Not that long ago right-wing authoritarian populism seemed unstoppable. With Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Naredra Modi as the three horsemen of the apocalypse, and other equally dangerous men like Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte riding close behind, the future looked bleak.
That came as no surprise as it is now well known that someone like Bolsonaro is openly racist, sexist and homophobic, pro-torture and has promised to cut down the Amazon forest. He also remembers the military dictatorship in Brazil fondly and has promised to smash the left. Many in Brazil’s vibrant social movements now fear the worst with him at the forefront of managing the Covid 19 crisis.
Many remember that the election of Bolsonaro was termed “the WhatsApp election” due to the manner in which Bolsonaro used fake news on right-wing WhatsApp groups to build his support. WhatsApp has also been central to the power of the right in India.
But the Covid-19 has exposed the hubris of the right-wing populists. Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson all initially denied the seriousness of the new virus and gave their citizens macho bluster rather than scientifically backed responses. In each of their countries infection rates are now through the roof, and Johnson and Bolsonaro have both been infected themselves. And many South Africans, looking at the antics of right-wing buffoons like Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump, took real pleasure in being able to take some pride in Cyril Ramaphosa.
A number of writers, including recently Pankaj Mishra, have argued that this fiasco is one of the final nails in the coffin of Anglo-American hegemony. Before the Second World War English power seemed unassailable. After the Second World War American power seemed unassailable. Now both of these countries are in obvious and rapid decline.
Mishra and others are correct to argue that the long era of Anglo-American domination of the globe is rapidly collapsing. But there is another point to be made, which is that right-wing populism also stands exposed.
One only has to compare the health disaster in the United States with the experience of a country like Germany, or Vietnam, which has not had a single death due to Covid-19, to see the difference that effective governance makes.
Germany is a social democracy with a highly efficient state. Countries like Vietnam, and China, which also dealt with the virus very well, are more authoritarian but also have highly effective states. The difference between the countries that have dealt with the virus well, and those that have not, is not the extent to which they are democratic. It is the extent to which they have an efficient state.
Right-wing populists have relied on personal charisma to win elections but, in office, have undermined their own states in support of the standard right-wing hostility to the state. This can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher and Roland Reagan, who famously declared that: “ “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
Covid-19 will not be an isolated threat to human societies. There may be more pandemics as we continue to pillage nature, and climate change, and the social media driven destruction of the public sphere continue there will be many more crises. And in South Africa we also have to confront a massive social crises as employment figures go through the roof.
We can already see that countries like Germany and China have the capacity to deal effectively with crises, while countries like the United States, the UK and India do not. As a result, the power of these countries will decline, while those of countries like Germany and China will continue to rise.
The lesson for South Africa is that we need to move fast, very fast, to get our house in order. Our state was turned into an instrument for elite accumulation during the Jacob Zuma years and is not even close to being fixed. Our state remains massively corrupt and inefficient.
This has been shown up during the Covid-19 crisis. Cyril Ramaphosa started out well, taking the advice of our best scientists. But he didn’t have an effective state to implement policy. What we got was thuggery from the police and the army, thuggery that undermined the standing of the state. But the time that was bought with the lockdown to prepare for the Covid-19 surge was squandered because the state is simply not capable of working in the way that the German or Chinese state can work.
We didn’t prepare our hospitals adequately. We didn’t roll out sufficient support to people who lost their incomes. And we failed to track and trace people who have been exposed to infected people.
We have learnt a hard lesson. Circumstances will be dire. Hunger, which was already at crisis levels before the virus hit, will start to affect families who had thought that their lives were on a firm footing. Middle class people will start to lose their homes and have to withdraw their children from expensive schools.
Ramaphosa is a billionaire with commonplace neo-liberal politics. However, in comparison with Jacob Zuma or Trump, he strikes many as a good man. Regardless of what some noticed as his proximity to the forces that ordered the Marikana bloodbath, most South Africans had been keen to belief him when the lockdown began.
If Ramaphosa, and his finest ministers, individuals like Zweli Mkhize, Ebrahim Patel and others, are to maintain public support for the lockdown and restrictions, they should take away Dlamini Zuma and all politicians compromised by their affiliation with the kleptocracy from the Nationwide Command Council. Additionally they have to act decisively towards Bheki Cele whose bellicose militarism is a critical menace to democratic values. Additionally it is essential to cease evictions, rein within the police and take away restrictions on fundamental freedom that haven’t any scientific foundation.
We are going to face extremely tough times. But facing such tough times with a credible leadership is one thing. Facing such times tough times with a deeply compromised leadership is another thing.
If South Africa is to prepare for the rocky road ahead we need, as an urgent matter of national concern, to build an effective state. South Africans fought too hard for democracy to accept the authoritarian Chinese version of an effective state. What we need to work towards is the democratic German version of an effective state.
This means that the we have to move, as swiftly as we can to root out corruption. There can be no more excuses in this regard. Decisive action is required in the form of an all-out war against corruption. We also need a professional civil service. Jobs cannot continue to be allocated to the relatives of politicians under the guise of ‘cadre deployment’. Every job in the state must go to a person with appropriate qualifications. Twenty years ago this would have meant privileging whites but this is no longer the case. There are now plenty of black graduates to fill up the necessary positions.
Ramaphosa is a rational man, and infinitely superior to the likes of Bolsonaro, Trump and Modi. But he is not a strong man. He has not shown the stomach to act against the rampant corruption and dysfunction in his own party. And powerful forces within the ANC will do all the can to continue the looting and jobs for pals.
It is time for society to step into the breach, and to make it clear to the ANC that corruption and dysfunction will no longer be tolerated, and that Ramaphosa will have the backing of society if he does find the courage to act against the corrupt elements that continue to hold real power in the ANC.
This means that Ramaphosa could be in a position to make a real social compact with the left, including substantive changes in our economic and social systems. If this is undertaken successfully the kleptocrats will be defeated, and we could make real social advances. If such a social compact is possible Ramaphosa’s motivation will only be that he wants to build the political support to enable him to survive the coming economic crisis. Ramaphosa does not have a socialist bone in his body. But politics is often about deals and compromises and if the left drives a hard bargain in exchange for political support against the kleptocrats real progress could be made.
The Covid-19 crisis has shown that an effective state is not a luxury. It is an urgent necessity for every country. That urgency is even more pronounced for us in view of the massive social crisis that we will have to confront when the Covid-19 crises subsides. The time to act is now. We can’t wait any longer.
Buccus is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. He writes in his personal capacity.