Covid-19, a catastrophe demanding united action

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) treatment facilities at the NASREC Expo. Jerome Delay/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Politics is tricky; it cuts both ways. Every time you make a choice; it has unintended consequences. Covid-19 is the world’s urgent and present catastrophe demanding leadership and united action by all nations and their peoples. However; in South Africa, we are beginning to hear voices of dissent chastising the government for its actions. Some are begging the courts to be arbiters in the “dispute”.

The Cyril Ramaphosa leadership has been praised for the way it has handled this pandemic by world leaders but a significant section of our population seems unsatisfied with the decisions taken by the state. Leading the pack is a team of two lawyers who “want clarity on the powers of the Covid-19 National Command Council (NCC) from President Cyril Ramaphosa”.

News media reports that Lawyer Luqmaan Hassan, addressed a letter on behalf of advocates Nazeer Cassim SC and Erin Richardson, seeking the presidency to clarify the constitutional prescript giving powers to the NCC. They say the response “will be whether we should approach the court or whether his response is sufficient, or whether we must further engage with him,” according to Independent Online.

Another challenge was fascinating! It came from an entity of the state, The Gauteng Liquor Board claiming to represent 20 000 shebeens and taverns in Gauteng. It said the economic impact of the lockdown has been hard to bear for its members thus threatened legal action. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) empathised with the board asking the president to accede to the board’s demands.

The City Press reported (3 May 2020) that several other groupings, including the “Tobacco manufacturers, religious leaders, traditional leaders, politicians, and businesspeople”, have formed a “convergent view – albeit for different reasons – that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to shut down the country is detrimental to the economy and may not even be in line with scientific evidence and the law of the land.”

It’s easy to fall on either side of the divide depending on one’s perspective of the current challenges and what we may see as “concomitant action” necessary to get the country through these trying times. On the one side, it is easy to regard the challenge as fundamentally driven by a desire to challenge the authority and legitimacy of a democratically elected state. This view has on its side those who believe the challenges are funded and conceptualised by the “Stellenbosch mafia”.

On the other side are the reckless citizens, businesses on the brink of collapse because the lockdown has driven demand for goods and services low. Also, it is workers, the unemployed, those who get by through selling scrap metals and recyclable waste and the poor; who believe they will die from hunger before the virus infects them.

In the middle are political parties who, at first, expressed total support for the president’s actions and programmes. Lo and behold, now the likes of the Democratic Alliance (DA) have declared war on what they call the “ANC’s lockdown” (since when?).

On Friday (8 May 2020), the DA interim leader John Steenhuisen is reported to have called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to “end South Africa’s six-week-old lockdown, saying it was posing a bigger threat to the country than Covid-19”.

To understand the complexity of the problem, which may seem simple, depending on where you sit I think the state has overlooked certain current permutations in our discourse.

The first is the realisation that democracies are in peril across the world. The bonds that used hold us together and were the foundation of political consensus are now ruthlessly fragmented, giving way to a cultural and ideological diversity so robust that it thwarts a common sense of belonging.

We now live in a “selfie era” where people are searching for self-identity within the complexities of nationhood. See how people have taken to expressing their tribal identities through their attire, speech, and ceremonies. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter in the United States (US), the return of the white supremacy movements in the US and Europe, or the LGBT movement and the many other acronymic specifications.

The renowned author, Francis Fukuyama in his latest book “Identity” makes the point: “… demands have evolved over the years to displace socio-economic class as the traditional way that much of the left thinks about inequality. They reflect important grievances but in some cases, began to take on an exclusive character where people’s “lived experiences” determined who they were.” What this means is that freedom is no longer an experience of a collective but that of an individual.

Adam Smith noted in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, the rich man “glories” in his riches while the poor man is invisible to his fellow human beings. This means the state is no longer seen as the manager of public affairs rather the expectation is that the state is manager and satisfier of individual needs and wants. This results in the siloing of social imagination, hence the legal challenges that we have seen.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, in this context, taking a backseat as people become more and more frustrated, and reckless, as they see their freedoms being taken away by a state system claiming to be democratic.

Fukuyama says this consummation with self is vastly abetted by Facebook and Twitter, “whose self-interest lies in “virality”, which is often fed by conspiracy theories and personal abuse”. In reality, the challenges are part of these groupings yearn for recognition and a struggle for freedom from the state.

I also agree that some of the restrictions are draconian. Take, for instance, the disallowance for the cooking of foods in shops like Spar? How will allowing the sale gym equipment hurt the fight against COVID-19 pandemic? For why and how, ngempela (truly)?

Madeleine Albright – Former US Secretary of State, 1997 – 2001, looking back at the Iraq war decision opined in an interview with NewsWeek (2006); “I hope I’m wrong, but I am afraid that Iraq is going to turn out to be the greatest disaster in American foreign policy – worse than Vietnam, not in the number who died, but in terms of its unintended consequences and its reverberation throughout the region.”

Looking back, she was right. We know this because Soren Kierkegaard told us life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. President Ramaphosa has the high moral ground visible on his shoulders. He has the world and the continent’s people eating out of his palm.

He cannot afford to lose this ground through well-meaning decisions that may have unintended consequences. He knows that the hyenas (both inside his party and in the opposition parties) are out for his blood!

The state better understands that there are unintended and unexpected consequences for every political decision. While its decisions are well-meaning, it is clear that some of these restrictions are rubbing people the wrong way. Before the state’s hand is forced through legal action, it better to reconsider some of them.

Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ theory is fundamentally about unintended consequences. But, as we know, most are under attack and review.

The state needs to listen intently and review before it is forced, at a high price! 

Chris Maxon is a Social and Political Commentator