Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler

Thinking about constitutional crises

President Cyril Ramaphosa chairing a virtual meeting of the National Command Council from his official residency Mahlamba Ndlopfu. Picture: GCIS/JARIUS MMUTLE

President Cyril Ramaphosa chairing a virtual meeting of the National Command Council from his official residency Mahlamba Ndlopfu. Picture: GCIS/JARIUS MMUTLE

 

 

 

The courts and the government have been at loggerheads this week. Does this mean SA is heading for a constitutional crisis?

There was a successful court challenge to lockdown regulations that had required registration of essential businesses with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission. Then the North Gauteng High Court issued a court order prohibiting the government from dragooning some of those who test positive for Covid-19 into state quarantine facilities.

And co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma narrowly escaped contempt of court proceedings in a complex tobacco ban challenge. Finally, in a ruling of wider significance, the Pretoria high court found that numerous regulations declared under the state of disaster were “unconstitutional and invalid”.

Were the government’s sloppy submissions merely the result of a “lackadaisical approach to litigation by the state”, as one legal commentator has observed? Or do they demonstrate a growing indifference or even hostility towards judicial scrutiny?

Our judges do not bask in popular adulation. When asked in 2018 by Afrobarometer, “How much do you trust courts of law?”, 45% of respondents replied “not at all” or “just a little”. Fewer than one in three SA citizens trust judges “a lot”. Farcical presidential commissions of inquiry fronted by judges, and a failure to prosecute blatant criminals from the Jacob Zuma era, have helped undermine the reputation of the judiciary and the criminal justice system as a whole.

In the past, critics of the courts within the governing ANC have been counterbalanced by powerful proponents of constitutionalism. As Ronald Suresh Roberts illuminatingly explained more than a decade ago, this was essentially a pragmatic balance: Thabo Mbeki and his allies saw the law as a backbone of apartheid, but they also insisted it was an essential instrument of societal transformation. Moreover, constitutional government was a precondition for participation in a broadly benign international financial and regulatory order.

Covid-19 may have changed everything. The lockdown, in the president’s ill-chosen words, will “destroy the economy”. Tax revenues have collapsed, and unemployment looks set to rise, perhaps by millions. In a devastating and tragic miscalculation that SA’s government can do little to influence, the wealthy countries of the north have comprehensively failed to provide necessary support for the developing south in this time of exceptional crisis.

Bretton Woods institutions’ funding parameters are entirely inadequate to the magnitude of the challenge. As the economist Dani Rodrik recently observed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rapid financing instrument offers loans equivalent to less than 1% of any country’s GDP; at least 10 times as much funding is needed to make a significant impact.

Given conflict between the US and China and the disarray among global political leaders and in international institutions, vulnerable countries such as SA are being thrown back on their own resources. This has handed the agenda to the protagonists of simplistic state-driven modes of “development”.

In a leaked draft presentation, the ANC’s economic transformation committee has proposed a range of sweeping and fantastical interventions. Insofar as can be ascertained, the money to take them forward will come from some modality of Reserve Bank “quantitative easing”, from pension funds and ultimately from other domestic savings.

The ANC’s menu of proposed actions will quickly run up against the fiduciary duties imposed on pension fund trustees and the requirement that public institutions such as the Reserve Bank provide reasons for their actions. Major private sector actors, including banks, institutional investors and asset managers, will regretfully resort to the law to challenge ill-considered and potentially disastrous government actions.

This is where our real constitutional crisis beckons. Such a crisis will not be precipitated unless and until there is a wilful choice on the part of the executive to violate the law and ignore judicial instructions to that effect. Who would bet, right now, that they will not do so?

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The political rationale for lockdown regulations

The good citizens of the suburbs have struggled in recent weeks to understand the government’s Covid-19 lockdown regulations. Consternation and outrage have been induced by bans on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, a curfew, a narrow exercise window, disruptions to informal trading and the production of a curious catalogue of government-approved winterwear fashions.

To this catalogue of controversies we now have to add this week’s decision to reopen places of worship.

Such measures have often been interpreted as irrational or even vindictive impositions, intended to harass and punish particular groups of citizens, to reward special interests, to secure illegal campaign donations, or to advance the secret agendas of governing party factions.

Some observers have even discerned a rise of the securocrats, a move towards communist rule, or simply a descent into chaos, as ANC power brokers fight for ascendency in the National Coronavirus Command Council.

Internal ANC politics has certainly been messy. President Cyril Ramaphosa has waved his good news wand in the evenings, leaving his ministers to fill in the unpalatable details the next morning.

What, however, if government’s actions in fact reflect an underlying and coherent political strategy? According to a very old “theory of the median voter”, a political party needs to hang about somewhere near the centre of politics if it wants to win.

At one end of our political spectrum lies a grouping we can describe as the sinners, who have been government’s most vehement lockdown critics. They smoke, or drink, or like to take a late morning jog with their labradoodle. Some of them are even cyclists.

The sinners have been noisy antagonists. But there are not very many of them, and they are concentrated in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

Johannesburg’s sinners, on the whole, do not obey the law anyway. (Just try getting them to pay their traffic fines or e-tolls.) Their view is that the government should pretend to have laws and they will pretend to obey them.

According to the World Health Organisation, fewer than one in three SA adults is a drinker, although those who do drink are quite likely to be bingers. A quarter of alcohol was already illicit in pre-coronavirus SA, and unlicensed outlets outnumber licensed by two to one. The bingers have therefore mostly found underground sources.

As for cigarettes, it is surely not persuasive to claim, as the sinners have done, that cigarette bans have been both cruel and easily circumvented.

White, middle-class sinners have largely taken themselves out of the electoral equation. By voting remorselessly along tribal or racial lines, they have reduced the incentive for the government to pay heed to their grievances. Informal traders, for their part, have been scarcely courted by opposition parties, and many of them are unable to vote.

On the other side of the political continuum lie the vastly more numerous godly communities. Four out of every five SA citizens describe themselves as Christian. On top of that there are many other conservative faiths and traditionalists.

The 10-million Zionist, Apostolic, and Pentecostal church members openly live under strong injunctions to abhor promiscuity, alcohol and tobacco, but it’s not just the hardcore believers who are likely to support bans. According to an Afrobarometer survey in 2018, 60% of citizens believe women who receive child support grants spend too much money on alcohol. Worse still, more people agree than disagree that pensioners are alcohol spendthrifts.

They believe trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel’s sense of good fashion is a little racy. Many of them may indulge in the belief of a third of SA citizens that military rule is not such a bad thing.

What this all means is that SA has a vast number of God-fearing and deeply conservative electors, and a relatively small coterie of whingeing urban sinners. The latter don’t vote for the ANC anyway, and are not too aggrieved by the bans because the regulations can be circumvented.

When Ramaphosa said this week that “the faith community is an integral part of SA life and has made a great contribution in the fight against the coronavirus”, it should be added that its members are also the holy grail for ANC electoral strategists.

This country’s conservative population has not so far provided fertile ground for religious parties, but nor has it acceded authority to the liberation movement. This is where the real competition for votes in future elections probably lies.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Post-Covid Politics

21 MAY 2020

Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

 

 

Politically speaking, what comes next? Credible analysis of “post-Covid politics” requires attention to three aspects of the crisis.

The first is alertness to the importance of time. Our sense of the passage of time has been profoundly disrupted by the pandemic. It is hard to believe that our first confirmed case of Covid-19 was recorded as recently as March 5.

Under stress, our instinct has been to track shifts in often meaningless data, on a day-to-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Our sentiments about government, or particular politicians, swing alarmingly from positive to negative in a matter of days.

Our vehement condemnation of slow lockdown lifting will be followed within days by denunciation of government for acting too quickly.

Close to the start of our Covid-19 experience we do not know ourselves. Restaurants that Americans longed to visit in April have reopened with empty tables. Parents of schoolchildren reluctantly withdrawn from SA schools just weeks ago, now clamour to prevent their return.

We do know, at least intellectually, that prior pandemics and economic dislocations have changed how people think, the concepts they have used to capture the dynamics of their societies, and the ways they have framed what is morally right. But, like them, we cannot apply this understanding to our own situation.

The first peak of infections — one that will itself change how we think — is still a couple of months away. Who can conceive how our world will seem to us in two years’ time? Or, in the absence of a vaccine, even further ahead?

Second, the most persuasive political analysis has tempered awareness that we might see radical change with the constraints and opportunities imposed by “normal politics” and the socioeconomic realities of our society.

The Financial Times, whose grasp of cold realities is often overestimated, fired the starting pistol on global windbaggery about political transformation in an editorial on April 3. Warning that the virus, and the economic lockdowns needed to combat it, “shine a glaring light on existing inequalities”, the FT noted that “we are not really all in this together … the economic lockdowns are imposing the greatest cost on those already worst off.”

On the basis of this belated recognition, the FT leapt to the conclusion that “governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. Redistribution will again be on the agenda [and] policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

Maybe so. But “normal politics”, and resource constraints, will continue to sharply limit the possibility of a policy transformation in SA.

Schools and clinics need to function, and such institutions need to be painstakingly built. Even technophiles must accept that we do not have a country poised on the brink of rapid technological transformation: a recent paper from Afrobarometer, drawing on a 2018 survey, notes that a majority of SA households do not own a computer. We will not become another place simply because we wish to do so.

A third consideration is one of framing: most of us remain trapped in a public health framing of Covid-19, because that is how the crisis was first introduced to us. Yet relatively few of us will experience the virus itself as devastating.

What we will experience instead is an economic catastrophe: a loss of livelihoods and the collapse of businesses in the formal and informal sectors.

Over the months and years ahead, as Covid-19 becomes a background condition in our lives, fiscal crisis, business failure and higher unemployment will provide the lenses through which we view our political options.

Rose-tinted speculation notwithstanding, the fiscal bill will still have to be paid. These economic constraints will define our post-Covid-19 politics.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

It’s the economy, stupid

Picture: ALON SKUY​

Picture: ALON SKUY​

 

 

The Covid-19 crisis is stress testing all of our political leaders. Ministers and senior officials are patently exhausted. The uncertainty that surrounds the impact of the pandemic has left their heads spinning.

Covid-19 will be our companion for 18 months or two years, until a vaccine or effective treatment becomes available. The early lockdown was appropriate, but the government has taken too long to register the magnitude of the associated economic crisis. Now it seems curiously unwilling to take steps to ramp up economic activity.

National Treasury predicts an annual contraction of the economy of between 5% and 16%, and between 3-million and 7-million more unemployed people. In the context of often permanent losses in economic capacity, the government should take every step possible to help job- and wealth-creating businesses survive.

Yet the level 4 regulations — and even the level 3 that lies tantalisingly out of reach — fall far short. Economy-transforming e-business platforms that could bring long-excluded smaller enterprises to the market and increase competition are strangled. An informal sector that supports millions of livelihoods is still largely locked down.

Trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel has dismissed Treasury forecasts and rejected suggestions that businesses should open when and if they can implement health and safety plans.

In parts of the ANC, fantasies are circulating that the patriotic bourgeoisie is poised to buy up assets in fire-sales, perhaps with government help. The fallacy that there is a fixed amount of work in the economy is meanwhile taken to prove that “black” tourism entrepreneurs will arise automatically in the place of bankrupt “white” companies.

Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan seems to believe the collapse of domestic and international airlines will create a “space” that can be filled by a thriving new SAA.

The Left has risen from its intellectual slumbers to castigate a private sector “investment strike”, to call for a pliant Public Investment Corporation, and even to demand prescribed assets.

Human beings — politicians and academics included — possess alarmingly little intellectual self-consciousness. We usually adopt theories on the basis that they are politically convenient and intellectually undemanding. Little wonder “modern monetary theory” and the “entrepreneurial state” are so popular among the same politicians and scholars who brought us the parastatal-driven developmental state just a decade ago.

It is interesting, but probably futile, to speculate what President Cyril Ramaphosa’s position may be on the growth of magical money trees in the Reserve Bank. But it is sensible to take seriously his recent words on the “new economy” he ostensibly hopes to create. He reportedly told KwaZulu-Natal’s Covid-19 provincial command council this week that SA is witnessing the “total destruction of our economy”.

Radical economic transformation, he observed, must be central to our post-Covid economic reconstruction: “We are going to have to go for growth in a big and exponential way and be willing and be brave and courageous enough to massify whatever needs to be done”. In the “new economy”, the government will identify growth sectors and “find, create and build jobs for the many of our people who are going to lose [them]”.

Covid-19’s heaviest impact will be in townships, informal settlements and rural areas. Otherwise inexplicable regulations, such as the curfew, a defined three-hour exercise period and a 5km exercise radius (which places Sandton, for example, beyond the reach of protesters from Alexandra) suggest an unflinching government preparing for an extended hard lockdown.

Government is not just witnessing the economy’s “total destruction”, as Ramaphosa claims, it is also partly causing it. There is still time to keep more businesses alive, and to retain the public trust the country will need as it moves into the more challenging phases of the epidemic.

Wishful thinking about the capabilities of a post-Covid government should be saved for another day.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The third dimension of Covid-19 uncertainty

Picture: THE TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

Picture: THE TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

 

 

Government’s proposed easing of Covid-19 restrictions will have to balance health risks with economic effects. But the human, social, and political dimensions of the response should not be ignored.

We are confronted by three great fields of uncertainty. The first concerns the health science of Covid. We remain poorly informed about how the virus spreads, asymptomatic carrying, the effectiveness of social distancing, treatment options and testing reliability. Above all, we do not know if those who are infected will develop sustained immunity, or whether and when an effective vaccine will be available.

A second zone of uncertainty is economic. The implications of lockdown are hard to estimate. We face an explosion of public debt, companies will be destroyed and never return, unemployment is rising, and output shrinking. We face a potential collapse of the international trading system.

While government has carefully counterpoised “health” and “economy”, a third zone of uncertainty — human culture and behaviour — has been largely  ignored.

We do not know how citizens will respond to their confinement, and whether it will permanently change patterns of respect for authority. Will post-lockdown consumers return to pre-lockdown patterns of behaviour, travelling, consuming, and working in habitual ways?

Equally importantly, we do not know if the trust and co-operative behaviour required for self-confinement and compliance with official guidance will survive heavy-handed enforcement.

This third, human, dimension of the pandemic tends to fall in the cracks between the social sciences.

Economists have selectively harvested cognitive science and social psychology to elaborate various supposed “cognitive biases”: a normalcy bias that makes us slow to recognise threats; a confirmation bias that supports our preconceptions; and an “exponential myopia” that prevents us from understanding the basic maths of an epidemic.

The idea that human beings are basically rational, but with “biases” that impair our judgment, is deeply unhelpful in our abnormal world. Indeed, many popular reactions to the coronavirus have eschewed scientific and economic rationality altogether.

In our early HIV/Aids epidemic, more than two decades ago, the sexual transmission of HIV was used to blame the victims. Today we are headed down the same moralising path: liquor and cigarettes, according to our new moral guardians, increase vulnerability to Covid-related death and must be “banned” — or rather moved to the informal economy.

Our security apparatus has recovered its suppressed consciousness of how an authoritarian government should behave. The casspirs are freshly painted. Police roadblocks have appeared in exactly the same places they were found 30 years ago: on the borders of townships, similarly designed to contain protest. The talk is that we should not isolate individuals but rather communities; this used to be known as apartheid.

What does this mean for SA’s response to Covid-19? Government’s strategy has bought time to prepare the health system. We certainly need field hospitals, testing kits, masks, ventilators and burial places: they can help prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. Time has been bought to scale up screening and disaggregated information gathering; hopefully we are building a testing and tracing infrastructure.

This can all support a targeted lifting of the lockdown that distinguishes regions, different sectors of the economy, risks of transmission within sectors, lockdown effects, and broader economic and health considerations.

But we also need to consider the effect of lockdowns on ordinary people: their trust in government, their willingness to comply with regulations, their stigma, and their anger.

Four weeks of lockdown has been a long time, but we are starting a marathon that may last for 18 months or two years. The trust and willing compliance of ordinary citizens will become a valuable resource. We must be careful in these early stages not to break the link between government and the people through thoughtless and unnecessary actions by arrogant ministers and officials.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Rationing in the times of HIV and Covid-19

The national lockdown that starts from Friday may buy SA some time. The unprecedented worldwide search for effective treatments could bear fruit, and our public health authorities have an opportunity to start systematic testing for the coronavirus.

Given the limited capacity of the country’s public health system, however, there are difficult and unavoidable decisions ahead about how scarce resources should be allocated. Governments always have limited resources, whereas health-care demands are essentially limitless. This poses the question: which patients first?

Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered in 1922 that insulin could be used to treat diabetes. But only small quantities could be made. Banting simply decided himself who would be saved; this included his friends and powerful politicians.

In the early 1940s, the efficacy of penicillin as a treatment for a wide range of bacterial infections became clear. Since this was wartime, military uses were prioritised. Penicillin was “rationally” allocated according to its efficacy and the speed with which it would enable soldiers to return to the front. This meant gonorrhoea among soldiers was given priority over the lives of sick children.

Dialysis became feasible for chronic kidney disease in the early 1960s. Seattle’s Artificial Kidney Centre decided that “rational” choices should be made about which patients would have access to this lifelong and expensive treatment. A patient selection committee decided that beneficiaries had to be taxpayers in the state of Washington. Patients were also ranked by “social worth”: occupation, income, education, emotional stability and “future potential”.

A less explicit rationing unfolded two decades ago in SA with respect to antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Specialists argued about the merits of treating early phase HIV patients, who had better survival prospects rates, or later phase patients whose condition was more “urgent”. There was also debate about whether to prioritise children or specific occupational groups.

In reality, campaigners partly ducked the issue by arguing for a “universal programme” that could not be provided. Politicians were wary about becoming embroiled in debates about who should be treated, and hid themselves behind the obfuscation and confusion of the “denialist” era.

In practice, the question “which patients first?” was answered arbitrarily and unjustly. Resources were concentrated in private sector clinics and hospitals. Large companies extended coverage to their skilled workers to prevent reduced productivity and skills shortages.

Politicians, judges and senior public servants joined the rich at the front of the queue. Special programmes were designed for soldiers and police officers to maintain public order and the stability of the state. Health-care workers themselves received privileged access because they were at risk of infection and had to be well if they were to treat others.

Donor agencies elaborated their own criteria for deserving recipients. “Adherence to treatment” assessments saw patients selected on the basis of their family background, clinic attendance, emotional stability and commitment to safe sex.

Who was at the end of the queue? Rural programmes were almost nonexistent. The very poor everywhere were unable to pay the bribes that were sometimes needed. Outsiders or refugees found access hard or impossible.

Those stigmatised or confused about HIV/Aids simply did not come forward for testing or treatment. And those denied the education and information they needed to make informed choices about their own health died in ignorance of potential treatments.

Patient selection will be a potentially divisive issue once again over the coming months. Perceptions of unfairness could easily aggravate tensions based on race, class, religious belief or country of origin. In the short time we have been bought, we need a broader public debate, both about how very few patients our health system will be able to treat, and about the criteria by which they will be selected.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Coronavirus and HIV

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch argues that “within the coming year some 40%-70% of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes Covid-19”.

The WHO has called for greater urgency on the part of governments. By its estimate, 13% of symptomatic patients will require hospitalisation and 6% will need intensive care.

In Japan, Iran, Italy and South Korea cases exploded from tens to hundreds to thousands in the course of weeks. Affected governments are moving from containment strategies to mitigation ones, trying to flatten the peak of the epidemic to allow time to prepare health systems for the huge caseload.

South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and others are quite effectively using “social distancing” measures, initially isolating sick individuals and their contacts but then moving swiftly to “reduce social connectivity” by cancelling gatherings and events. Citizens have been told to work from home, wash hands regularly and thoroughly, avoid travel and crowded places, and self-isolate when they feel sick.

SA may be vulnerable. We are young, but we have poor respiratory health as a result of our high prevalence of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. There are weaknesses in the public health system with regard to training, overcrowding and shortages of protective masks, clothing and critical care ventilators.

Poverty may increase vulnerability as a result of immune system weakness, a lack of access to reliable information, and overcrowded settlements and public transport systems. Most workers cannot work from home, and they lack paid sick leave to fund self-isolation. Further challenges result from the circulation of people between rural and urban areas, and hostel accommodation in institutions such as prisons.

SA can learn from the experiences of countries at a more advanced stage of the pandemic, and we are fortunate to have the capabilities of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) to draw on.

Three lessons of our own HIV epidemic may be especially valuable. First, credible communication is vital and the government must remain honest to retain public trust.

Second, we need a “whole of government” approach. Like HIV/Aids, Covid-19 is not just a health challenge that can be managed by the health department. Every government institution, especially large employers such as the departments of education and police, must take steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among their workforces. Feasible self-isolation strategies cannot be planned from the centre.

Each national department needs to prepare a plan for supporting its particular “clients”. Are schools implementing appropriate hygiene and disinfection strategies? How exactly will Covid-19 be managed in our prisons? How will our development and trade departments support businesses facing disrupted supply chains?

Moreover, intervention windows are available to every minister, if they can be identified. Has the department of transport formulated guidance for minimising the spread of the coronavirus in taxis, trains and buses? Has traditional affairs developed a strategy for mobilising traditional leaders and healers? How will the transmission risk posed by social grant distribution be managed? Will the water & sanitation department resurrect former minister Ronnie Kasrils’s water, sanitation and health (Wash) programme from the early 2000s to facilitate handwashing in poorer communities?

A third lesson from HIV is that the government sometimes needs to grasp the nettle. It is difficult to see why sporting events, religious meetings, university lectures and any other large and unnecessary gathering in a public venue or private company should go ahead given that these pose a clear risk of accelerating the epidemic. As Lipsitch observes, the goal is to minimise the number of contacts between people early on, in the hope of averting the need for more drastic and costly interventions later.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Three elephants

Readers of the Book of Revelation have long prophesied that credit ratings agency Moody’s post-budget day of judgment will be preceded by the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing war, famine, pestilence and death.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has tried to defy such gloomy prophesies by unleashing instead the three great elephants of the liberation movement: mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and finance minister Tito Mboweni.

The elephant represents strength and patience, symbolising the wisdom, loyalty, reliability and determination that characterise the creature’s behaviour in the wild. The giant African political elephant, known to science as Loxodonta Mantashe Africana, presents a magnificent spectacle. The largest mammal in the world, with a torso span of more than 4m, it drinks upwards of 100l of water per day, and communicates by means of low-frequency rumbles that can be heard a dozen kilometres away.

Mantashe’s critics forget that once roused to anger he can storm unstoppably across the plains of Boksburg or through the meetings of the national executive committee. In recent months he has generated confusion, even despair, among energy sector analysts, but the direction of his march towards independent power production, municipal electricity generation and a renewable energy transition has finally become set.

Gordhan is widely revered as a repository of the deepest secrets and a divine representation of intellect and wisdom. The elephant is typically a gentle giant and very slow to anger, but the relentless provocation of Ganesha Gordhan by the EFF leadership will not be forgotten. When yapping and snarling EFF members cornered the minister in parliament in July last year, Gordhan stood unmoved and entirely fearless, simply demanding that “they must touch me”.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, Mboweni revealed himself as the third member of the government’s elephant herd. Disdainfully ignoring calls for prescribed assets and the tapping of public sector pension funds, he pushed back against central bank nationalisation and advanced the cause of exchange control liberalisation. Then, flapping his great ears, he charged fearlessly in the general direction of the public sector unions.

We must not get ahead of ourselves. Elephants do not always move very fast. Gordhan, Mantashe and Mboweni may be pragmatists, but they view the world through dramatically different intellectual lenses. As a result of their enormous bulk, the three can cause great damage to one another if they fight.

The financial and operational crises in the parastatals have meanwhile not been resolved. The Treasury no longer claims that national debt is on course to stabilise over the medium term. The likely rate of growth in the years immediately ahead remains dismal. The scope for damaging unintended consequences from public sector disruption should not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, the boldness of the three ministers offers some reason for hope. Ramaphosa’s government has appeared paralysed by powerful commercial and political interests and enmeshed in debilitating internal compromises that make reform impossible.

All three ministers, in their unique ways, have dragged themselves out of the swamp that is ANC economic policy and asserted positions at odds with the movement’s prevailing and untenable conventional wisdom. Government action freed from party shackles has been shown to be possible — at least in principle.

Have the three elephants done enough to push back an expected Moody’s downgrade decision in March? It is hard to say. The agency shares with the authors of the Book of Revelation a reticence about specifying the precise conditions that will precipitate the apocalypse, and a remarkable talent for mystification. But Mboweni has probably won the government a little more time.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.