By David Lewis
First published on Maverick Citizen

The formulation and implementation of economic policy are too important to be left to state officials and market participants alone. It requires the intelligence and knowledge of the citizens. The most effective source of the intelligence that should guide economic and social policy-making are community activists and on-the-ground civil society organisations.

Given the sheer biblical scale of the catastrophe engulfing the societies and economies of the world, it’s easy to believe, and almost certainly true, that in the aftermath of Covid-19, politics and economics will never be the same again.

The large political questions that are posed concern the future of democracy itself. Will governments attempt to retain and expand the emergency powers assumed in the teeth of the pandemic? Will the chaos, ineptitude and polarisation that characterised the responses of some rich and middle-income governments sound the death knell of rising populism? Will autocratic governments tighten their grip or will the aftermath of the pandemic spark another pro-democracy wave? Will democratic governments seek to consolidate their democracies by deepening their mode of governance?

There is only one certainty: no outcome is preordained. There will be forces in each country supporting one or other of these outcomes and the measures necessary to achieve them. If the Chinese Communist Party is to retain its iron grip, it will have to increase the already draconian levels of surveillance of its people and repression of uncontrolled sources of information.

If the Trumps, Erdogans, Bolsanaros and Modis are to continue contesting and winning elections, they are going to have to intensify the manipulation of the information that the electorate receives and their efforts at voter suppression. And those governments still committed to democracy will have to look beyond the institutions of liberal democracy and pay far greater attention to citizen participation and to economic inequality, including to their responsibility to deliver quality public services.

The role of civil society

Civil society’s engagement in these contestations will be a vital determinant of the outcome. South Africa’s recent political history confirms this. Think of civil society’s role in promoting access to, and the dissemination of, information; think of its defence of an independent judiciary and its resolute opposition to a corrupted criminal justice system; think of civil society’s role in holding powerful corporations to account; think of the leading part it played in the demise of the thoroughly corrupt Zuma administration.

Civil society vigilance in the face of emergency powers is vital in defending the public health measures necessary to combat the virus – we have witnessed the danger that enhanced police powers pose for achieving public buy-in to the measures necessary to limit the spread of the virus. It should not have taken a public health crisis to alert the government to the corruption and brutality of the police services – it has always been so, and it will be there after the present crisis has passed, the more so if the police and its leadership, including its political leadership, acquire a taste for their enhanced powers. Civil society is going to have to redouble its efforts to hold our police services to account, if our democracy is to be strengthened in the wake of the virus.

Similar imperatives apply to other key institutions of democracy. Enhanced executive power to enable emergency procurement may be necessary to deal with the present crisis, but what has Parliament done to exercise oversight over the executive’s newly acquired powers? Since the outbreak of the health crisis, Parliament has barely merited a mention. Indeed, parliamentarians have largely been absent in communities’ efforts to sustain themselves. Post-virus will we review the gross shortcomings of our electoral system, a system that produces “representatives” accountable only to their party leaders? Not if civil society doesn’t ask the questions.

State vs market

In the sphere of economic policy, a large issue that the pandemic has brought to the fore is that hoary old question of the role of the state versus that of the market. Predictably, this issue is present not only in relation to the economic crisis generated by the virus but also in relation to the handling of the public health crisis.

For example, the disastrous USA experience, although massively exacerbated by its appalling political leadership, exemplifies the difficulties in confronting a public health crisis in the absence of a public healthcare system. The vaunted, though much weakened, British National Health Service, bolstered by thousands of citizen volunteers, has performed somewhat better than expected, despite the manifest lack of concern of successive British governments for the delivery of quality public services.

The South Korean experience, on the other hand, demonstrates how a strong, competent state is able to effectively manage a public health crisis, even though major elements of the health system, for example hospitals, are in the hands of the private sector. Critically, because the Korean state had, by delivering quality public goods including healthcare services, met its side of the bargain with the citizens, it is trusted by its citizens and by the private sector.

The South Korean state has long been a poster child for effective economic governance. A state which a mere 60 years ago had a per capita income at about the same level as Ghana, attained, some time ago, the status, and the incomes, of a developed industrial economy, while its African counterparts are barely out of the starting blocks. South Korea’s virtually unmatched progress from underdevelopment to the highest levels of development was achieved, not through public ownership but through the medium of a state that guided, regulated, incentivised and disciplined the market and its key institutions, large corporations. South Korea thereby earned the description of a “developmental state”, it did not have to assert it.

While in its attempts to keep the economy alive during the public health crisis, the South African state has demonstrated the will and ability to engage productively with the private sector, the crisis has also revealed massive lacunae in policymakers’ understanding of key markets.

Before the Covid-19 crisis struck, how many policymakers appreciated the sheer scale of food consumed by township and informal settlement residents that is purchased from spaza shops and informal traders – by some estimates as much as 70% of food purchased? Who in government knew that informal traders are the largest category of customers of the Johannesburg fresh produce market? In short, who understood that these small traders are the vital cog in the distribution of food to the vast majority of South Africans?

If, before the advent of the public health crisis, the workings of the food distribution market had been understood, would the government have stood by idly while each and every day the metro police savagely abused vulnerable street traders? Would they have responded so hesitantly to the violence directed at foreign spaza shop owners, violence perpetrated by the public, but often with the tacit support of the police and egged on by xenophobic political leaders? Would they, even now, have hesitated at putting money in the hands of township and informal settlement dwellers had they understood that this was not “only” a welfare measure but an essential prop necessary to support the food distribution market and all of its participants, including the large cash-and-carry retailers who supply the spaza shops?

Economics and the basic income grant

Indeed, the knowledge that we all now possess, must surely change the terms of the debate around a basic income grant.

We have been handed an object lesson in the forms of state support necessary for the effective functioning of a critical market. It is not only supply-side support like training and finance. It is demand-side support, it is supporting the customers of spaza shops and informal traders. It is a basic income grant. The minister of finance should not be reassuring anxious economists that he will be able to claw back the modest supplement to the social grant once the health crisis has passed. Rather, he should be assuring anxious participants in the multibillion-rand food market that he will do all in his power to extend these payments and to make them a permanent feature of South Africa’s economic life.

Of course, if the government had been listening to these communities and their allies in civil society these truths would have been revealed before the food distribution crisis emerged. This is perhaps the most important lesson that this crisis should impart: the formulation and implementation of economic policy are too important to be left to state officials and market participants alone. It requires the intelligence and knowledge of the citizens, hitherto the passive recipients, more often than not, the victims, of the workings of states and markets.

The most effective source of the intelligence that should guide economic and social policy-making are community activists and on-the-ground civil society organisations. If the validity of this proposition had been doubted before the Covid-19 crisis, then the experience of managing food distribution during the crisis must surely have dispelled that. Look, for example, at the extraordinary information exchange facilitated by the various online groups that constitute the Gauteng C-19 People’s Coalition.

And civil society action goes beyond the gathering of intelligence about food supply and food demand; it has extended into actually undertaking the mobilisation and distribution of food supplies. This upsurge in community activism is mirrored across any number of fronts and in a variety of forms, whether it be directed at support for waste pickers or child-headed households, whether it be in the form of donations to the various philanthropic funds or many hours of work devoted to supporting governmental and non-governmental programmes. And this community activism has characterised some of the most effective official responses to the health crisis – the 28 000 community health workers are vital participants in the mass screening and testing programmes and the envy of many countries across the globe.

Above all, what active citizens bring to policy formulation and its implementation is a grounding in, and an empathy with, marginalised communities and groups.

To be sure, these community concerns may at times manifest in deeply destructive parochial behaviour directed at those perceived to be outside the boundaries of the community – xenophobia, for example. But there is no denying that if marginalised communities, communities which constitute the vast majority of the population – impoverished mining communities, informal settlements, micro-enterprises, school learners, unemployed youth, waste pickers, child-headed households, poor women, immigrant communities – are to be drawn into society and the states that govern it and the markets that supply its good and services, then it is the norms and connectedness – the social capital or ubuntu – of active citizens that will do so.

Drawing civil society and community organisations into the decision-making structures of the polity and the economy would represent a sea change from the pre-Covid-19 order. It would not only better prepare the society for dealing with future crises of this scale, it would also constitute the institutional foundation for confronting the inequality, poverty and corruption that has given rise to anti-democratic populism and authoritarianism.

South Africa is relatively well-placed to achieve this. We have a reasonably robust civil society. We have institutions specifically designed to engage non-governmental actors in policy development. We have a president whose signal approach to policy formulation and implementation is his oft-proclaimed commitment to social compacting.

Rethinking Nedlac

This approach needs to be institutionalised in a manner that accommodates the particular character of civil society. The National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) may have succeeded in drawing organised labour and business into the policy-making framework. But it has not effectively incorporated those issues and organisations outside of government, business and labour, the big beasts of corporatism.

Civil society and community representation within Nedlac is a sham, in large part because its constituent parts are too diverse to be centralised and coordinated in the manner demanded by the corporatist model. In order to accommodate community and civil society, social compacting must move away from the notion of the grand society-wide compact into a large number of community-and issue-defined compacts.

There are some interesting recent role models. The health sector anti-corruption forum, convened by the SIU and comprising representatives of the law enforcement agencies, government health departments, health regulators, business associations and civil society organisations engaged in combating corruption in healthcare is one role model. The task team responsible for developing a national anti-corruption strategy comprising civil society groupings actively engaged in combating corruption and their counterparts in a range of state institutions, is another.

The healthcare crisis has revealed the respective capacities of the institutions of the state, the market and civil society in confronting a crisis of unprecedented scale and complexity. It has demonstrated the complementary nature of their respective functions and powers. Compacting must not seek to sublimate the different interests of the various groups who make up the compact. It must, however, seek to build trust between the respective parties. The onus is now on the state and the leading institutions of the market to earn the trust of hitherto excluded communities. A good start would be to recognise their selfless contribution to overcoming the present crisis.

• David Lewis is the executive director of Corruption Watch.