Combating the Covid-19 pandemic declared a national disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this week critically requires, among many other things:
- reliable access to clean water for frequent hand-washing;
- efficient public health services to treat the 14% or so of infected people likely to become critically ill;
- increased state revenues to pay these hefty treatment costs and cushion the devastating economic impact of the pandemic on reeling pension funds and other investors, businesses unable to keep operating, and breadwinners barred from earning their normal living; and
- the ANC abandoning the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and putting the interests of the country and the needs of the population before its own ideological ambitions.
But South Africa’s water system – once admired around the world for its efficiency and pioneering technological ingenuity – is now characterised by poor planning, collapsing infrastructure, long delays in completing vital dams, major wastefulness and corruption, persistent leaks, unreliable supply in many towns and rural villages, and mounting contamination as hundreds of failing municipal wastewater treatment plants spew more than 4 billion litres of raw or poorly treated sewage into the country’ rivers and dams every day.
Behind this man-made disaster lies the ANC’s commitment to state control, cadre deployment, and demographic representivity, all of which have brought about crippling shortages of engineering, financial, and management skills. Maintenance has crumbled, generating a R800bn backlog, while new infrastructure projects have often failed through technical incompetence. At the same time, BEE preferential procurement and a lack of accountability have facilitated high levels of irregular, wasteful, and often corrupt expenditure.
Reported the Mail & Guardian in 2018: ‘By the [national] department’s own calculations, it has spent enough money to give 95% of residents access to clean water. But the calculations show that 20 million people don’t have access to clean water because of broken and unfinished water systems. Giyani is a classic example of how this happens. A drought in 2009 exposed the area’s water woes. About R5bn has since been spent to fix the problem,…but people still don’t have water.’
As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens, the millions of people still lacking access to clean water must somehow find a way to keep washing their hands to keep themselves safe. Human settlements, water, and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced earlier this week that water tanks and stand pipes will be provided in informal settlements, rural villages, and high- density public spaces such as taxi ranks. But her department has long been in such shambles and has lost so much of its capacity that this pledge will not easily be fulfilled.
Public healthcare is also in increasing crisis. Despite a level of spending (4% of GDP) exceeding that in many other emerging markets, the country gets little ‘bang’ for its substantial ‘buck’. So much so that ‘the standard of healthcare has plunged since 1994’ – as Dr Zweli Mkhize, now health minister, acknowledged back in 2010.
Underpinning the deterioration has again been the government’s insistence on demographic representivity, cadre deployment, and preferential procurement. These policies have stripped provincial health departments of much of their capacity and put the management of hospitals and clinics into the hands of ‘teachers, nurses, and even clerks with only a matric’ (as the Development Bank of Southern Africa reported in 2011). They have also eroded accountability, added to high levels of irregular and corrupt spending, generated frequent shortages of medicines, equipment, and other essentials – and encouraged frustrated health professionals to exit the public service.
These debilitating failures have been compounded by the government’s refusal to act swiftly and effectively against the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This now has a prevalence rate of some 13.5% – sharply up from 1.4% in 1994 – and is the worst AIDS burden in the world. Moreover, despite the state’s major recent efforts to roll out ARVs, these currently reach only 4.90 million people out of the 7.97 million individuals in need of them. That leaves more than 3 million untreated HIV sufferers with weakened immune systems and perhaps a heightened vulnerability to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also essential in countering the gathering storm are adequate public revenues. But the projected tax take is down by some R63bn for the 2019/20 financial year, the economy has fallen into technical recession for the second time in two years, and gross loan debt is expected to reach R3.6 trillion (65.6% of GDP) in the coming year. Last month, finance minister Tito Mboweni put this year’s likely budget deficit at 6.8%, but the lengthier recession that now looms is sure to push this figure higher.
How, then, can the government find the hundreds of billions needed to counter the pandemic and its manifold economic costs? Mr Ramaphosa says a package of interventions is being put together. The R5bn contingency reserve in the 2020 budget could be redeployed, for example. So too could excess monies in the Unemployment Insurance Fund, the bailouts planned for SAA and other non-critical SOEs, and some R39bn (2% of total budgeted expenditure of R1.95 trillion in 2020/21) under emergency funding provisions in the Public Finance Management Act.
Interest rates can also be lowered to some extent to help struggling debtors and encourage businesses to keep paying the salaries of ill or idled staff. Overall, however, the public kitty is largely bare, the looming costs are enormous, and the government has little capacity to increase its borrowing, despite the massive scale of need.
The Covid-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge to all affected countries. But South Africa’s capacity to counter it would be far greater if the ANC government had not so crippled the water sector, the public healthcare system, and the state’s capacity to bring in tax revenues and use them wisely and well.
In all three of these spheres, the damage has been done by the ruling party’s determination to expand state control, limit private provision – and put its socialist NDR ideology before skills, efficiency, accountability, cost-effective procurement, or the prudent management of the public purse.
Where to from here? Effective action against the pandemic would be easier to achieve if the government would finally embark on the structural reforms that Mr Ramaphosa was always supposed to usher in. That means slaughtering large numbers of NDR holy cows.
It requires the ANC to abandon all expropriation without compensation (EWC) measures and other threats to property rights, jettison the proposed NHI, reject all attempts to bring back prescribed assets for pension funds, privatise failing SOEs, abandon cadre deployment, terminate BEE, increase accountability, and clamp down strongly on corruption.
The stakes could not be higher. The NDR has already eroded much of the state’s capacity. It has also brought the economy to the brink of disaster, while the pandemic now threatens to push it over the edge. EWC and other pending NDR measures – which are sure to trigger massive additional harm – must now be abandoned. This is vital to limit damage in the crucial months ahead and to help recovery later, once the danger from the virus has receded.
The choice could not be starker. The ANC has always put its NDR ideology before the interests of the country and the needs of the population. Will it still do the same now that so many lives are at risk and so much economic and other suffering looms? Will it care enough about all the people of South Africa to stop the NDR?