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Taking unpopular decisions can be necessary for building an enduring legacy for the future

- Dr Mzukisi Qobo

South Africa is at a crossroads.

In a time of crisis, there can never be a flawless plan, but a sense of responsibility and grace in the exercise of power is the minimum that the public expects.

At the end of a speech that gave an account of the state of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa recited some poignant words from an address given by the US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The themes that Ramaphosa drew inspiration from were those of strength, soundness, goodness and faith of the nation during times of crisis. Roosevelt had reflected on these qualities in the closing years of World War II. 

A decade earlier, Roosevelt had seen off the most debilitating depression the US and the rest of the world had faced. There are some very important lessons that era offers us in grappling with uncertainty. 

We are still in a state of perplexity about the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no full-proof strategy we can copy and paste; and we are still some long way to finding a vaccine. In such circumstances, decision-makers are prone to making mistakes. Some of these, however, are very elementary and unacceptable such as the excesses by security forces, confusing regulations and contradictory messages by senior leaders in government. 

It is generally accepted that in a time of crisis, there can never be a flawless plan, but a sense of responsibility and grace in the exercise of power is the minimum that the public expects.

As the country makes sense of the new normal and adjusts to the reality that life will never be the same again, more empathy and thoughtfulness will be expected of government. Importantly, we should see a great sense of mission and coherence on the part of the government in guiding the country through various phases of this long journey to the unknown. South Africa suffered the toll of Covid-19 at the time when the economy was already in the doldrums, with unemployment levels very high and inequalities widening. This crisis has magnified this ugly social reality.

 As more businesses close as a result of a long, drawn-out lockdown period, especially if regulations remain opaque, many people will lose their jobs; small businesses will fold; the wealth of the middle classes will be eroded; indebtedness will be on the rise; and social tensions at the base of society will intensify. Yet, government cannot afford to be reckless  and follow every whim that demands an unfettered return to “normal” life. As we move to the next phases and prepare for post Covid-19 social and economic dispensation, extraordinary measures will be required to rebuild the system. 

The Great Depression in the early 1930s produced great misery in the US and in Europe. Many industrial workers and farmers were thrown into the streets and formed long bread lines. The price at the farm gate fell precipitously. Murmurs of the revolution were in the air. And calls for higher taxes on the wealthy grew louder. 

Roosevelt, who had been elected in 1932, put his energies behind a major relief programme broadly known as the New Deal, but with various specific interventions. He showed a great deal of concern for the poor, the underprivileged and unemployment. His legacy in later years, succoured by productivity that was brought on by the needs of World War II, was that of building a much stronger social fabric and economic base that would later earn him recognition as a transformative leader.

Some of the measures Roosevelt promulgated included a large-scale social security programme through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 and the Work Programme Administration (WPA) through which thousands of hospitals were built, new schools came to existence, large-scale parks and playgrounds were constructed, new bridges and roads were built, and new programmes for the disabled were launched. 

The army of unemployed youth was also put to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps. These measures were aimed at keeping people at work, and thereby enhancing their self-esteem and dignity. What we have seen in the six weeks since the lockdown was first announced is the lack of economic dignity for the majority of South Africans who are condemned to queue for food parcels and to collect relief grants during these difficult times. These relief measures are helping to ameliorate deprivations. These queues remind us of what is wrong about South Africa’s social and economic structure, and what we have accepted as normal. The core objective of government should be to give dignity to the majority of South Africans who remain at the bottom of the social rungs.

In the depression years in the US, Roosevelt led an effort to resettle a large number of people from poorly built areas that were disconnected from economic activities to areas that were economically and socially viable. This was also linked to incentives offered to businesses to build factories that would employ people closer to where they lived. 

Transforming human settlement and giving people an opportunity to have a decent home and livelihood became the focus of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme, much of which was debt-financed. He shut his ears from the noise of the privileged and business elites who are fixated on their narrow interests, but with little to offer on how to build a better and more functional society. 

So focused and decisive was Roosevelt in spawning his socio-economic legacy, his detractors accused him of being autocratic. Yet he was consultative, and often used fire chats with a broad array of constituencies. He did not allow his consultative inclination to paralyse the need for quick and decisive action in implementing stimulus measures and in giving advantages to the poor and marginalised. Roosevelt had the ability to grasp the public mood, synthesise conflicting interests and demonstrate perspicuity in judgment, especially on public policy issues. 

Many of the notable legislative measures such as the banking reforms, the US Farm Bill that built a thriving agricultural commercial sector, and the Social Security Act aimed at providing a safety net for the unemployed and elderly were created. The visible hand of the state cushioned many citizens from the vagaries of the markets during the depression years; and the state played a pivotal role in creating conditions for markets to thrive in the years following the Great Depression. Failure was not an option. 

In Europe, there was a rise in populist-nationalist and fascist movements as a result of governments’ neglect of those at the base of society. In the US too, there were growing calls for nationalisation of banks, and pressure was mounting for the Federal Reserve Bank to work the printing press and produce inflation. What distinguished Roosevelt was his sober approach in running the state and in governing the markets. He refused to be captured by particularistic interests in business and instead threw his sympathies with the socially excluded without neglecting the need for building a sound economic base. He was intent on using the crisis presented by the Great Depression as an opportunity to build the foundations of a new society that would value industry, hard work and social protection for the weak. His efforts were directed at creating new sources of future wealth that would pay for the debt incurred to combat economic depression. 

Such new opportunities were to be labour-absorbing and mission-oriented, that is, to reimagine sources of competitiveness and prosperity for the nation. They were also aimed at building viable social infrastructure through large-scale public works. There are many lessons we can draw from societies that have emerged from the ashes of depression or wars. Leadership matters in providing a compass for change. Leaders listen, but most importantly, they are remembered for their judgement and the actions they take. 

South Africa is at a crossroads where, on the one hand, there is pressure to continue along the old rhythm of the economy that benefited a few; and on the other hand, there are pressures for government to use the crisis as an opportunity to enact a new mission: To extend social protection for the vulnerable, compel companies that benefit from state largess to be more inclusive, and to use its incentives to promote new sectors that could be sources of vitality and competitiveness in the post Covid-19 era. 

Taking unpopular decisions can be necessary for building an enduring legacy for the future. It is only then that the state of the nation can be said to be good, its heart sound, its spirit strong and its faith eternal. 

This article was frst published on Daily Maverick.