EDITORIAL: Some ministers have common sense, others racial sense
Those taking steps to protect the nation will stand out from colleagues who are driven by ugly nationalist agendas
American inventor Thomas Edison once said: “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.” Wise words South Africans would do well to take to heart as we brace for the Covid-19 lockdown and the economic and social consequences that will surely follow.
Not all consequence are intended, and those that are unintended can be both positive and negative. If the environmental effect of the regional lockdowns imposed in China are an indication of the likely effect worldwide as other countries follow suit, significantly reduced pollution will be one consequence as welcome as it was unintended. If it results in the environmental wake-up call that has been going unanswered in most capitals for far too long finally getting the attention it deserves, there will be at least one silver lining to the dark cloud that is Covid-19.
There will also inevitably be unintended negative consequences, some of which are already revealing themselves. The domestic economy is already taking a battering, which was clearly not the intention but was predictable nevertheless. The goal should be to minimise the damage while achieving the chief goal of “flattening the curve” of infection and thereby saving lives.
SA has unique social circumstances, so the blueprints for coronavirus containment that have been applied elsewhere in the world cannot simply be copied-and-pasted here. Closing the mines and universities makes sense, but if it results in hundreds of thousands of people heading out from SA’s cities and major mining towns to get to their rural homes before the lockdown begins, and this is not managed, it could defeat the purpose of the lockdown or even make matters worse.
Dealing with such eventualities is going to take a degree of official flexibility that has not been a defining feature of the government in recent times, but this administration — galvanised by crisis and benefiting from unprecedented support from opposition parties, business, labour and civil society — has shown signs of surprising us all.
Already it is clear which cabinet ministers are stepping up to the plate and which are plainly incapable of doing so. Like the populist international leaders who initially downplayed the pandemic and are now either scrambling to catch up or have doubled down in desperation — the presidents of the US and Brazil spring to mind — when the tide goes out it will be obvious to all who has been swimming naked.
Everything may seem to be in a state of suspended animation right now, but life will go on. This too shall pass, and when it does there will be a lot of hard work to do. Edison’s “stick-to-itiveness” — a synonym for determination — will be more necessary than ever, as will common sense. Unfortunately, the latter, as French philosopher François-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) famously noted, is not so common.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s approach to balancing the state’s responsibility towards its citizens’ physical wellbeing — specifically the right to life — and the need to avoid crashing the economy has been sensible so far. As are the personal responsibility regulations announced by health minister Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday, which strike a common sense balance between people’s need to sustain themselves in lockdown, including exercise, and the imperative that social distancing protocols be maintained.
Other ministers’ lockdown regulations have not been as sensible, specifically those concerning state support for small business and township traders. More than one ministry has had to scramble to adjust interventions that have inexplicably used race, nationality or “demographics” as qualifying criteria for relief, as if the jobs lost through company closures will discriminate on the basis of skin colour or origins.
This is a time for solidarity and unity of purpose, not racial or nationalist bean-counting. That is only common sense.