South Africa’s leaders are given to invoking religion to explain or to justify themselves. As South Africans tend to see themselves as religious and God-fearing people, this is a frame of reference that is at once explanatory, inspiring and emotively resonant.
And there is great wisdom in scripture. No doubt in these stressful times, many have found succour in it. Others will have found warnings. Consider these words from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Things endure and repeat themselves, the writer seems to be saying. There is a monotony to existence, and little to surprise.
South Africa has been in lockdown for some four months. At the beginning, a number of commentators suggested that this was the moment for reform, for President Ramaphosa to make his long-delayed move. Even if he could not win the ideological battle over reform, the state of crisis would create an unassailable pragmatic case for doing so.
It’s difficult to say this now.
Proposals made over the past few weeks for a post-pandemic recovery, along with the thrust of the supplementary budget, point to the sentiment articulated in Ecclesiastes.
The proposal released by the African National Congress (ANC) – Reconstruction, Growth And Transformation: Building A New, Inclusive Economy – is largely a strategy to continue with the trajectory that existed before the pandemic hit.
The reach of the state is to be expanded. Indeed, as the president put it, it would be ‘state-led’. An infrastructure build would take centre-stage. State-owned enterprises would play a critical role (even the wretched and non-essential South African Airways is to be relaunched).
Black Economic Empowerment requirements are to continue. If anything, says the president, they will be ‘enhanced’. Racial policy prescriptions in respect of employment are to be ramped up in terms of amendments to the Employment Equity Act, which gives the Minister powers to set ‘numerical targets’.
None of this is new. It’s the long-standing narrative of the mighty developmental state, the delusion that mismanaged state firms can drive an economic miracle. It’s the assumption that government can mandate the composition of workforces or the tribute to be extracted. The implications of imposing ever more onerous burdens on the frayed remains of South Africa’s business community are worthy of scant consideration.
‘What has been will be again’, laments the writer of Ecclesiastes.
Lamentable too were the findings of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey. It estimated that between 2.5 million and 3.6 million people (a probable figure is around 3 million) had lost their jobs between February and April. Another 1.5 million had lost their income. Indeed, a third of those who had earned an income in February were not doing so in April.
Businesses have been hard hit. Stats SA noted last month that close to nine in ten businesses had reported lower than normal turnover; 20% had suspended trading; 25% had laid off staff. Research on small businesses – that part of the economy that has in very abstract theory been a frontline priority for government as a job and wealth creator, and features as such in the ANC’s plans – shows a consonant level of distress. An April study by a consulting firm, McKinsey, found that more than half of small and medium-sized firms (with turnovers between R15m and R500m) were considering closing down at least part of their operations. In excess of 40% had reduced capacity, retrenched staff or would need to do so.
Pre-existing economic malaise
But understand this as the pandemic and the lockdown infecting a pre-existing economic malaise. It compounded, but did not create, the problem. And even in the face of this, the policy response is larger doses of the very policies that have at the most generous reading failed to spur growth, and, at a more realistic reading, have actively retarded it.
‘Nothing new under the sun.’ This applies to trajectory and (predictable) outcome. South Africa’s economic difficulties were well entrenched by a horrid history and a sequence of poor choices that have undermined the growth and development the country so desperately needs.
If the stance of those in power is to make the same set of poor choices, the results will not be different, save that they will be replicated in an even more unforgiving and damaged environment. It does not require the wisdom of a Biblical sage to understand this.