Daniel Silke | SA needs more than a colour-coded reopening

In his defence, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is not the only world leader to find extricating himself from a self-imposed lockdown is a lot tougher than implementing it.

In recent days, the UK’s Boris Johnson has presented a series of confusing mixed messages with equally confusing practical application to kickstarting the domestic economy. In the United States, President Trump has now openly diverged from Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.

From Sao Paulo to Moscow, from Istanbul to Paris, leaders and their citizens are increasingly restless in an environment where the traditional rule book simply doesn’t exist.

Of course, every country has their own social, economic and political dynamics, which play into the post-lockdown policy framework. The core issues of how societies evolve in a post-Covid-19 world will adapt to the prevailing internal dynamics of each country.

South Africa is therefore no different. The absence of any global precedence or any international common standard leaves the country to steer in the dark. Yes, it has scientific and medical experts equal to the best in the world. But it also has a murky domestic political environment that lacked direction prior to the virus and therefore, even more unsuited to the future uncertainty.

At the core, is the debate about the path to re-open to economy and developing a model for future governance – at all levels.

Over-regulation

The micro-management of the last few weeks barely reflects a useful approach to combat Covid-19. Rather it smacks of the same type of over-regulation that has precisely dampened our economy over the last decade.

It’s not about which items of clothing you can buy or whether you can enjoy a cigarette, it’s all about implementing over-zealous controls, a drift towards a more powerful state and a wrongful deployment of time and energy on the minutiae of detail rather than on the bigger picture.

While we have no precedence for a suitable virus response, we sure do have precedence for damaging rules and regulations that have contributed to the stifling of sectors of our economy.

Much like South Africa’s disastrous introduction of birth-certificates for children traveling into the country or the tardy integration of renewables into our energy grid, the misuse of regulation is unfortunately far to well-documented in the country.

Wing and a prayer

President Ramaphosa’s entire presidency has been built on a wing and a prayer. And the country has largely hoped he would succeed despite the internal ideological and political bottlenecks so holding him back. Within that context, the framing of the re-opening of South Africa through these (hopefully) latter stages of Covid-19 must take place.

For both the frustrated middle-classes and the increasingly destitute poor, the concerns about the now and future merge. Establishing a sound platform for the re-opening of the country requires a sound political and ideological foundation – which has been sorely lacking from the ANC for many years.

The strict lockdown-induced regulatory framework clearly has to be acknowledged as temporary and it’s phasing out requires a clear public commitment to this.

Should regulations overtake pragmatism, the future view of South Africa will simply return to one where confidence levels in a competitive, constitutional and co-operative economic environment remains on the side-lines. The country will require substantive confidence-building policies to enhance its global competitiveness. For this, the de-regulation of its economy will need to proceed.

For the president, preparing for a post-Covid economy is now critical. The messaging needs to be expansive. It needs to express the desire to open-up even to the point of announcing policy reforms for the future. The world should see a South Africa so ready to do business, that they are lining up to invest.

Our manufacturing sector needs to be freed of state intervention. With supply chains potentially disrupted, there is a unique opportunity to make our factories the centre-point of the sub-continent.

With renewable energy, we can transform this sector and the input costs to make us so much more competitive. We can begin to allow more private entrants and bring down costs for both business and consumers.

So let’s already say so. Let’s already re-regulate. We don’t need to wait.

We have to acknowledge that with the pandemic still raging, limited resources will be prioritised for healthcare. But the messaging needs to be much more future-oriented. Much more positive. Much more encouraging for the medium-to-longer term.

Under pressure

Re-opening South Africa needs to express much more than a colour-coded set of amended restrictions. It needs to be coupled to hope for a new future. Not one based on dependency and decay but one based on innovation across the board.

But, for this, ideology needs to shift. And ideology remains a critical constraint within government. The president continues to remain constrained and restrained. Battling his Ministers and party faithful, the internal messaging from the ANC seems to offer little in terms of shifting policy thought-patterns. Unless this changes, the re-opening is just technocratic without hope for the future.

President Ramaphosa was clearly pressurised into making his most recent address. He was reacting to an increasingly critical populace whose initial support for the lockdown has begun to wane.

Indeed, he read the mood of the country – but still failed to articulate the real message for the future. Unlike other countries, our future was barely a work-in-progress before Covid-19. If it needed clarifying then, it sure needs it now.

Our success will not be built on even more dependency, patronage, taxes, regulations and centralised statist-ideology. It will be built on a fundamental ideological shift away from this – and that’s as tough to find from the ANC as ever.

Daniel Silke is the director of the Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town. Twitter (@DanielSilke) and at www.danielsilkeglobal.com. Views expressed are his own.