Unwittingly this quality was illuminated on Thursday when President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the lockdown (and the marginally decadent among us got sweaty palms thinking about our dwindling rations of cigarettes and Merlot). Similar to the FT, Ramaphosa foresaw the challenge of embarking on a post-crisis “process of fundamental reconstruction”.

But what he said next was salutary. “To do so, we will draw on our strengths: our abundant natural resources, our advanced infrastructure, our deep financial markets, our proven capabilities in information and communication technology, and the depth of talent among our people. We will draw on our proven capacity for innovation and creativity, our ability to come together in a crisis, and our commitment to each other and our common future.”

The state is not entirely absent from his encouraging sense of SA’s potential and scope for recovery, but it is tellingly peripheral. What we see in Ramaphosa’s summary,  a riposte of sorts to the unlikely advice of the metropolitan Financial Times, is an amalgam of assets and capacities that well from the choices of people, not the determinations of the powerful.

Reliable societies are not immune to catastrophe or error, injustice or failure. But their underlying, if unwritten contract, is the best demonstrable antidote: openness, dynamism, capacity to adjust, freedom to choose and change, and, importantly, a lively, voluntary commitment to the common interest of preserving and using these things well. The irony for SA is that our vulnerability has been magnified by state-inspired obstacles to the very things the president says we can count on, and which state intervention always undermines.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-04-13-michael-morris-ramaphosas-prescription-for-recovery-magnifies-sas-vulnerabilities/

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