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No recovery without redistribution: No ‘social contract without meaningful inclusion of civil society

 File photo: RUSTENBURG SOUTH AFRICA – MAY 18: A general view of protesters from the Seraleng mining community in Rustenburg, South Africa. Seraleng residents gathered at Sibanye k5 mine shaft Communities in the area alleged complaints of food parcel corruption by a local ward councillor. Grievances also included concerns with unemployment, loss of business and access to a social labour plan. (Photo by Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd)  Less

‘We are now working together on an urgent economic recovery programme that places the protection and creation of employment at its centre. We will use this moment not only to return South Africa to where it was before, but to transform our country to a more equal, more just and more dynamic economy,’ President Cyril Ramaphosa, 15 August 2020.

After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the move to lockdown Level 2 in his address to the nation on Saturday night, 15 August, South Africa entered a new phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. But what will this mean to us in our day-to-day lives? 

We believe that in this next phase, there will be two equal and overriding priorities:

  • Maintaining and improving public health measures to prevent Covid-19 infection and to continue to save lives. 

Although there appears to be scientific consensus that most provinces (with the exception of KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State), are over the peak of Covid-related hospitalisations and deaths, we have to prevent a resurgence of Covid-19 infections and deaths in months ahead. 

A second wave is not inevitable – if we act. The Ministerial Advisory Committee on Social and Behavioural Change has recently finalised an Advisory recommending the adoption of a Mass Popular Education and Mobilisation Strategy. 

It sits on the minister’s desk. This strategy, if properly resourced and implemented, could make a huge difference.

But in addition, South Africa also has to catch up on the ground we have lost to other viruses, bacillus and non-communicable causes of disease, and death. According to a reliable report received by Maverick Citizen, since the start of the lockdown, testing for TB – a far more deadly disease than Covid-19 – has dropped by 50%, but the positivity rate among those testing is “dramatically up”.

Put bluntly, if Covid-19 doesn’t kill you, TB is waiting in the wings.

There is a big discussion to be had on this issue, but in this editorial we focus on the second priority and the process by which it will be achieved (or not). 

  • Rebuilding our economy and livelihoods in a way that not only restores lost jobs, but creates millions of new ones, and reflects a new set of values arising from what we have learnt from Covid-19.

In our view, the following four factors will determine our success or failure at economic recovery. 

  • Inclusion and openness:

Ramaphosa has decided that the forum for finalising an economic recovery programme should be the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC). Recently, presentations were made at NEDLAC by its four constituencies (labour, business, civil society and government), on the recovery. Unfortunately, these presentations are not available on the NEDLAC website.

The problem though is that as it is currently constituted, NEDLAC excludes many more people than it includes. For example, on the side of labour, it does not include the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), with 700,000 registered members, or organisations of informal or unemployed workers, or young people, or women, who have the greatest stake in economic recovery. 

Similarly, when it comes to civil society, it is not clear who the civil society sector represents or consults or reports back to. 

Civil society is brimming with ideas and expertise on a “just transition from Covid-19” yet, as far as we could tell, the presentation titled “input by the community constituency” was not discussed in advance with anyone. 

This makes it all the more unacceptable that this lack of representativity is now being entrenched in a task team that has been appointed to “finalise an urgent economic recovery plan” which, according to a statement by the Presidency will be presented to NEDLAC and the President and then “be submitted to Cabinet for endorsement”.

The recovery plan, and the debates that take place around it, are enormously important for all of us. For these reasons, there should be much greater clarity about the process, inclusion of communities and even public broadcasting of debates at NEDLAC. 

It is, for example, something the President should provide details about in his address to the nation – rather than merely mentioning it in passing. 

As the old saying goes: “Nothing about us, without us.”

  • Agreement on values and constitutionally binding obligations; and that these values must be clearly reflected and advanced by proposals in the Recovery Plan:

The socio-economic crisis created by Covid-19 is being felt most desperately by the poor. Therefore, the recovery plan must immediately benefit the poor. Up to now, it is the poor who have sacrificed lives, jobs and livelihoods. Now is a time when the wealthy should be asked to step up, by, for example, agreeing to a once-off wealth tax.

The recovery plan must be centred on social justice. Therefore each sector and individual participating in developing the plan should be asked explicitly whether they support values of race, gender and class equality, dignity and social justice. 

But this time, lip-service won’t be enough: Every proposal and programme should be looked at through the lens of whether it advances or undermines these values and when change will be felt.

The plan also has to be linked to an open discussion about economic and fiscal policy in which all views are equally considered, based on the best available evidence. We can ill afford either right or left economic dogma at this moment, or petulant politicians.

Finally, it makes no sense to have a recovery plan running in parallel with an austerity plan that, for example, is defunding school infrastructure and homes for the aged, and risks closing early childhood development centres (ECDs) – to name but the worst examples.

  • Keep it simple and prioritise meeting urgent needs:

The three things people in South Africa need most urgently at this moment and over many months ahead is access to nutritious food, quality and safe basic education (at ECD, basic and tertiary levels), and a quality health system. 

It is fortunate that each of these are bound into section 27, 28 and 29 of the  Constitutional fabric.

These three rights are the economic sectors that can and must be used to reignite the economy. 

Fortunately, in each of these areas, there is know-how and advanced proposals already on the table. Government has proved that it can rapidly build field hospitals and deploy alternative building technology for health facilities; it can recruit retired nurses and doctors; draw on international solidarity – why can the same not now be done for basic education or agriculture? 

Unfortunately though, we have come to understand that the government is broken and depleted. The proposals it tabled to NEDLAC were the same-old same-old; complicated but not ambitious, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; in the words of one journalist, a “fruit salad” when what we are looking for is “real meat”. Why, we wonder, does the government send corrupted and tired politicians to the NEDLAC negotiating table when the President has an Economic Advisory Council made up of world-class economists who believe in social justice and whose input could make a real difference?

True, as a result of State Capture and hostile bureaucratic thinking, most of the ideas and capacity to rethink economics now lies outside the government, but that is not an excuse. Unless government gets serious the best approach would be for labour, civil society and business to meet to try and find consensus on plans and to then mobilise to insist that government adopts these plans. 

In 2006, this is what the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) did to help South Africa recover from HIV. As a result, the country was able to prevent five million deaths.

  • Build social contracts and accountability – from below:

Sadly, it is civil society that has done the most with the least to try to mitigate the Covid-19 crisis. 

On 12 August 2020, for example, the National Food Crisis Forum (NFCF) convened a food relief efforts assembly and released the findings of its Food Mapping audit. According to an article by Vishwas Satgar: “A snapshot of community-led food relief efforts suggests a minimum of 206 of these initiatives reach about 53,100 people per week.” 

Much of this has been done without help from either the government or the Solidarity Fund and in a statement addressed to the President, and the Solidarity Fund, the NFCF called on both “to consider a nationally coordinated response to the hunger crisis”. It also called on both to “democratise the government’s disaster management approach by bringing in active civil society organisations at national, provincial and local level to address the worsening crisis”.

What should inspire government is how much civil society has done on the basis of energy, sacrifice and commitment, indicating how much more the government and the private sector could do with their vast resources.

If only there was a will…

The one thing we can thank Covid-19 for is that it has brought people together again at community level, through Community Action Networks and a hybrid of other adaptive organisational forms, and forced innovation. The theme “Build Back Better”, coined it seems by the United Nations, must be more than a meaningless hashtag used to lull people into a false sense of security. It must be inspired by ideas and examples already being pioneered in communities around the country. 

Any recovery plan must build on this. It must aim to support and unleash power from below to ensure inclusion, delivery and accountability. We need a strong state, but we also need accountability.

For example, an article on local procurement published on Monday, 17 August by Maverick Citizen makes concrete proposals about how municipalities “can partner with the public and communities”, not just to ensure transparent procurement, but to ensure that contracts are delivered upon. 

Building power from below, based on suggestions like these, becomes more and more important in the lead up to local government elections in 2021.

To be equal, or not to be equal, that is the question

Last week, the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, spoke at a Webinar organised by SECTION27 and Maverick Citizen. His final report (read it here), is a damning indictment of two decades of “development” double-talk and its failures. Now, Alston believes that Covid-19, together with other crises, has brought us to an “existential crossroads”. He maintains that “poverty is a choice”.

Will our recovery plan choose poverty?

The price of allowing a recovery plan to fail before it even starts is too ghastly to contemplate – it is a failed state and all that follows from that. 

But there’s another reason to get it right: From now on, the success of Covid-19 containment depends on the way we approach economic recovery. If we fix our schools, our food systems and our health, we will fix Covid-19 and be better prepared for the next pandemic.

If we don’t, we won’t.

Simple as that.

This is a vicious circle that the country must break. DM/MC

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