I’m sure I’m not the only one worrying about the company Bheki Cele keeps. Some don’t have much choice, but all are at risk. It’s that mask of his. It keeps slipping.
Whenever I watch a video these days of the police minister talking into a microphone, I know as surely as I know anything that his mask will gradually part company with the bridge of nose and, soon enough, dip below his nostrils. He usually yanks it back into place, but it’s doubtful the coronavirus is sporting enough to overlook the opportunity. It’s a wonder the police minister hasn’t been arrested or roughed up a bit for his routine lapses – less fortunate South Africans have suffered much worse for much less from the long arm of Bheki Cele’s law.
The country’s law-keeper-in-chief would not have been pleased by the keen remark this week by African National Congress veteran and former finance minister Trevor Manuel, who said: ‘Once you start using the language of force, you’re on the wrong side of history.’
Eventually, it’s safe to say, the lockdown will recede as the worst of our worries. A greater one might well be the precedent it has set.
What is at stake is everything on the right side of history, professed not in the language of force, but the language of liberty.
Freedom and all it enables is at the heart of this week’s Keeping Liberty Alive report, written by my senior colleague at the IRR, head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery.
‘If liberty is to be kept alive,’ she writes, ‘it is vital to challenge every unreasonable and unjustifiable decision – from the irrationality of specific rules to the constitutionality of the lockdown as a whole. It is also important for South Africans to think ahead to the period beyond the virus, when the key need will be to revive and reinvigorate the economy after the devastation resulting from the lockdown.’
Drawing on the remarks earlier this month by President Cyril Ramaphosa – when he spoke of the opportunity presented by the Covid-19 crisis to “reconstruct” a “new economy” in which “radical economic transformation would underpin the economic future” – Jeffery concludes: ‘This is a recipe for ever greater state intervention and control. In combination with a host of other factors over many years, it indicates that the ruling ANC/SACP alliance is determined to use the Covid-19 crisis to press ahead with the Soviet-inspired national democratic revolution (NDR) to which it has been committed since at least the 1960s.’
Using the crisis the weaken the private sector
She adds: ‘The alliance wants to use the crisis to weaken the private sector, build dependency on the government, introduce prescribed assets for pension funds and other financial institutions, induce the Reserve Bank to print the money needed to maintain state spending, overcome resistance to the nationalisation of private healthcare under the NHI, and open the way to the uncompensated expropriation of land and other assets.’
Against the record of ‘the massive inefficiency and often rampant corruption’ in the public service and state-owned enterprises, she goes on, ‘the notion that increased state control will speed up economic recovery and ensure its success should be laughed out of court.’
Alas, however, ‘the opposite is likely to occur’.
‘The voices speaking out in defence of capitalism – which has in fact helped lift billions out of poverty all around the globe – are likely to be limited. Far more media coverage is sure to be given to the Left’s demands for ever more state ownership and control. Increasingly, this will become the only accepted narrative.’
The risk is that the public’s ‘often mute acquiescence in the lockdown may also encourage the ANC/SACP alliance to believe that expropriation without compensation, the NHI, prescribed assets, the unrestricted printing of money, and accelerating state ownership and control will be accepted in the same passive way’.
‘All that will be needed to secure the adoption of these highly damaging measures will be to keep depicting them as vital to the “reconstruction” of the ravaged economy.’
Permanent feature of government
Written, albeit in his personal capacity, by Dr Mukovhe Morris Masutha, a Manager for Research, Strategy and Policy Analysis at the ANC’s Policy Unit, it makes the case not just for ‘an unprecedented opportunity for all of us to re-imagine the social, economic, cultural and political dimensions of our society as a whole’, but the preservation of command-council decision-making as a permanent feature of government.
‘While others question the legality of the National Command Council,’ Masutha writes, ‘we must perhaps make it a permanent structure responsible for rapid implementation of government’s programme of action.’
In Masutha’s view, the enemy of South Africa’s progress is the ‘neo-liberal economic order’ whose ‘legacy of obscene opulence and unmitigated corporate accumulation has not only undermined the notion of South Africa as a democratic state but has further entrenched corporate’s rule by proxy’.
He argues: ‘If left unchecked, private corporate interests will gradually undermine the very democracy that many South Africans died for and gradually replace the seemingly long-forgotten doctrine of “the people shall govern” with a tyranny of “investors” and “lenders”.’
The lockdown mechanism emerges, here, less as a healthcare necessity than an ideological stratagem.
When, to his own rhetorical question ‘And why do you use the jackboot?’ Trevor Manuel offered, ‘Because the system doesn’t work’, many will have been tempted to extend his meaning beyond law-and-order failures, evidence of which is plentiful.
As Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh pointed out on Friday, South Africa is dealing with the coronavirus crisis on top of the crisis of an economy that has been in recession for the past two years, with the longest downward cycle in living memory, and an unemployment rate, nearly 30% at the start of the year, which is likely to soar.
Advancing statist ambitions
But it becomes clearer by the day that, rather than summoning the courage to confront the palpable deficiencies of its own making, much of the thinking in the ANC alliance tends towards locking down South Africans the better to reduce their liberty with a view to advancing statist ambitions.
Inescapably, as Jeffery argues, the ‘real formula for a resurgence in growth and a rebound in employment could not be more different. The government is deep in debt, while the country’s domestic savings are far too small to finance any major expansion in infrastructure or other spending. An upsurge in direct foreign investment will thus be urgently required. That means that the confidence of foreign investors will have to be rebuilt.’
Rather than ‘further weakening the economy – as NDR interventions over two decades have already done – the government should focus on strengthening property rights, removing harmful regulation, reducing barriers to employment, equipping the disadvantaged for upward mobility, promoting high rates of inclusive growth, and helping to generate the millions of private sector jobs that South Africans most need for both income and independence from the state’.
The long absence of these things encapsulates a system that ‘doesn’t work’, and, as increasing numbers of South Africans are beginning to fear, explains ‘why you use the jackboot’.