Tony Leon Columnist

As South Africans endure the seventh week of home imprisonment, the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is, to borrow from the song in The King and I , “a puzzlement”.

First puzzle is our new overlord, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. She seems to imagine that viral microbes possess an intelligence wing. And while several of her fellow ministers, and indeed the president himself, appear in public in faux-combat fatigues, it is worth indicating that there is no reason for decisions that result in the crashing of our economy and confinement and curfewing of the population to be “classified”. Covid-19 can’t read the detail, but it would at least provide a rationale for some rules and regulations that seem to combine, in equal measure, both mendacity and incompetence.

Ramaphosa seems in thrall to the extremists in his own administration.

The second puzzle is not that two or three court challenges have been mounted against some of the more extreme and racially tinged measures to date. The real wonder is why so few have been initiated. Even in the extremity of the apartheid government and its state of emergency in 1987, the courts with few real powers of judicial review determined that any official exercising power based on “a reason to believe” that a detention was necessary was obliged to base the belief on objective reason.

The constitution expressly empowers the courts to test the constitutionality of any rule or regulation that may not limit freedoms enshrined in the bill of rights unless, among other factors, such limitation is objectively and reasonably justified. This, in turn, requires an evaluation of more than half a dozen factors. Since among the protected rights is the freedom to trade, coupled with an explicit requirement that a law must provide the least restrictive means of achievement of its purpose, a legal bonanza awaits.

How, for example, is there a justification for the banning of most, but not all, forms of e-commerce? Or allowing purchases of winter pyjamas but not summer underwear? Or permit newspapers to be printed and purchased but not magazines? Actually, the latter idiocy has resolved itself since most of SA’s fabled magazine titles have gone out of business.

A third puzzle in the wake of insensible, harmful and mendacious rule-making is why more enterprises do not themselves apply the word and spirit of the constitution in making their own determinations on what is permissible. It was encouraging, in the face of official obduracy, to see local bookshops make a stand for both common sense and commercial survival. When regulations allowed the sale of “educational books only”, their perfect riposte was “every book is educational”. Amen to that.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, channelling his inner Donald Trump (who compared the fight against coronavirus to the D-Day landings), announced that we are in a state of war. I diverted from tasks last week to watch the excellent PBS four-hour documentary on the presidency of George W Bush (American Experience — George W Bush, available on YouTube. It offered some timely reminders on the dangers of  “the fog of war”. Bush was thrust into the defining moment of the 21st century after the attack by Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center on 9/11. His response was to don the mantle of a “war presidency” and invade first Afghanistan and then, with huge and deleterious consequences, Iraq.

Most fascinating — and offering us parallels for SA today — was the tug-of-war inside his administration on the weapons of response. It pitted the extremist axis in his circle, led by vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, against the moderates personified by secretary of state Colin Powell. Cheney believed in “the dark side”. Since America was fighting a ruthless, semi-invisible enemy, he believed there were “no limits” in the war against terror. His operating principle, which allowed torture, black sites and dodgy intelligence, was that “if there is a 1% chance of another terrorist attack, we will treat it as a 100% certainty”. Powell, who believed in using the military rules of engagement such as the Geneva Convention for imprisoned combatants, was pushed aside by Bush, who dubbed himself “the decider”.

Here and now, Ramaphosa seems in thrall to the extremists in his own administration. He has sidelined his moderate and economically sensible finance minister, Tito Mboweni, who to date has lost most rounds against the economic Talibans in the government, from the sale and excise from booze and cigarettes to nonracial aid for collapsed businesses, to having his Treasury forecasts dismissed by Ebrahim Patel, who now bestrides all economic decision-making, as “a thumb suck”.

Instead, in the most explicit terms, we now know that the extremists have the upper hand even as the economy crashes to levels not experienced here since the 1930s. In his May Day remarks, Ramaphosa announced that the gloves are off.

“It is time to stop playing around the edges”, he told an audience in Stanger. Instead, coronavirus provided the excuse to build a “new economy”. He almost seemed to relish the prospect of “the total destruction of the economy”, as he put it. This, of course, has nothing to do with the public health measures that are needed, and everything to do with placating the faction in his party who detest his leadership win in 2017. Good luck with that. He might do well to remember the ancient warning of Islamic scholar Ibn Hazm, that “he who advances both friend and foe alike, will only arouse distaste for friendship and contempt for his enmity”.

But since in his self-declared “war” Ramaphosa hides behind the veil of “the collective”, the centre-ground is now occupied by the exemplar of “radical economic transformation”, Dlamini-Zuma. She was even more explicit on how Covid-19 offers the excuse of converting a health dystopia into an economic utopia. She said at a press conference recently, ostensibly on the pandemic, that “it also offers us an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of some long agreed upon structural changes to enable reconstruction, development and growth”. And she offered “class suicide” as a means of achieving this opportunity. Aside from showboating her prejudices, she offered us an explicit warning on the contours of post-Covid SA.

But what of the opposition? The DA has taken an economically moderating position and called for a sensible and phased opening up of the economy and a junking of ideology as a determinant for both aid and level adjustments. But the EFF, ostensibly a radical, pro-jobs party, has taken an even more conservative approach on opening the economy. This seems another “puzzlement”, since the longer the lockdown the greater the job losses and material misery and even starvation. It seems difficult to square with the EFF’s pro-poor stance.

Robert Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, suggests the “authoritarian reflex” is a good explanation for how a health or economic crisis — and we have both right now — can be perfected to increase power  for incumbents and challengers. Weimar Germany is a useful place to look at how a fringe party hopscotched into state power.

“Under the relatively secure conditions of 1928, most Germans viewed the Nazis as a lunatic fringe party, giving them less than 3% of the vote in national elections. But in 1932, when the Great Depression had struck, the Nazis won 44% of the vote, becoming the strongest party in the Reichstag and soon thereafter taking over the government.”

Since our economy is now sinking to Great Depression levels, all bets are off, and even extreme analogies apply.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.

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