ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: Alon Skuy
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: Alon Skuy

There hasn’t been a period in our lifetimes when such an overwhelming chunk of the world population has sat at home at the same time for so long. This has brought the global economy to a screeching halt.

Everything about our economics and our politics has changed. We need new thinking or else we will be stuck in the deep inequality and poverty we are sinking into right now. Social upheaval and unrest will follow.

The Financial Times shocked many 10 days ago when it thundered: “Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table … Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

It was an extraordinary view from one of the oracles of global capitalism. It is a recognition that everything has changed and we need new ways. A significant number of policymakers on the left and right of the political divide globally realise this.

But here in SA I fear for our post-Covid-19 future. I’m not convinced that we won’t just revert to the myopic, small-minded, Cold War ideologies and rivalries that made us begin to fall backwards in human development rankings these past 10 years.

Nothing illustrates this more than utterances in the past few days by the secretaries of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu. It’s been about two weeks since they issued their statement on how to fix our economy in a post-Covid-19 era, and I have returned to it several times with mounting concern for our future.

For sure, they’ve been roundly criticised for their political and economic naiveté, but there is something even more frightening in what they said: the entire thing reads as though it was written in another era. There is no appreciation of the fact that in these past few weeks the world has changed fundamentally.

Let me speak plainly. These guys have no idea what a terrifying place SA’s economy and its people are in. They have absolutely no clue.

They do not realise that for this country what has happened is not the “tsunami” many have alluded to – it’s worse. The Jacob Zuma years, the downgrades that have us languishing in deep junk status and the Covid-19 pandemic have brought this country to its knees.

We can expect to be at 40%-50% unemployment in months, if not weeks. We will be swimming in debt. Thousands of businesses will close.

And yet in the midst of this crisis we have ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, SACP first deputy secretary Solly Mapaila and Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali lashing out at finance minister Tito Mboweni for saying that SA may turn to the IMF or the World Bank for funding specifically to fight Covid-19 and its consequences.

They wrote: “[Mboweni’s] suggestion is rejected. Instead, the secretariat reaffirms the need to safeguard SA’s democratic national sovereignty, the fundamental right to self-determination [and] our independence — which are non-negotiable, even in the midst of a crisis.”

This is rich coming from Magashule, who was at the feeding trough when the Zuma administration took the ratio of government debt to GDP from under 30% to more than 60% in just nine years by handing our sovereignty to the Gupta family. And let’s remember that it was the organisations of Mapaila and Ntshalintshali which elevated Zuma to power and doggedly supported his profligacy for years.

That is not the issue, though. In their doctrinaire statement, the three then go on to encourage government to explore approaching the New Development Bank established by Brics and to seek assistance from China and Russia.

It may please these three gentlemen to know that the Brics Bank (which has already granted SA a $1bn facility) is not a tap – it’s a bank, with pretty much the same strictures as the IMF and the World Bank.

Second, anyone who still thinks China and Russia are – unlike the USA or the UK – without any geopolitical agenda is hopelessly naive or just plain dumb.

It is extremely worrying that these worthies are so at odds with Mboweni and his political principal, President Cyril Ramaphosa. Wearing his AU hat, Ramaphosa has appointed former Rwandan finance minister Donald Kaberuka, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (also a former World Bank MD), Tidjane Thiam (former CEO of Prudential) and former SA finance minister Trevor Manuel to garner international support to address the economic challenges that Africa faces because of Covid-19.

These accomplished bureaucrats will surely be looking at the trillions of dollars the IMF and others are offering for a way to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. Or do we only take Chinese and Russian money now?

The madness of Kubayi-Ngubane

It would be a relief if the secretaries were the only ones stuck in old ways. Sadly, the malaise is spread across the tripartite alliance and government and in all sorts of directions.

For example, as the tourism industry collapsed under the weight of the pandemic, ANC rising star and tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said the R200m Tourism Relief Fund would give preference to applying enterprises with the highest B-BBEE scores.

Hello? The coronavirus has destroyed businesses, black and white. It’s destroying jobs, black and white. We need to save jobs, urgently, provided by both black-owned and white-owned small businesses. This is not the time to disburse urgent and necessary funding by race. You don’t need a genius to tell you just how spectacularly this will fail.

This small-mindedness, by one of Ramaphosa’s minister, is a symptom of the ailment that afflicts a large chunk of the tripartite alliance: it sees the world through yesterday’s prism.

It wants old, ideological solutions to new, pressing, non-ideological problems. It ignores the fact that Italy, a so-called developed Western capitalist country, is receiving more medical help from Cuba than from most of its EU allies. That’s how much the world has changed.

These leaders of the tripartite alliance refuse to dig themselves out of their trenches and see the world as it really is today

Let’s be clear, no-one wants an IMF loan. Yet we may have no choice to undo the devastation of the coronavirus. These may be the funds we need to cushion struggling businesses. New challenges which Magashule and his comrades clearly cannot even grasp have arisen.

Ironically, instead of new ideas, one of their preoccupations is that we should “save” SA Airways through yet another bailout. This is yet another old, unsuitable and unworkable solution in a new and terrifying time.

Ten days ago Fitch was very clear about why it downgraded us further into junk: “The downgrade of SA’s ratings is a result of the lack of a clear path towards government debt stabilisation as well as the expected impact of the Covid-19 shock on public finances and growth.”

In fact, over the past 10 years, that line – “the lack of a clear path towards government debt stabilisation” – has appeared in every ratings agency’s statement on SA in one form or another.

Why? Because we wouldn’t tell the public sector unions where to get off. We wouldn’t stop the profligacy of the Zuma regime and its corruption. These are the old solutions. And they didn’t work.

Now the world has changed fundamentally. We need open minds, new ways and new thinking if we are to get out of the rut. The secretaries of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu don’t have those new solutions, and neither do many of their comrades.

Instead, they are shackled to the past, even as the oncoming train hurtles towards us at full speed. If they prevail in the ANC our poorest and most vulnerable citizens are going to be hit hard by the deep recession that we are entering.

It’s in the electorate’s hands. We have local elections next year. If the tripartite alliance stays stuck in its old ways and frustrates the likes of Mboweni in Ramaphosa’s administration, it will be sending an SOS to the electorate: You need new leaders.

Only, by then it may be too late.

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