Return to work a stern test for government and public - Businesslive

May 31, 2020
31 May 2020 - In a sense, SA’s “new” future begins to take shape on Monday, June 1.

Michael Morris

In a sense, SA’s “new” future begins to take shape on Monday, June 1.

It will be determined by the wisdom of the ordinary choices people make, and their courage in insisting the choices are theirs to make. Both will have a bearing on the inseparable health and economic crises of the present as well as the capacity of our society in the medium-to-longer term to limit their impact.

Politicians and state functionaries are not alone in saying SA can’t go back to the old way of doing things, but in the absence of clarity and honesty about what is really meant this could well mean only more of the same: sustained hostility to citizens being left to make choices in a market of free ideas and free trade, and increased state intrusion that will curtail liberty, deepen dependence and narrow the scope for dynamism, innovation and enterprise.

As almost the entire SA workforce returns to work today, and with it the prospect of a rise in Covid-19 infections, the test confronting the country is whether people can be trusted to make good choices that will not recklessly undermine public health, and whether the government can be trusted to recognise its limits and invest instead in the agency and choices of free citizens, crisply summed up by Peter Bruce last week when he wrote: “Let South Africans go and you’ll be able to smell the energy and the growth.”

The ramifications of these things will be immense and lasting. Which is not to say choosing is easy.

Most honest and thoughtful South Africans will have read with no small measure of self-recognition the closing lines of Tom Eaton’s column last week, in which he wrote: ‘I find it almost physically uncomfortable to believe, as I do, that the government’s decision to lock down hard and fast has saved many lives and was in the best interests of the poor, and that it has ruined many lives and has done huge damage to the poor, and that business needs to be restarted as soon as possible to save SA’s workers, and that business has a long history of seeing those same workers as entirely disposable and therefore its motives for restarting as soon as possible should be treated with some suspicion, and that scientists need to be listened to, except the scientists who are getting it wrong, who are indistinguishable from the ones who are getting it right because I simply don’t know enough.”

There’s arguably more to be said for doubt and pause in times of crisis than most realise. Writing on Thursday of the resort to shrill if ineffective sparring on social media — combatants going at it with pins, steeled to inflict on their opponents “death by a thousand pricks” — Gareth van Onselen cautioned that even when you think you are right the important question is “to ask what the point of being right is”. He goes on with customary percipience: “Is it to convince, or to denigrate? Sometimes political humiliation is unavoidable, even necessary. Depends on what you want. But if it’s all you want, you might as well talk to yourself.”

Argument matters because of what it offers — to convince, but also to be convincing, to engage alternative ideas and fresh perspectives and refine thinking, and not be satisfied merely to press home a tiny jab and think yourself clever.

From Monday SA’s health, in every sense, will depend on the substance and effectiveness of the argument for a new way of doing things.

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


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