Putting profit before people, an analysis of the DA’s approach to Covid-19

Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader, John Steenhuisen MP. Photo by: Courtney Africa/African News Agency (ANA)

When the President 1st declared a national lockdown, he had the support of all the sectors of society including all the main opposition parties. The approach of the opposition then could be characterised as a ‘’patriotic opposition ‘’. However, this approach had the unintended consequence of making the President more popular amongst all sectors of society and internationally. During the 1st few weeks, the mood of the country was one of unity, cohesion, solidarity, sacrifice and unconditional support for the lockdown. ‘’My fellow South Africans …’’ briefings by the President became one of the most popular television, and radios shows amongst ordinary South Africans.

Unsurprisingly, in mid – April 2020 the DA returned to its historical adversarial, obstructionist opposition strategy when it dawned upon them that they were making the President, his cabinet and by implication, the ANC more popular while they were becoming irrelevant during this period. Equally the interim Leader of the Official Opposition John Steenhuizen was fading into obscurity which did not bode well for his party leadership ambitions. It was therefore inevitable that this brief flirtation as a ‘’patriotic opposition’’ was going to be short-lived. By the end of April, the DA-led by Steenhuizen began opposing the lockdown in all its manifestations culminating in the call to end the lockdown completely. Steenhuizen it seems shrewdly began using the newer adversarial strategy to build his profile for his party leadership bid.

The DA then developed a political strategy to Covid-19 that integrates its own right-wing political, social, cultural and neo-liberal economic ideology into its Covid-19 responses laying the foundation for its election campaign messaging for LGE 2021. It began opposing the Government’s approach to lockdown at a macro level and equally challenged numerous individual regulations, policies and implementation actions at a micro-level. It also mobilised support amongst its historical base by tapping into the fears, insecurities and anxieties created by the lockdown, another historically successful right-wing tactic, i.e. fear-based mobilisation. They presented a narrative which had no basis in science that the lockdown was wrong and should be ended in its entirety immediately, and that the ANC government was acting illegally, illogically, irrationally and unreasonably. They then progressed from populist public mobilisation campaigns to directly initiating and supporting others in law-fare. It furthermore developed a negative narrative based on fiction rather than the fact that the economic challenges resulting from the lockdown are causing more harm than the virus and that the virus is the lesser of two evils. It also developed an ahistorical scare-mongering message that we are now in an authoritarian state with no accountability and that our civil rights, i.e. freedom of movement, choice etc. ( all libertarian ideals ) have been illegally curtailed.

From the above, it is clear that the DA has seamlessly integrated there (il)liberal, conservative political and economic outlook into their Covid-19 strategy. After years of ideological and policy ying-yanging for once there seems to be clear policy coherence in its opposition strategy, tactics and messaging- i.e. a focus on accountability, individual rights, rule of law and right-wing neo-liberal free-market fundamentalism at all costs. However, the impact of this right-wing approach has been at the expense of the lives of the ordinary people of the WC. The WC has consistently had the highest infection and death rate in the country, i.e. vacillating between 50%-60% over the past four months. The anecdotal evidence indicates that the virus has been spreading faster in the WC because the DA provincial and local governments have not been strictly monitoring nor implementing the regulations amongst businesses.

There are strong similarities between the DA and the approaches taken by President’s Trump and Bolsanero and Prime-Ministers Johnson and Modi amongst others. Like these right-wing leaders, the DA does not support a lockdown, implying that the solution is to use the herd-mentality immunisation approach to fight the virus. Its approach to the 1st township ( Khayelitsha) case of the virus is telling and set the tone for its insensitive approach. I.e. it sent the 1st positive patient home to isolate with her family without having tested them, displaying no contextual understanding and empathy for the conditions of the working class and poor. Its approach to the homeless and Strandfontein as its base, which was declared illegal by the courts was a further example of its uncaring, minimalist and malicious compliance to the national lockdown strategy. It is also not coincidental that all these governments ( USA, UK, Brazil, India and the WC ) have been resistant to implementing the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations to fighting the virus including a lockdown strategy. 

While there may be varied reasons for these countries and the WC being the world, continental, regional and country hot-spots of the Covid-19 pandemic, the underlying reason is that these governments of Trump, Johnson, Bolsanero, Modi and Steenhuizen’s responses to fighting the virus is driven by their ideological approach of ‘’Putting Profit Before People’’. Just imagine if the DA under Steenhuizen were running the country! Today our Covid-19 infections and deaths would be on par some of the worst-performing countries in the world and, i.e. USA, Brazil, UK and India- an acolyte we most certainly should fear. Thus, despite the challenges and shortcomings of the national lockdown strategy, we should be thankful for the socialistic and developmental interventions of President Ramaphosa which has been guided by science, international best practice and the thinking of Che Guevara, when he said: “ The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth.”

Rihaz Juvale is an independent political commentator from the Western Cape.