The Break of Dawn: A Chance South Arica to Refocus

By Musa Mdunge

2020 was dubbed the year of plenty by many in the twitter sphere and other social media platforms. But alas, this year has proven so different to the roaring 20s. The year began with a geopolitical storm between the United States and Iran. This event sparked fears of a new global war in the middle east that would draw western powers and against Iran, China and Russia. Thankfully, escalations in tensions were far more muted. As one was breathing a sigh of relief, there came news from the Far East, a coronavirus that started in bats in a food market, had now been transmitted to humans and a wave of human to human transmission of what we now dub covid-19 sent fears from Wuhan all the way to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Here in South Africa, we were initially indifferent to the news of the new coronavirus. We saw black twitter jokes and memes about Covid-19, with even a dance being created under the influence of the yanos! This perhaps because we did not have to deal with the spread of Ebola that had ravaged many of our fellow African states. However, as the virus spread to Europe, strong tourist links between South Africa and European states such as Germany, Italy and the UK, meant it was just a matter of time before South Africa would register its first case.  Even then, South Africans moved about their business in a naïve resolution that what had been the experience of Europe, China, Iran and South Korea, the hotspots of the time would not be the South African experience. After all, we had enough issues to deal with! The South African economy registered little to no growth in 2019, we had threats of losing our last investment grade from Moodys, unemployment was up, poverty was at its record high and the income and wealth inequality gap continued to grow between the haves and have nots.

Moreover, our government’s slow place in implementing much needed economic reform and its less than impressive fight against corruption continued to lay waste to the dream of a new dawn under President Cyril Ramaphosa. However, in history there are events that maketh the man! By the time Ramaphosa made the decision to declare a state of national disaster and declare a lockdown. He had the support of cabinet, political parties, civil leaders, religious leaders, traditional leaders, trade unions and the business community. The last time such widespread support for a government programme was perhaps the toil towards the 1994 political dispensation. In many ways I, like many believed that the silver lining at the time was the coming together of stakeholders who in times past has a trust deficit and viewed each other as an enemy of progress. Perhaps what the new dawn required was a dark cloudy night to bring about a new social compact needed to push South Africa past the trauma of 10 years of state capture, the erosion of public institutions and growing social distance between the state and its people. 

The lockdown at level 5 while effective in reducing the risk of an early exponential rise in covid-19 infections, its economic ramifications are still yet to be fully known. This as forecasts of economic growth for 2020 range from a contraction of 5% -15% depending on who you listen to. Assume the middle ground of a contraction of 10% becomes the reality, it would mean the economic growth of the past 10 years would be wiped out! Essentially you would have a South Africa economy of 2010 with a population of 2020. This simple put means South Africans on a per capita basis are poorer today than they were in 2010. Moreover, poverty has increased, the middle class in South Africa are far more indebted than they were 10 years ago. 

I need not spell out that the health crisis caused by covid-19 and the response by government to initiate a lockdown (a right decision I may add), have deepened the economic and humanitarian crisis experienced by the ordinary South Africans across the income, racial and gender divides. More than ever the pulling together and multi-stakeholder response is required to meet the needs of our people and to support those most vulnerable to the three-legged crisis we face. The fact is though we are all impacted by covid-19, the effects are carried far more by the poor, elderly and women in this country. Our response must be moved by equity and not necessarily equality. Yes, I said it and I know many will raise an eyebrow at this but hear me out. 

Given the unique circumstances faced by these groups, our approach must be to focus public and private resources on homes headed by single mothers and oGogo, who support over 50% of households in this country. You cannot spend the same per capita in Sandton as you would in Alexandra township. One has greater means to support themselves, while the other would rely on more assistance from the government and other stakeholders. Equity dictates that you spend more and provide greater assistance to the less fortunate community and sectors of society in order to bring about the end result of greater equality. We cannot ignore the importance of equity as a cardinal pillar and value that must motivate how we create a new dawn and any social compact that continues to ignores equity recreates that same cycle of poverty, gross unemployment and inequality.

The time is now to change the manner in which we conceptualise a new economy and society. It must be one steeped in a greater focus on small businesses rather than doing the bidding of big business. It must be one where land reform focuses on urban areas where many people are clustered in small areas to the detriment of their safety and health. It must be one where a strong public healthcare system is pursued as not only a social but an economic right. Where healthcare is seen an equally important economic asset. It must be one where the implementation of government policies is done without any racial undertones of viewing black people as inferior to white people or rich people as more important than poor people. The break of dawn will come. The dark night will end but as a new day rises in the horizon let it find us more loving, more caring and let if find us in the pursuit of equity! 

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