Mpumelelo Mkhabela | Few alternatives offered by opposition parties during Covid-19 crisis

Parliament in Cape Town.(Misha Jordaan/Gallo Images)
Parliament in Cape Town.(Misha Jordaan/Gallo Images)

Mpumelelo Mkhabela delves into whether any of the opposition parties are providing better alternatives to the ANC's policies during the Covid-19 pandemic.


In a relatively well-functioning democracy, the title "opposition", referring to those who would wish to replace an incumbent government, should be a misnomer. What the British call a "shadow" government better approximates the task of what we call "official opposition" in South Africa.

A shadow government is a ready-to-govern party. The British voters lend credence to this description by firing the incumbent governments, relegating them to a shadow status, while installing into government the shadow ones from time to time.

Many people would naturally quibble with some decisions of British voters for choosing some bad governments. But that's not the point. Democracy was never meant to deliver perfect outcomes. Of all political systems, someone once remarked, it is the least bad.

Democracy's attraction is to be found in the opportunity of voters and governments for self-correction at regular intervals. Democratic theory holds that the threat of being axed by voters helps improve the standards of government and creates the incentives for those craving for power to innovate and work hard to state their case to society.

Sometimes political talent can be used for all the wrong reasons such as populism and demagoguery at the expense of rationality. This is so because there is no neat line separating logic and emotions when voters head to the polls.  

Global debates about the state of democracy are about how to protect democracy from populism and demagoguery, the kind of ills that often make some authoritarians look good. But this is a subject for another day.

It is, however, ideal that at any given time and on any policy question, voters should know about the alternatives offered by the supposed government-in-waiting. The need for policies to tackle the consequences of Covid-19, now and after, provides an opportunity for alternatives to contend.

Choices and alternatives

The many ways in which different governments have responded goes to show that it's all about the range of choices and alternatives. They range from the near-perfect response of New Zealand under the impressive Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is likely to give pretenders to the throne a hard run; to the ramshackle that the United States of America has become under the egotistic President Donald Trump, who seems to be inducing an "anything but Trump" vote ahead of the November poll.

Closer to home, if, as a voter, you are unhappy about the ANC government's Covid-19 policies, is there a ready-made alternative from any of the opposition parties you're prepared to support? If all South Africans were asked this question, the answer will most likely be no.

But this does not mean that opposition parties and their supporters don't have alternative ways to deal with Covid-19. They have made suggestions on a variety of issues. However, none of them have turned their proposals into comprehensive policies and alternative regulations.

From a variety of statements issued over time, mostly reacting to the ANC-led government's National Coronavirus Command Council decisions, voters can at most surmise what the Democratic Alliance or the Economic Freedom Fighters would do if they were in government.

The Democratic Alliance, our supposed "shadow government", has moved from agreeing with the government’s lockdown approach to preferring a more laissez-faire approach to managing the spread of the virus. It stresses the negative economic consequences of lockdowns over containment of the virus.

Liberal approach 

Seemingly in keeping with its liberal approach, the DA has suggested that ordinary South Africans are best placed to look after themselves to mitigate the risk of being infected. Government needs to implement a "smart lockdown". In other words, they don't need an omnipresent nanny state.

Again, seemingly true to its liberal approach to policy, the DA has been fighting the top-down and accountability deficit in the manner the National Command Council has conceived and executed its regulations.

But to say the DA has a convincing, coherent approach to Covid-19 would be to stretch things. Had the DA been in power at national level, there would be barely any restrictions. It would be an exaggeration to guess they would have behaved like President Trump's administration, but one doubts they would have been like Prime Minister Ardern's either.

This is not to say that the ANC government is managing the response any closer to something that would earn them an "F". Once your comrades start feeding on Covid-19 relief funds and nothing happens to them, and some hospitals look like the inside of an overcrowded shack at the Nomzamo informal settlement, then you have failed.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, like the DA, began on a note of support to the ANC government. It didn't take long for them to diverge. They advocate the complete opposite to the DA's approach.

Among other measures, they prefer a hard lockdown until the virus had been contained; a complete ban on alcohol; a state-managed isolation system; closure of schools and minimal taxi loading. They want a hard, ever-present state.

Comprehensive responses 

It would have been ideal for South Africa's aspirant governing parties to set out their own comprehensive responses in detail and accompanied by their preferred regulations. Doing so not as a reaction to the incumbent could give the impression of parties who really want to take over power and fulfil the very essence of democracy.

As the sharp distinction between Prime Minister Ardern and President Trump shows, leadership is key in the Covid-19. President Cyril Ramaphosa's inconsistent leadership and some irrational decisions of his Command Council members have faced heavy public criticism.

Under the circumstances, it would have assisted voters to know how a President John Steenhuisen would have responded in terms of his detailed policies; the composition of his Covid-19 emergency cabinet; and the operations and the division of labour in that cabinet. The same goes for the hypothetical President Julius Malema.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a former parliamentary correspondent, editor of the Sowetan and political analyst.


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