Picture: 123RF/Dmitriy Shironosov
Picture: 123RF/Dmitriy Shironosov

The process of resuscitating the economy from the induced coma of a nationwide lockdown brought on a flurry of consultations between the government and a range of social partners, including business, labour, civic and religious bodies, before the level 3 regulations were gazetted.

This seems to have been intended, commendably, to avoid some of the more egregious absurdities that characterised level 4 — in which the trade & industry minister put in a cameo appearance as the fashion police.

As President Cyril Ramaphosa put it in his televised address: “These consultations have been both necessary and worthwhile in that we received several constructive suggestions. They have enriched the saying in government, providing a direct view of the challenges that our people in different constituencies confront.”

The government can be forgiven, in the midst of feeling its way through a crisis for which it had no modern precedent, for the odd misstep, and it is also in the nature of a sudden proliferation of fiendishly elaborate rules that some of those charged with their enforcement will misinterpret or misapply them. Particularly, in the case of the police, when the responsible minister is given to public flights of authoritarian fantasy.

This is where, in normal circumstances, the multifaceted checks and balances of a constitutional democracy and the clamour of the public square can strip authorities of hubris before they inflict choking regulation on the citizenry. A national state of disaster, on the other hand, carries the inherent risk of suspending many of these challenge processes, which is why it may be invoked only in extraordinary circumstances, for a limited period.

But power, particularly when unchecked, has a way of revealing character, and the Covid-19 crisis has thrown some of the government’s controlling inclinations into stark relief — most notably in the bid to silence dissent in the ranks of its expert medical advisers.

The governing party’s paternalistic worldview has also been on display in its attempts to regulate by decree the life choices of smokers.

When the pandemic has been brought under control, the habits of a vigorous democracy, along with the economy, must be revived as part of the renewal effort — and the two are interdependent.

Whether the economy will remain shackled by overweening, ill-considered regulation prone to damaging unintended consequences or whether the government will have taken on board the benefits of meaningful consultation in honing a regulatory regime that is proportionate and fit for purpose, will depend considerably on the extent to which civil society finds its voice in the post-Covid wasteland.

As this crisis has shown, once again, the combination of concentrated power and stifled debate is a recipe for suffocating control.

A more dynamic, resilient and efficient economy beckons if it turns out that this crisis has broken the habit of mutual suspicion that characterised the relationship between the state and the private sector before it.

But this will require of business, in particular, to be far more direct in its engagements with government, without fearing that criticism, where warranted, will be interpreted as treachery.

Shying away from confrontation — too often the default position of business even during the worst excesses of the Zuma era — is the opposite of patriotism, regardless of the accusations that criticism typically earns.

Just as government’s Covid-19 strategy was sharpened for the better by contestation, the post-Covid economy should be forged by robust critical engagement on all sides, with the common good as the goal.

Equally, the future trajectory of our democracy will hinge on the revival of the economy, and it is unlikely to endure under deepening mass unemployment and poverty.

There is an opportunity, then, for business to reframe its role in the aftermath of the pandemic and shed its supine attitude in favour of a more forthright, constructive approach that, ultimately, would be far more helpful to the government, better for the economy, and in the public interest.

• Veley is MD of public affairs consultancy Corporate Image.

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