Frontline Africa Advisory

Lives matter, and so does the economy

Lives matter, and so does the economy

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

Surely some revelation is at hand…”

The reminiscing of this famous 1919 poem, The Second Coming, by Ireland’s W.B. Yeats, is occasioned by what could conceivably be described as disquieting reasoning, devoid of the elementary function of logic, by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and Cabinet, as questions abound over what should be prioritised during this critical Covid-19 generated crisis in our country: lives or the economy?

As South Africa is enmeshed in this complex crisis, citizen’s trust of government pronouncements and decisions is fast eroding. Government’s know-it-all and paternalistic attitude, exemplified at its worst by excessively prescriptive regulations on clothing purchases, smacks of disdain for citizen agency at a time when many are overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness at the prospect of losing their livelihoods, poverty and hunger.

While saving lives should be the overarching objective of government regulations, it does not follow that economic imperatives should be relegated to 2nd class considerations. Furthermore, government’s dismissive attitudes towards business concerns leave a bad taste for those who are faced with the prospect of losing their businesses and employment in an economy infamous for failing to create employment at the best of times.

Even though government has submitted to NEDLAC processes in discussions about a move to Level 3 of the nation-wide lockdown, there has been a general air of non curamus in government’s responses to business and citizen’s concerns, notwithstanding the empty platitudes coming from the President about understanding the difficult circumstances resulting from the lockdown. Government has generally been less than prepared to consider business submissions, electing to remain aloof and opaque in the manner in which it arrives at certain decisions.

The lockdown, while necessary at the beginning both to contain the spread of the virus and to prepare the health system better, has had a negative impact on the economy. With coronavirus expected to infect nearly 60 per cent of the country’s population in the next two years, according to some epidemiologists, it makes logical sense to give urgent consideration to economic activity both now and in the medium-to-long-term.

While Ramaphosa started well with his management of the crisis, he is fast becoming a pondering president and an Irving Janis – a champion of groupthink model of decision-making – thus exposing  himself to ANC’s internal party politics about who wields the power at this time. This will inevitably imperil his leadership at a time when many are looking to him to take carefully calibrated decisions that preserve both lives and livelihoods.

The President needs to understand that he does not have the luxury of time. Turning and turning in the widening gyre has run its course. Urgent and decisive leadership from on high is required to get the economy back on track while preserving lives. He is ultimately in charge of the country, to the extent permitted by the Constitution of the Republic; and should therefore lead.

The President must also be bold enough to protect those Cabinet ministers who get chastised within the ANC for insisting that common sense should stay within the room at the NCCC and Cabinet.  Otherwise he is running the risk of losing allies who may perceive him to be weak to the point of being a liability. Politically, that is an untenable position he must avoid as far as possible.

Written by Zamokwakhe Somhlaba

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