Cometh the hour, delayeth the man

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By: Arthur Van Nel

Dear President Ramaphosa

I, like many South Africans, are bedeviled by an increasing restlessness that fuels a discontent which, I suspect, those you trust to advise you about the national mood, continue to fail to adequately appraise you of. To be clear: you are losing your people’s confidence in your control of the steering wheel.

The opportunity you missed this evening – Wednesday, 13 May – to have infused your national address with the salient issues that confront your people, will prove costly for your political ambitions and the country’s recovery trajectory.

My heart bled for you as your advisors allowed you to deliver a speech far below your capacity and even further removed from the daily lived realities of a litany of constituencies who, I respectfully submit, you dismally failed tonight. Judged solely by the unleashing of harsh, but justified, ridicule on social media questioning how hollow the address was, I wondered if you knew the true extent of how advanced the implosion around you have gained traction.

As an entrepreneur who have been postponing the inevitable downsizing discussion, I hoped that you would illustrate tonight that you are intimately aware of the acute challenges that threaten the viability of SME’s and the livelihoods it directly supports through employment and indirectly through outsourcing. I felt let down. If the answer to a parliamentary question in 2019 was that various government departments and provinces owe its suppliers R4 billion past 90 days, under normal circumstances, to what levels had that figure deteriorated under the lockdown, and at what cost to companies and employment and the tax base? I needed to hear my President tonight demonstrating a firm grasp on the issue and an awareness that it requires urgent monitoring.

Secondly, at home we employ a gardener who works 6 days a week for three different households, all in estates. In compliance with level 4, the estate won’t allow him and others in and deprive him of his R200-a-day job that translates to R4500 monthly. A gardener has by definition a socially distant occupation – mowing the lawn, treating the pool and washing the car requires no interaction with anyone. Yet, inexplicably, draconian and non-evidence-led regulations deprive him of that income that he can earn safely. Instead, it offers him R350 pm through a SASSA that must be compelled by the Constitutional Court to discharge its responsibilities effectively and compassionately. There is no rational, justifiable and legal reason – medically and economically – that he should face starvation in the name of preserving his life. How does he being at work contribute to spreading the virus? I suspect he may have experienced your speech as avoiding to engage with his dilemma and millions of others across sectors for whom the prolonged absence from work is nothing but irrational.

The choice that your ministers present often as between saving lives versus preserving livelihoods is, from my vantage point, a false dichotomy premised on equally false assumptions. These are not two mutually exclusive competitive imperatives but two halves of the same coin. If the public support of the lockdown gave us the outcome of the flattened curve, why not accelerate the resumption of economic activity so that the country is able to afford its response? With a R285 billion revenue shortfall projected by SARS, aggravated by a R370 billion budget deficit and your Treasury’s caution that we may lose 3-7 million jobs, should your speech not have sought to answer the vexed economic questions and provided coherent leadership? I needed proof tonight that your one eye was as firmly on the economic contraction rate as your other eye is on the transmission rates. Put another way, you have to lead different than a nonsensical eNCA that runs the numbers on COVID the whole day, blow-by-blow, without equally running the numbers on retrenchments, business collapse, sales in execution, starvation and individual ruin.

In conclusion my President, and pursuant to the sentiments I canvassed in my unacknowledged letter to you last week, it is not late for you to regain the lost ground of the last five weeks. You had your finest moment on Monday, 23 March. You united us across the political spectrum. We have since gone from unity and a reverence for the national interest, to a disjointed citizenry who finds itself under the merciless and irrational regulations that harm us deeply, unsettles us profoundly and builds consistently towards your political implosion. If the sporadic incidences of public unrest escalate from its current anecdotal and peripheral nature to a more coordinated and sustained campaign, no amount of armed forces brutality will contain the backlash from a starving populace.

You sold us a reasonable product: five weeks to retard the spread of the virus and allow your administration to become systems ready. We bought it with sacrifice as the cost price. It was a value-for-money proposition. We paid gladly. The cost had increased from sacrifice to ruin. But the product hasn’t changed.

I pray for you tonight, not sarcastically and not hopelessly. But please, this is not the time for politics. And not least succession politics that should be afforded no space in this dark hour. This is time for the national interest to be crystalised through servant-leadership that is bold and visionary.

Arthur Van Nel
Businessman