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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Ramaphosa's targeted COVID-19 economic plan is urgent

OPINION

We are in the midst of the Great Pause - the everyday ennui of lockdown. Whichever way one views it, it is not quite the otium the Romans suggested.

It may not even be the Great Pause many are suggesting. We are for the most part inundated with online information at every turn.

This overwhelming virtual world contains meetings while Lyse Doucet provides comfort and joy on BBC Radio with Heaney’s ‘The Cure at Troy’; Richard Burton lyrically reads Dylan Thomas and Bruce Springsteen live-streams concerts from his home in New Jersey.

There’s online exercise, books and above all, science.

In the midst of the Great Pause, experts abound. Twitter epidemiologists are ubiquitous. They come online to tell us about the efficacy of hydrochloroquine, about the (unproven) value of the BCG vaccination and how to boost our immune systems. They draw curves and claim to know how to flatten them and engage us all in endless options for closing and reopening the economy, with graphs of their own making. While the virus moves across borders seamlessly, the Great Pause has become the Great Noise. Discernment during the time of COVID-19 is a particular skill.

It was probably inevitable given the way in which this pandemic has caused global paralysis, calling into question our way of life, bringing into sharp relief the increasing fragility of the planet and the need to think more carefully about building resilient economies during a time of inequality.

In South Africa, the virus has struck at the very heart of all that is right and wrong about this complex country. It has brought into focus the deep and unsustainable divisions between city and rural areas, and the rich and poor. As always in South Africa, our divisions are exacerbated by race and our past.

The pandemic has also shown the goodness that is at the heart of South African society. That goodness is a commodity that is hard to describe, yet fuels our ability to keep going in this paradoxical place. The helpers have been everywhere, the chefs cooking up a storm for the homeless, the several Community Action Networks, the lawyers representing the citizens of Empolweni in Khayelitsha, and the women running feeding schemes when they themselves have little to give. The generosity of ordinary South Africans alongside generous solidarity from corporate South Africa has again shown what we can do when we are called upon to pull together. At the same time, of course, the dark side of our country has also been spectacularly on display as places of worship have been broken into, shops looted and criminality continues apace though in different ways. None of this is surprising.

Yet, while our apartheid past haunts us in many ways, it is our immediate past that seems to haunt us even more at this moment. In October last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa told investors that state capture under former President Jacob Zuma cost the country around R500 billion. That was probably a conservative estimate given the lost investment, the jobs that might have been created and the hollowing out of democratic institutions.

Years of looting by Zuma and his cronies have left us less able to deal with this crisis. The kitty was looted and it is bare when we need an economic cushion more than ever. Poverty, unemployment and inequality remain our greatest challenges.

According to a South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, nearly a quarter of South Africans go to bed hungry every night. That was the statistic before the lockdown. It surely is much higher now given the inability of people to do piecework and to be resourceful in accessing food in any small way. Night after night disturbing images fill our screens. People are hungry. An elderly woman in Diepsloot with tears streaming from her face says she went to bed on a cup of tea the night before. She was lucky to have water given the limited access many in our country have. In Mitchell’s Plain, people fight over food designated for babies.

So, while there is much noise around us during this Great Pause, Ramaphosa now urgently needs to unveil the economic package that should provide targeted relief for the poor. Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize have been exemplary in their handling of this crisis thus far. They have led with clear information and most importantly, they have followed the science. Mkhize has assembled a world-class team of scientists, and, along with them, he provides credible, accessible information. They all appear indefatigable even while conveying information that is difficult to absorb. The importance of this calm science-led approach cannot be underestimated when one looks at the way United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson or United States President Donald Trump have handled the pandemic in their own countries.

But, regrettably Ramaphosa is surrounded by many inept, lazy and corrupt Cabinet ministers given the weaknesses within the ANC with which we are all too familiar.

So when Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, appears to praise herself on Twitter for providing water tanks to communities in this crisis, one wonders how tone deaf a minister can be? What has she been doing prior to this? Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, similarly knows only the language of "kragdadigheid" in dealing with citizens, while Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu seems to lack the empathy so necessary for her job.

In the hands of these three ministers alone, the poor have mostly become inconvenient chattel to be condescended to, beaten into submission or ignored.

Last week, the Cabinet’s much-awaited package of economic reforms was not released. We were told five plans needed to be melded into one. That seems to sum up the ANC’s approach to economic policy - muddled and without direction.

In the Great Pause, citizens do not ask for their governments to be perfect. There is no manual, especially not in a country like ours, for a pandemic. But, governments need to deal with what is in front of them. Right now, what is in front of Ramaphosa and his Cabinet is a society fraying at the edges because of hunger. It is time for the state to deal with this challenge in a coordinated manner. There is not a lack of goodwill in South Africa. Across the country citizen efforts are afoot to feed as many people as possible, yet it is all uncoordinated which leaves many of those in need out of the loop.

This government should, with the assistance of credible, accountable civil society organisations, be embarking on a mass distribution of food parcels. This can and must be done if we are to avoid food riots and inevitable violence.
One wonders what plan the minister of Social Development has for this? Ramaphosa needs to be able to rely on his ministers to act proactively and in concert. In addition, the topping up of the Child Support Grant or a temporary Basic Income Grant should be considered.

The country is cash-strapped, but we cannot afford the consequences of not providing this urgent, coordinated relief. The lockdown has required extraordinary sacrifices from us all, but more so from the poor. Compassionate and empathetic governments recognise that it is their duty to ameliorate such suffering.

But, the compassion and empathy is also about treating all citizens equally. So, when the Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, is suspended for 2 months for breaching lockdown regulations and is forced to give us all a bland apology, one wonders why she continues to escape arrest, while Impala Platinum CEO, Mark Munroe is arrested for breaching the lockdown regulations? If strollers on Sea Point promenade are arrested during lockdown, why not Ndabeni-Abrahams?

We know the answer, yet it makes it ever more unpalatable to expect the poor and vulnerable - or anyone - to obey lockdown regulations.

Humming in the background is the economic crisis South Africa faces and the difficulties we know will be exacerbated when we eventually come out of this pandemic. The choices before this government have not been easy. Many have suggested that the choice is binary: to open or close the economy. Such graphs and charts have been singularly unhelpful during this time because mostly they do not follow the science and lack the degree of empathy needed to make such difficult decisions. Any government faces unviable choices at a time such as this.

A phased-in opening up of the economy appears to be the appropriate thing to do and will require a delicate balancing act. Ramaphosa and his Cabinet have done many things right over the past month. One need only think of having Zuma at the helm during this time to appreciate Ramaphosa’s calm and Mkhize’s Trojan-like efforts.

But Ramaphosa must delay no further in corralling his ministers to agree on the details of an economic package and even more so to provide relief to the poorest within our communities. If they cannot meld five packages into one, then Ramaphosa himself needs to make the choices for his Cabinet and for us all. Now truly is not the time for the internal idiosyncrasies of ANC debates to take centre-stage.

The South African Parliament has finally moved out of its slumber and will be convening virtually. It initially resisted requests to do so, as if its constitutional oversight role magically disappeared during this pandemic. In fact, vigilance is required now more than ever regarding the protection of citizen rights during this lockdown period. Parliament should be (virtually) calling ministers to account for updates and specifically asking salient questions about the food relief for the poor.

South Africa needs to emerge from this lockdown as a society that holds its government to account more readily. And more importantly, we need to emerge from lockdown as a society more empathetic, not less so, and where we fully understand that our dignity is intertwined with the woman in Diepsloot who goes to bed hungry, only a cup of weak tea for succour.

There will be plenty of time for the great reckoning regarding this pandemic, its effects and that perennial question - what will a post lockdown world look like?

Everyone who claims to know is simply guessing.

Let us for now deal with that which is in front of us. Speedy decisive decision-making by government is needed to stave off social unrest. No graph or curve is needed to understand the urgency of this situation.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february