DO WE have another Mandela moment on our hands like the heady days after 1994 when Cyril Ramaphosa, under Mandela’s leadership, helped draw up the South African constitution and the country’s future looked bright? Or is this the beginning of the descent into violent social unrest of the sort we knew during apartheid?
At this writing, it is reported that mobs have attacked a truck carrying food parcels, and fights have broken out between residents of townships who are protesting that food parcels meant for them are going elsewhere. Hunger is rife in the country, and when people cannot feed their children, they will do anything. How long will it be before supermarkets are attacked and their shelves emptied or shoppers leaving stores are waylaid? Thugs have found fertile ground for their illegal actions.
President Ramaphosa’s challenge feels impossible. Known in professional circles as a ‘ditherer’, does he have the rational toughness we need to turn this situation around?
Despite public enthusiasm for him, a word of caution is necessary. In their desperation to beat Covid-19, South Africans have given the government wide-ranging powers which sound uncannily similar to the laws and regulations during apartheid. These include restrictions on travel, where one may work or reside, what one may eat, who one may associate with, what information can be broadcast, the carrying of personal documentation, and powers given to the police and army for arrest and entry into private property which only people who lived in apartheid will remember.
It is predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic will last a long time, and tail off gradually. Will the authorities relinquish all these new powers they have acquired? Politicians are notorious for clinging tenaciously to power once they have it. Can Ramaphosa control the police and army?
When he addressed the nation several times in the last few weeks to outline his plans for restarting the economy and helping needy South Africans, you could feel an air of excitement. Covid-19 has united this country in a way that seemed impossible just a while ago. But South Africans can be forgiven for being wary of promises. There have been so many disappointments. Enormous highs have been followed by devastating lows.
After Mandela, came President Thabo Mbeki, who refused to listen to scientists about HIV-Aids, and brought politics into the issue, reputedly resulting in the loss of 300,000 lives. Commentators refer to it as a genocide. His health minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang, was called ‘Dr Beetroot’ for promoting the benefits of beetroot, garlic, lemons, and African potatoes to combat the disease. After Mbeki we had President Jacob Zuma for a decade, who had been punted by Mandela as the best candidate to lead the country. Zuma nearly brought the country to its knees with corruption and shenanigans with unsavoury characters like the Guptas.
So far, Ramaphosa is following science in relation to Covid-19, but there are sinister political forces in the background looking for an opportunity.
Covid-19 is the biggest test the world has faced since World War Two. South Africa has done relatively well compared to other countries. The health infrastructure is intact, although under huge pressure; the World Health Organization has commended South Africa on its response.
Forever optimistic, South Africans seem willing to follow a credible leader, this time Ramaphosa. But middle class and wealthy South Africans living in their posh suburbs know they are not completely safe from the chaos Covid-19 could unleash from poorer areas all over the country, where hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford social distancing because they don’t have credit cards and can’t stockpile food.