EXCLUSIVE: Reprioritising budgets isn't enough to fight COVID-19 - Motlanthe

The former statesman said it's the state of the economy that's keeping him up at night.

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - Generally a contemplative man, former President Kgalema Motlanthe does not mince his words when it comes to the country’s economy, nor on the issue of access to land for South Africans.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Eyewitness News, Motlanthe laid out his concerns for the country as a former president and as a citizen, including US President Donald Trump's recent decision to halt funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) over the virus, saying they were covering it up.

In a week-long series last week, EWN delved deeper into how spatial access in South Africa would set apart those who can and can’t isolate to prevent contracting the virus.

'WE NEED NEW CAPITAL'

As government scrambled to raise the necessary funds to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Motlanthe said South Africa had reached a point where the reprioritisation of budgets would simply not work anymore.

On Thursday, Cabinet announced it had once again postponed making pronouncements on its economic plan, but Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had already said budgets would be reallocated from some programmes of government to address the pandemic.

The economy is what kept him up at night, he said, explaining that even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, South Africa was already facing an economic crisis, with the writing on the wall very clear that we were headed for junk status.

“For more than a century we relied on gold mines even though we don’t beneficiate and now we are at a point where reprioritisation of budgets will not pull us out of this economic morass in which we find ourselves, so we need new capital,” Motlanthe said.

The former president advocates for the exploration of gas at a massive scale to revive the economy.

“We have that opportunity and I think if handled correctly, if we start by drafting legislation that would designate this as a national strategic sector so that we don’t play these games of bee and stuff like that, but we actually aim to use it as a strategic natural resource, we could even have a sovereign fund,” he said.

This week, the South African Reserve Bank set its forecast of the country’s GDP contraction at 6.1%.

'MAYIBUYE iAFRIKA, IZWE LETHU'

Class differences, including the critical issue of land, had become obvious to any objective observer during this pandemic, said Motlanthe, and that the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of the state and the country’s policies.

Motlanthe said once again people’s struggle for land was taking centre stage. He said the COVID-19 pandemic was exposing the lived experiences of communities in townships, villages, and suburbs which included the question of land.

“This issue of the land has always been at the centre of the struggles of our people, the slogans of mayibuye iAfrika, izwe lethu [come back Africa, our land] is about land really. I think this disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic, really lays all of this bare for everyone to take notice,” Motlanthe said.

Motlanthe led the high-level panel on the assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change, which produced a report that warned that urbanisation should not be led by squatting or informal settlements.

“We made it clear that it is not correct or proper to have urbanisation which is led by squatting or sprouting of informal settlements because land is finite. If you plan settlements properly you can utilise the space to absorb many people and still provide public spaces,” he said.

The former statesman further explained how this problem could be overcome.

“A place like Johannesburg should be an example in terms of expropriation of land and do away with informal settlements altogether,” he said.

Motlanthe also implored South Africans to support people who are forced to eke out a living in precarious conditions and sections of society most affected by poverty.

WATCH: Lockdown: Minister Dlamini-Zuma explains amended regulations

TRUMP AND THE NEW WORLD ORDER

This week, US President Donald Trump announced that the world’s superpower would halt financial contributions to the WHO for 60 to 90 days after accusing the world health body of being biased towards China and mishandling its initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Motlanthe told EWN that the suspension came as no surprise, but could cost the United States dearly.

He said the recent developments formed part of a greater shift of the global power base, which had been coming for some time. While the world struggles to come to terms with the devastating and life-altering impact of COVID-19, a transition towards a new world order could be in full swing too, according to Motlanthe.

The former president said as the US flexed its financial muscle to the international community, it could soon find itself toppled as the world’s power base.

“I suspect that by withdrawing from all of these UN agencies and institutions and withdrawing active support, America is actually diminishing its own stature and leadership growth globally. We may actually be dealing with a transition where another economy will become the citadel of the new world order,” Motlanthe said.

He warned that if the dollar’s influence waned, this could be the dealbreaker for the US.

“If the dollar remains the currency globally, it would postpone that kind of shift but all of this leads to even the dollar ceasing to be the currency globally, then the days of America as the citadel of this world will come to an end,” he said.

Motlanthe further asserted that the US had not always been a superpower, tracing back history to the mercantilism system which cemented Holland as the economic stronghold of the world and later the British Empire.

The US and China have been struggling for power for a while now with the trade wars in recent years intensifying tensions.

The strain in relations was alighted by Trump’s aggression towards the Asian powerhouse over the spread of the COVID-19, which originated in that country.

WATCH: COVID-19 Situation Desk - 16 April 2020 PM

ISOLATION: 'IT'S NOTHING AND IT'S DOABLE'

At the same time, Motlanthe encouraged South Africans not to despair over the nationwide lockdown regulations, saying those who were detained during apartheid had to endure even worse while fighting for freedom.

While the former statesman acknowledged the plight of those who had to struggle for food among other essentials during this time, he said that for some, the isolation was “nothing”.

Motlanthe likened the lockdown to when he and others were incommunicado for months under Section Six of the apartheid regime. The provision forced people involved in terrorism - freedom fighters in the main – to be detained for a 60-day period, which could be renewed without trial.

“I think as South Africans we should really comply. Those of us who went through Section Six detention when we were held incommunicado for six months, this is a take-off, its nothing, and it is doable,” he said.

South Africans were complaining of the strict lockdown regulations, which confined them to their homes and took away some of their comforts for the past 21 days.

The measures were implemented by government to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed dozens of lives in South Africa already.

For official information about COVID-19 from the Department of Health, please click here.