“Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”
South Africa is no exception to the challenge as described by Harari; that is, will the country emerge as one in which unity under constitutional rule is strengthened or will a populist backlash against a rapidly deteriorating economy deepen disunity and result in an increasing dismantling of the constitutional guardrails? The jury is out on this question, even as it is vitally important to debate it.
Unlike many countries also confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa did not enter this unprecedented event with either a robust economy or a coherent system of governance. In the first place, the economy pre-Covid-19 was limping along with no possibility of a growth rate of even 2% being in sight.
Second, the country had suffered a decade of constitutional degradation – important institutions were fashioned into support structures for State Capture, in particular, the SA Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority. The latter, in particular, has encountered massive obstacles to its reconstitution, although there are now significant flickers of life. But at the same time, the office of the public protector, which had been a critical bulwark against State Capture, appeared to have dramatically reversed course to the extent that it was consistently on the receiving end of judicial rebukes. To make matters worse, none of the prominent politicians who have been widely alleged to have been beneficiaries of State Capture had been charged
The upshot was that as Covid-19 hit South Africa neither the economic nor the constitutional health of the country was in good shape. Depressingly, this condition has only worsened. It is now predicted that GDP could decline by as much as 10% during this fiscal year. The commissioner of the SA Revenue Service announced recently that the loss of tax revenue as compared to that contained in the 2020 Budget will be in the region of R285-billion, which represents a 20% loss over the budgeted figure. Whether the country moves to Level-3 lockdown by month-end will do little to reverse this economic decline. This holds dire consequences for the state’s ability to respond to the imperative of the provision of decent health care, social grants, and decent education for millions of people who are living on the margins. None of the legitimate calls for dramatic state intervention to aid this huge cohort will amount to more than rhetoric if the tax base implodes, as is now likely.
When certain scientific experts question the justification for specific restrictions they are rounded upon as if the country should not receive the benefit of transparency. This conduct may be fine for Trump’s US, which has rapidly moved from the authority of the Constitution to that of the leader, but it is not acceptable in a constitutional democracy based upon the values of accountability and transparency.
Constitutional health is not much better. The continued lockdown proclaimed in terms of the Disaster Management Act is at the sole behest of the curiously named command council drawn from the ranks of the executive. Parliamentary oversight is absent and judging from the exceedingly deferential approach adopted by the High Court to a challenge to a government support programme, there is precious little accountability.
Into this vacuum has stepped the egregious behaviour of the police, which has targeted the vulnerable in the townships. The command and control of economic policy is evident in regulations which now govern the everyday lives of South Africans. A curfew at night, only three hours to exercise, of which half can be in the dark at this time of the year, a cigarette ban which is relevant to general health but not Covid-19, were all topped recently by the clothing regulations. It is understood that these regulations were compiled after consultation with the clothing industry but even then the content is the stuff of micromanagement. Picture the drafters and advisers debating the merits of which T-shirts should pass muster or whether open shoes can be sold. Dr Strangelove is alive and well! The sharp point is that soon the government must start treating its citizens and residents as sentient adults who live in a constitutional democracy, not a command economy.
Then, when certain scientific experts question the justification for specific restrictions they are rounded upon as if the country should not receive the benefit of transparency. This conduct may be fine for Trump’s US, which has rapidly moved from the authority of the Constitution to that of the leader, but it is not acceptable in a constitutional democracy based upon the values of accountability and transparency.
Constitutional democracy does not lift itself unaided into permanent existence. It has to be defended and promoted. The choice to respond to Yuval Harari’s challenge is ours, and no-one else’s. And the content of that choice will determine our future post-Covid-19.
The point is well illustrated by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail where they write about the importance of institutions for sustainable democracy:
“Institutional strength can distinguish a sustainable democracy from one stuck in the gray zone where political participation extends little beyond voting, where the bureaucracy decays and where one political group, movement, family or strongman slowly consolidates power.”
That is the post-Covid-19 challenge: To ensure that our constitutional institutions are vibrant which, absent a growing economy is seriously problematic, and which thus adds to the danger of the rapid growth of populism and anti-constitutionalism. DM