๐Ÿ”’ Don’t extend lockdown ‘even for another’ day and FW de Klerk’s legacy – Theuns Eloff

Dr Theuns Eloff, who has just left the FW de Klerk Foundation, has launched a strong appeal that the government should not extend the current lockdown for โ€˜even another dayโ€™. Dr Eloff said he believed that the lockdown has achieved what it set out to do. He also comments on the furore around former President FW de Klerk’s recent statement on whether apartheid was a crime against humanity and what that has done to the Nobel peace prize winner’s legacy. – Linda van Tilburg

Even the medical statistics show that we’ve had all the benefits we could from a slower track of the disease infection rates and now we must weigh it up against the enormous damage that’s being done to the economy. My problem is (and I specifically quoted the minister responsible – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – last Thursday); the whole approach is about human lives – which is fine. But then, they think that human lives can only be lost through Covid-19 and they don’t realise that human lives can also be lost through the economy imploding. And I looked far and wide and I got something from Dawie Roodt (on his blog) where he said that we can be compared with Greece; in the last 10 years when their economy really went down, their GNP per person (gross national product) came down with 20 percent and that meant that they lost one person per thousand more to deaths. So actually, the argument that Dawie makes is to slow down your economy ; if you lose GNP (10 percent or whatever) – which we will surely do – it will cause more deaths because people will die from hunger and a lack of jobs etc. So, that’s the point I was trying to make – that we cannot afford to (after the 1st of May) have an extension of the lockdown as it is (in the state that we have).

Do you think our lockdown was far too strict?

I think for the first three weeks it was probably something we had to face and we’ve never done this before and I know that other countries had different lockdowns. I think there are two things we didn’t really (as a country) consider properly enough. The one is the impact on the economy by locking everything down with the exception of a very narrow definition of essential services. And secondly, we did not and our government did not consider the impact of our big informal sector not being able to work on wages, informal selling of food and informal industries in townships. Together with that, it was not properly considered that it is not possible; (in a suburban house when you have two, three, four people – you could survive) but if you live six people in a room in a township and next door lives another twelve people in two other rooms – there’s no way you can have social distancing. So, to ask those people to practice social distancing was never a realistic option from the beginning and I think that’s where they worried but it’s where we should have been a little bit smarter.

You’ve mentioned the damage to the economy and also the possibility that businesses might not want to continue funding the Solidarity Fund. Do you think that’s a real danger?

Well, I think if Cyril has any sense he would say the lockdown is gone by the 30th of April. After that it will be social distancing responsibilities and other things (make the wearing of masks compulsory, and so on). If he extends this lockdown, I think many businesses will say, ‘we can’t stand in financially for the mistakes of the government (for the economy) – we will now have to look at using the money we would have put in the Solidarity Fund into helping our businesses and paying our people (if there’s another week or two)’. So the aim of this article (and I think many articles written by people thinking like an economist) are – please don’t consider even extending the lockdown in its present form for another day.

Lockdowns seem to be almost a chance for governments to be more authoritarian. You’ve been one of the chief negotiators that got South Africa out of apartheid. Are you afraid this might set a precedent where governments think – and especially the South African government thinks – they can decide more on people’s lives and be less democratic?

Look, I think human rights are always fragile and people gave apartheid the blame for many things – it carried the blame for a lot. But human nature is such that if one tastes power – if Mr Bheki Cele (our Minister of Police) now tasted the power to lockdown and to bully people and to say, ‘we will be fierce and there will be no this and no that’ – that is almost a boundary that you cross. And I am worried (and so are many others) that the culture of breaking human rights would now easily be something (at least) in specific ministers – in their future handling of issues. So yes, I am worried about that and I do think that we had to bring in the Army (Defence Force) – because we don’t have a capable police. Obviously, our army isn’t that great either – but that’s better than nothing. But I think the example set by Bheki Cele was not a good one. It was sort of one of those ‘skop, skiet en donder’ – as we say in Afrikaans.

Do you also know Cyril Ramaphosa really well? Would he allow that?

The problem is he wouldn’t allow it if he knew about it and it comes onto his table. But a president at a time like this; he travels a lot, he has a lot of meetings and he doesn’t sleep a lot. He has about 15 things he has to think about every hour and I’m afraid that this may just fall by the wayside. Unless there is a big case (and there are quite a number – I think actually nine cases now where people have died but it hasn’t been proven that all of them were part of or a consequence of police or defence force action). I just think there’s so much to do now. There’s so much that he would handle that he doesn’t necessarily give enough attention to that and that doesn’t mean he wants it or he condones it. He’s been very strong on one of his ministers who broke the lockdown rules (he put her a few months unpaid leave). So, I think he’s not. But the problem is that government is big and it’s a time of being hugely busy and having to contend with a lot of issues.

Rumblings (Cyril Ramaphosa). More of Zapiroโ€™s magic available at www.zapiro.com.

Many of the scientists are worried that you have a lockdown and then you come out of it and there’s a massive spike in cases. How do you think South Africa can mitigate that?

This was in a sense the core of the article that I wrote. I took the speech that Professor Karim – who is a well-known epidemiologist and is also the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (a committee on Covid-19) – gave about a week ago in which he said that the lockdown bought us time (and was meant to buy us time) to prepare for the inevitable spike in the infection rate and that whatever we do – we will not be able to contain or to prevent the spike in infections. My argument in the article was that if that is indeed the case (and there is no reason to believe that it’s not the case) – why do we extend the lockdown? Because the lockdown will not help us to prevent the spike – the spike will come, as it has come in many countries. We now had – it will be five weeks next Thursday (the 30th, end of the month). Why did we not get everything ready so that we could handle the spike? So, my argument is that if the spike is inevitable; rather stop the lockdown, open the economy and manage the spike as well as you can. And I think that’s something that we now have to do – as many countries have had to do before us. We’ve managed with the lockdown to flatten the curve to some extent (there’s been a bit of a spike in the last two, three days – but I think it is because we’re doing more tests). But if that’s inevitable; the question is then why not open the economy up in a responsible way? I’m not saying unfettered; I’m saying there are factories (industry, manufacturing, mining etc) where people can work in a controlled environment, where you can manage the problems of any infection and you can prevent it. Why not do that. I mean there are some very stupid examples which I think your audience would appreciate where initially; they said no wine may be exported and then they said no, you can now export the wine and then two days ago – again said no you can’t export the wine. Now, the problem is that the wine has already been produced – it’s just lying there. The risk to anyone to get the wine from the wine farms to the ship is nil. The other controversy (obviously in South Africa) is the ban on the selling of tobacco, which is also plain stupid because people go to a supermarket and they buy groceries. They can also buy cigarettes at the same grocery store – but they’re not allowed. The idea is that you shouldn’t go to the grocery store too often, but you can’t buy cigarettes – that’s just stupid. And it seems to me that the Minister of Health – who is a medical doctor himself – has a thing against smokers and he wants to sort of tell them, ‘while you’re busy and while we have this lockdown – sommer stop smoking’. It’s stupid, you know, and I’m not a smoker – but I believe in liberty and I think it’s a liberty. If someone wants to smoke, you can’t take that away from that person – especially in a time which is stressful (like the present time is).

One good thing about this period is that there’s less focus on Pravin Gordhan. You’ve known Pravin really well (also from the World Trade Centre) – what do you say about how he was targeted over the last year and a half/two years?

He’s come out as a fairly strong proponent of good governance and ethics and so on. I think he’s done well and I think the fact that the EFF have targeted him so much – it’s actually a credit to him and a compliment. I think he has made a few mistakes. It is common knowledge that when the previous CEO of Eskom wanted to do something about the exorbitant salary bill – he stopped it. I also know that he doesn’t necessarily want SAA to be closed. So, he still has some ‘socialist tendencies’ here and there that come through. But I think in the case of SAA – that’s done. And obviously – as with many airlines in the world – they are now under such pressure. But in general – he’s emerged from the Jacob Zuma period as a stalwart of integrity.

What did you think of FW de Klerk’s comments on whether apartheid is a crime against humanity? You did work for him – for his foundation – at the time.

Well, at the time I was Chairperson of the Advisory Board of the Council – so I was still involved. I won’t be involved after the 1st of May. I think he overreacted after he had been (the previous night) attacked viciously in Parliament by the EFF (together with Pravin Gordhan, by the way). They basically demanded that he should leave the chamber and the ANC speaker said no – he’s invited and should stay. But, you know, things like ‘his hands are dripping with blood’ and so on, and I’ve always wondered why people blame the person who killed apartheid (from the National Party’s point of view) more than they do the founders of apartheid. But, be that as it may – the following morning, I believe, he and Dave Stewart wrote a statement in anger and in overreaction and they then – instead of just criticising the EFF – went to this whole point of whether apartheid was a sin against humanity as the United Nations committee said or not. I would have strongly advised them not to do that. Obviously, there was an outcry about that. FW is a lawyer and he still thinks he has a point – that it wasn’t the United Nations General Assembly but the committee doing that. Be that as it may – on the Monday they withdrew the statement and apologised unconditionally. Unfortunately, as with the genie out of the bottle, that doesn’t work. People just remember the Friday statement and not the Monday statement and they obviously know that they’ve made a mistake and they apologised for that. So I think it was an overreaction – it was a moment of frustration and anger, rather against the EFF than against anyone else.

Do you think he can come back from that – that he’ll have the respect that he’s had?

It’ll be a long road. I think that – given his age (he turned 84 this year), it will probably mean that he will follow a low profile in future until he can, over time, try to get back some of the credibility.

But it wouldn’t have happened if you were there?

Well I don’t know – let me put it this way; I would have advised him strongly against it.