Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

Six weeks ago, on the day SA entered the first three-week lockdown period aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus, this newspaper expressed the hope that common sense would prevail in the way the regulations imposed in terms of the newly proclaimed state of disaster were managed.

Alas, within a few weeks we were bemoaning trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel’s nonsensical and high-handed ban on the sale of hot cooked food, despite there being no basis in either law or the emergency regulations to do so. The regulations were subsequently amended to conform with Patel’s decree, but the government was never moved to explain why it was so important that the sale of hot food should be verboten

Suspicion that the government sees no need to get the public’s buy-in on such seemingly arbitrary restrictions of their basic rights were confirmed with the debacle over the ban on cigarette sales. The government leapt to co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s defence when she was roundly criticised for “overruling” President Cyril Ramaphosa, who had earlier said cigarettes would go back on sale when SA moved to lockdown level 4.

However, with Ramaphosa’s eventual indignant explanation that the about-turn was a “collective decision” based on the advice of the National Command Council, the point was missed that the government had made little effort to explain why it believed such a ban to be in the public interest. It still hasn’t, even though few other countries have seen fit to ban cigarette sales, and contradictory evidence has emerged that points to nicotine actually reducing the risk of Covid-19 infection.

This curious reluctance to play open cards with the public has also characterised the government’s decision to tie state financial relief for companies crippled by the Covid-19 lockdown to racial criteria. Ministers have repeatedly contradicted one another, indicating that the decision was, at least initially, certainly not a “collective” one, and that it was by no means unanimous either. Indeed, finance minister Tito Mboweni earned the ire of the ANC’s alliance partners earlier in the week when he publicly disagreed with tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane’s stance — upheld by the high court — that companies’ BEE standing should be taken into account when distributing the R200m in state relief funding allocated to this particularly hard-hit sector.

The high court decision is to be appealed but may well be upheld since, as judge Jody Kollapen explained in his ruling, BEE ranking is only one criterion to be applied when deciding who qualifies for relief, and white-owned companies can still benefit from state assistance if they tick all the other boxes. But the legalistic approach relied upon by the minister again misses the point. As Mboweni pointed out, the primary goal of distributing relief funds the state can barely afford is to prevent as many businesses as possible from going to the wall, not to further other government policies. An action can be legal, yet morally wrong. The law is sometimes an ass.

It is patently clear that the skin colour of a business’s majority owners should be irrelevant in this instance. What matters at this critical juncture is how many SMMEs can be prevented from going under, and how many jobs can be saved. The fact that the majority of those employed by the white-owned businesses that may now fold unnecessarily are black merely confirms that Kubayi-Ngubane is motivated by politics and ideology rather than common sense and goodwill.  

The temptation for the government to use the pandemic to achieve its broader political aims is clearly difficult to resist, but resist it must, because doing so is for the greater good. Mboweni is taking flak within the alliance because he has dared express a personal view that apparently goes against the belated “collective decision”, but his critics should pause to ask themselves why. Could it be that he knows better than any of his cabinet colleagues how senseless it is to play politics in the shadow of the economic storm that is about to hit us all?