South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us a few lessons about our nation. Undoubtedly the most notable thing we have learnt is that in President Cyril Ramaphosa our country has a true national leader. Before the onset of the pandemic, a popular narrative had gained ground about Ramaphosa being an indecisive leader who did not show enough appetite for the country’s highest political office.

In particular, those who have watched Ramaphosa closely in action have been baffled by the disjuncture between his assured performances in the boardroom setting or on the podium, and seemingly his paralysis in translating his confidence into decisions that produce desired policy outcomes. The commendable manner in which the president has spearheaded the national effort to combat the Covid-19 crisis has dispelled doubts about his leadership. He has led with vision, authority, inclusiveness and empathy.

His consensus building leadership style, until recently the object of criticism, has worked well during this crisis. It has enabled him to rally nationwide support for South Africa’s measures against the pandemic. Political parties of all hues, the business sector, labour unions, religious and traditional leaders, learning institutions, NGOs, the media, professional bodies, as well as the wider South African populace have all come out strongly in a show of national purpose and unity.

There has also emerged during this crisis other leaders who have acquitted themselves extremely well. The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has been an exemplar of meritocracy. Not only has he demonstrated an impressive command of his portfolio, he has also shown the necessary understanding of the complex dynamics of Covid-19 and what needs to be done to defeat it. His extensive knowledge of his brief, clear communication, composure, and humility have provided a masterclass in crisis management.

As the public face of the government’s response to Covid-19 Mkhize has personified excellence, but there have also been other cabinet ministers who have shown themselves to be up to the task, such as Naledi Pandor, Ebrahim Patel, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Ronald Lamola and Blade Nzimande.

Weak links

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, there also have been leaders who have behaved in ways that have undermined the national effort and spirit. Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has been exposed as a wayward leader and her conduct has again raised the troubling issue of how the laws of the country are not applied equally to all citizens irrespective of their social status or rank. This unfair and unequal treatment of citizens must stop as it weakens the rule of law, corrodes democracy and saps national morale.

Ndabeni-Abrahams, however, is not the only cabinet minister who has been embroiled in controversy during the lockdown period; others are Fikile Mbalula and Lindiwe Zulu. What this debacle has confirmed is that Ramaphosa has presided over an incohesive executive whose members have exhibited varying levels of commitment and internal discipline. This, in turn, is emblematic of a broader problem within the disorganised and fractured ANC. Ramaphosa’s sterling performance has elevated his national standing and bolstered his political capital. It remains to be seen whether he will use this capital to stamp his authority on the ANC and act on the issues that have hamstrung his presidency, including economic stasis, corruption, dysfunctional state-owned enterprises, and underperforming cabinet ministers.

The state bureaucracy has risen to the challenge and provided solid administrative support without which political leaders would have accomplished very little. South Africans, in particular, have been both heartened and perplexed by the rapid speed with which the government has been able to provide services like running water to long-neglected communities. The unavoidable question this raises is: Given the desperate pleas by deprived communities for basic services, why has the government previously failed to respond their needs? Although the communities have welcomed the services, the message this has communicated is that the government only responds to societal needs only when a crisis jolts it into action. Even so, the Covid-19 disaster has shown that the public service, in spite of its hollowing out, possesses strong residual capacity that can be shored up as part of improving state capabilities.

Lingering inequality

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the deep social inequalities that continue to afflict South African society more than two decades into democracy. Although the early spike in cases involved internationally mobile and affluent individuals, the transmission of the virus has extended to poor communities in the townships. These communities depend on public transport, have little or no savings, cannot afford hygiene products, and live in crammed dwellings. Their social conditions heighten the risk of infection, while also accentuating the divide between the rich and the poor.

This has necessitated a two-pronged approach that ensures that radical measures are taken not only to contain the spread of the virus, but also to tackle the economic fallout from Covid-19. The sustained credibility of South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 crisis will depend on the extent to which the government is willing to boldly address the dire social and economic needs of the people, especially the poor communities, stemming from the impact of the pandemic. Given the urgency and scale of the economic fallout, the government cannot afford to delay further the unveiling of its promised recovery plan.

The fight against Covid-19 has witnessed the largest domestic deployment of the South African army since the imposition of states of emergency by the apartheid regime in 1985 and 1986. The SANDF has been deployed to assist the police in maintaining law and order, supporting state departments and controlling the country’s borders. Concerns have been raised, however, about the abuses committed against civilians by some members of both the army and the police. The national lockdown has exposed a lingering culture of violence within the security services that bears echoes of the apartheid era. Countries such as Russia and Hungary have shown that national emergencies such as the Covid-19 outbreak can be used by states as a pretext to perpetrate abuses, suppress dissent and trigger a lurch towards authoritarianism. Politicians have the obligation to prevent this kind of possibility in South Africa by strictly observing the strictures of the country’s constitution and laws.

Mills Soko
is Professor of International Business and Strategy at Wits Business School. Views expressed are his own. 

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