John Patten shares his thoughts on current events and ponders the political consequences of the latest decisions regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is worth pondering . . . what was the clinching factor that caused the government to make wholesale cuts, effective from tomorrow, in the restrictions it had imposed to counter the Covid-19 pandemic?

Was it the fact that the rate of infections had peaked across the country and the danger is receding? Was it the medical advice the government was receiving? Was it the state of the economy? Or was it politics?

The easy answer is to suggest that all of those things were consideration in the decision, but the way it played out suggests it was mounting public anger at the state of desperation and the sense of paralysis in the whole South African society that forced the government’s hand.

Besides bringing relief to significant sectors of the economy, it signals a political victory for President Ramaphosa over the Zuma/Magashule faction, which wanted to use the crisis to remodel the economy towards increased state control. That faction has been offered a questionable sop in taking defeat, the suggestion to establish a state-controlled bank, but it will have difficulty making headway in an already crowded banking sector.

After months of stoutly resisting demands that the tobacco ban and alcohol restrictions be lifted, the government more or less gave way without a bleat. The entertainment industry, hotels and tourism companies can come back to life, with some limitations to prevent crowding, but enough to promise employment for thousands. Because international travel around the world is still restricted, the summer inflow of northern hemisphere tourists to South Africa’s attractive seaside, mountain and wildlife resorts is still cut off, but inter-provincial travel is now allowed, and that will make a significant difference to operations which were in danger of dying on their feet.

The country is far from out of the woods, even though the rules of Level Two are much less restricting than Level Three. Before the Covid-19 struck the world, South Africa was already in considerable financial difficulty. State corporations were bankrupt, corruption was rife to the point where the Ramaphosa regime could not get a grip on it, the governing party was at odds with itself to the point where important decisions could not be made.

It is horrible to think what South Africa has been through the past five months. The initial three-week total lockdown starting at the end of March was well received in spite of the considerable hardship it brought to many people. The public accepted it was necessary to enable the country to prepare the health facilities to cope with the expected inflow of patients into hospitals and to get the manufacture of face masks, sanitisers arranged. Though the pandemic started slowly, people were well primed to believe the flood was coming. And it did.

The public, even though hardened to the ways of corruption, could still not believe its ears when it learnt that politically connected ANC members had won rigged tenders for the production of essential equipment to fight the pandemic. How low could the party elite go?

The pandemic was introduced to South Africa by tourists returning from Europe, and it first affected the more affluent sections of the public. It also meant it didn’t initially penetrate the low-income shantylands on the edge of the country’s metropoles where social distancing is virtually impossible and where no one worried about wearing masks, if they even knew such rules were being applied.

What did hit the poor was the closure of jobs for labourers, the shutting down of spaza shops and street-side businesses that poor traders relied on to squeeze oust a pittance to live on.

When the economy was opened slightly, commuters using taxis – the main form of travel from the townships – found the government had ruled that taxis could not be fully loaded with passengers, and the taxi drivers weren’t willing to run their taxis half-empty and at a loss. Relief for that problem was given only a couple of weeks ago.

The growing problem of a stalled economy steadily reached proportions of desperation for residents in the townships, but the numbers of Covid-19 cases was still rising. The government tried allowing the sale of liquor again, but the number of liquor related hospital admissions quickly persuaded the government to ban liquor again.

Solve one problem, expose another. The liquor related hospital admissions fell, but the predicted Covid-19 related admissions did not match medical predictions for the number of serious Covid cases or the number of deaths. The pandemic was less fatal than suggested by the epidemiological models that had been made. A new virus is running its own course through society.

There were a large number of asymptomatic cases, and a large number of mild cases. The recovery rate reached over 80% with the majority of remaining cases in the process of recovery. The extra hospital accommodation measures that had been taken proved superfluous to needs. Specially prepared wards remained empty.

The public lost respect for the medical case presented to them. They were suffering for no good reason. They began to question whether they were being made to suffer for political reasons, not medical reasons. The whims of particular politicians came into the limelight, particularly Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Trade minister Mr Ebrahim Patel, who could be held to account for spearheading the sufferings being felt.

Now the restrictions were being kept in place for the purpose of turning the economy in the direction of increasing state control and to take business away from white capitalists holding reins over sectors of the economy, notable the liquor business in the tobacco industry, neither of which was directly influencing the spread of Covid-19, but which could be claimed as industries dangerous to public health.

For as long as liquor and tobacco were banned, illegal operators in those products, where blacks made good money in underhand dealings, thrived. But they did so at the expense of the public purse, because excise duties on liquor and tobacco products, the sin taxes pulling in billions of rand, were not being paid and the Treasury was losing revenue it couldn’t afford to lose.

Something had to give.

While the Dlaminin-Zuma/Magashule factioin might have wished to prolong the campaign against “white monopoly capital”, Ramaphosa’s pragmatic wing of the party could see the huge damage that was being done and the growing anger of thousands of workers deprived of work and income.

Ramaphosa is a man who tries to play by consensus inside a divided party, but the opening up of the economy from this week, shows his patience had run out.

At last, over waiting for weeks, he was in a position to put his foot down and overrule ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule and Dr Dlamini-Zuma. For the moment it is a political victory for him.

However, the economy is still his problem. He cannot easily claim dominance while the motor of the country is broken.
Ramaphosa has still to find a formula in which the ANC, a party mainly of socialists, trade unionists and communists, can work amicably with big business, and even small business, with all the added complications of racial divisions that exist between these groups.

It would be unrealistic to expect a booming economy in South Africa in the next five years. That leaves Ramaphosa vulnerable both in the municipal elections next year and in the subsequent national elections two years later.

The ANC has a majority, which looks secure in the immediate future, especially as none of the opposition parties looks strong enough to challenge for power (and they have their own problems), but it leaves Ramaphosa open to internal challenge.

His victory in the leadership race two years ago has not assured him in any sense of long-term domination of the leadership of the country. In spite of that, he remains South Africa’s best hope.