Politics necessitated that the two official opposition parties be divergent in their views on how the ANC government handled the Covid-19 crisis, writes Aubrey Matshiqi.
Earlier this year, the leaders of opposition parties stood in a queue and each of them took two minutes to make statements in support of the Alert Level 5 lockdown measures that President Cyril Ramaphosa had announced to the nation. Some of them even accused the president of being “decisive”, an allegation that is seldom levelled at our head of state. Those were the days, my friend.
As the president prepared to announce the extension of Level 5 measures by another two weeks, trouble was already brewing in our paradise of the manufactured consensus of national unity within the political class.
The Democratic Alliance reconnected with the shrillness of its voice and called for the opening of the economy since, as its leader argued, the lockdown would kill more people than Covid-19.
At this point it became clear that the president, the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters were relying on different political models, and their modeling was propelling them towards divergent conclusions about how the state should respond to the social and economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus.
As the president prepared to make another announcement to the nation, this time declaring the relaxation of some of the measures of the hard lockdown, the EFF expressed a preference for the measures of Level 5, insisting that the working poor and poor people in general were being sent to Covid-19 abattoirs like lambs to the slaughter.
In case you are wondering, the colourful language of the previous sentence is not the EFF’s. It is all mine.
The end of the honeymoon
So what happened to the Covid-19 honeymoon and “toenadering” (coming together) between the president and the DA and the EFF?
There is this thing that the denizens of polite society call “a sense of occasion”.
This sense of occasion dictates that one tailors one’s behaviour to the situation. It is, therefore, improper to smile like an idiot at a funeral. It is for this reason that the leaders of opposition parties were so appropriately funerary in their initial support for the president and the hard lockdown measures.
Anything to the contrary would have been absolutely churlish and voters do not always have short memories.
Ironically, it is precisely for the same reason that the DA and the EFF had to recalibrate their stance. In politics, the long game and the short game are part of the same game.
During the early days of the coronavirus crisis, it must have been difficult for opposition parties to do precise calculations of what constituted appropriate forms and levels of political engagement.
Given the fact that Covid-19 is a Black Swan phenomenon that was not generally predicted and, therefore, fell outside the realm of regular expectations, what was not known about the unknowns in health, social and economic terms introduced a high measure of uncertainty to the political environment, hence the political paralysis of the early stages of our lockdown.
Added to this was the problem of what, at some point, seemed to be a total displacement of politics in general, and party politics in particular, from the news.
With the National Assembly and provincial legislatures under lockdown, South Africa has almost become a no-party state in which scientists and the president are hogging the limelight.
It was always going to be only a matter of time before opposition parties realised that the short-term tactic of supporting the president would deliver meagre political dividends in the longer term. What was happening to opposition parties was akin to the disappearance of junior partners in a coalition arrangement.
Politically risky venture
The DA knows this better than most because, in the Cape Town coalition arrangement, opposition parties disappeared under Helen Zille’s skirt. In other words, locking themselves in what is seen as the risk-adjusted strategy of the Ramaphosa regime became a politically risky venture because, consciously or otherwise, the president had succeeded in building a coalition of national unity.
Opposition parties such as the DA and the EFF had to extricate themselves from this coalition or suffer calamitous injuries to their political identity. This, they had to do because when the populace is happy with the manner in which the government is managing the Covid-19 crisis, all the benefits will accrue to the president and his party, but the opposite is not true.
If the approval rating of the president plummeted because of the perception that the government is mishandling the crisis, opposition parties – as part of the Covid-19 coalition – would be tainted by the real and perceived failures of the Ramaphosa government.
It is for this reason that we have seen the DA and the EFF socially distancing themselves from Ramaphosa and the National Coronavirus Command Council.
The coronavirus is not here to change the nature of the political beast.
It was always naive to think that political parties would quarantine their ideological and political impulses for the greater good.