Sipho Pityana | Having each other’s backs is the only way through the storm

Covid-19 has showcased the tremendous energy and commitment we have as South Africans to deal with a crisis.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and key members of his Cabinet – in particular, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize – have shown world-class leadership in driving government’s response to the virus. They have been truly exemplary, and we are indebted to them for their swift and decisive response.

Alongside this, civil society with desperately limited resources, has risen to the occasion and is marshalling and mobilising in whatever way possible – supporting government’s campaigns through public education, health care, volunteerism and other means.

Ordinary people, too, are embarking on programmes to provide food and shelter to the poor, to lend a hand wherever they can, and to rebuild good neighbourliness.

Labour has stepped up, playing a crucial role in keeping workers informed of their rights and responsibilities and showing real maturity in finding solutions to the economic impact of the national lockdown.

Business, too, has united under the banner “Business for South Africa” (BSA) and come up with a basket of interventions – in banking, healthcare and other sectors – to try to keep the economy together and minimise the impact that Covid-19 (and the Moody’s downgrade) will have on all of us, but particularly the most vulnerable.

Big ideas are aplenty. Unprecedented pledges of donations from the Motsepes, Ruperts, Oppenheimers and Bekkers have provided a war-chest that will provide a lifeline to small businesses in particular, strengthened by the Solidarity Fund and individual donations.

Fiscal constraints notwithstanding, our government has come to the party with tax breaks, the relaxation of certain regulations, financial contributions, enabling access to both UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund) and COIDA (Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act) for employees in distress, among others. 

We are one. We are united, for the first time in a long time, in finding common purpose and common solutions. We are building social compacts at great speed, breaking down barriers and joining hands to save this beautiful country of ours, and its wonderful people.


But while Covid-19 has brought some sense of unity, it has also brutally reminded us of the fundamental fault lines in our society, in particular – inequality, poverty, unemployment and a lack of social justice. It has highlighted the near-disastrous consequences of both state capture and some of the dilly-dallying that became a trademark of the post-state capture period.

As a result of the looting spree that was state capture, the national fiscus has been hallowed out and – even before Covid-19, there is increasingly little funding available for desperately-needed public services such as health care, education, sanitation and housing.

Because of the subversion of the law enforcement agencies during state capture, a sense of lawlessness prevails in some sectors of society and the state’s ability to pursue, prosecute and jail criminals is stunted. As Ferial Haffajee recently put it, “South Africa has been schooled in ungovernability and built on the foundation of defiance” – which, I believe, goes some way to explaining why the security forces have had such difficulty enforcing the lockdown in some areas.

Because of a lack of accountability among some of our leaders, in both business and government, too many people still feel they can act with impunity and not have to bear the consequences. For this reason, we see some government leaders and their spokespersons making reckless comments about the virus and the lockdown, without any consequences.

All these factors have had an impact on the psyche of our society, and are increasing the difficulty of dealing with social behaviour during the national lockdown. And it is important that we keep one eye on these issues of economic and social health as we all work to ensure the success of the public health issues.


The honest truth is that government has had close on two years to do take some fundamental steps to address the underlying economic challenges, which would have better prepared us to deal with the ravages of Covid-19 and particularly mitigated its impact on the poor.

But what we saw – despite the many warning signs – was a government that dilly-dallied for months on crucial macro-economic reforms, continued to pour billions into bailing out ailing state-owned companies, failed to bring state capture crooks to book, failed to bring down the public sector wage bill and failed to build business confidence both at home and abroad.

Nothing was done about regulatory reforms, enabling skilled foreigners to obtain visas more easily, finalising mining regulations that have been in limbo for over a decade, creating a conducive environment for oil and gas development, enabling diversification of sources of energy including renewables, or meaningfully cutting red tape around businesses on issues ranging from registrations to exchange control compliance.

Imagine, for a minute, how many more people could have been tested for Covid-19 if we hadn’t blown billions bailing out SAA? Imagine how many ventilators we could have bought if we hadn’t had to pay exorbitant amounts to truck in coal to Eskom? Imagine how many extra health workers could have been brought on board with the money wasted due to inflated contracts at Kusile and Medupi?

This is not a finger-pointing exercise. But I believe we have to be completely honest about why our economy is where it is today, and why that makes surviving this pandemic even more challenging.

So where are we now?

We are now at the stage where the entire economy is fighting for survival and hundreds of small businesses are already going under. Thousands of workers have permanently lost their jobs (with even more to come) or temporarily lost their salaries. The knock-on effect on the poor is a hammer blow to our economy and our people.

Mainstream businesses are either slowed-down or locked-down, and production has halted in many sectors of the economy. Some businesses, like Edcon, that were already on the brink, are set to tip over. Others will be on the precipice depending on the duration of the lockdown.

We see food fights breaking out at shelters for the homeless. We see soldiers frog-marching people down the street as punishment for seeking out a loaf of bread. Soon, we will no doubt see protest marches in communities that did not have the resources to stockpile toilet paper or basic goods like a tin of fish. Poor people, in particular, are getting restless. The social dynamics of this situation are yet to be measured, let alone their potential impact on the stability of our nation.

The situation is desperate. But this is not a finger-pointing exercise. And now is not the time to lament.

South Africans have a tradition of coming together to overcome crises. We did it with apartheid, and we did it with state capture. Now, we are starting to do it with Covid-19.

The virus has united us around two fundamentals: fighting the virus and rescuing the economy. Unless we have each other’s back, the storm will engulf us all. And it is essential that we do so, so that more and more South Africans are able to avoid a further plunge into joblessness, poverty and squalor.

So what, you may ask, is business doing?

Our solidarity within business has never been stronger and our synergy with government has never been tighter.

BUSA, BLSA, BASA, SACCI, the Black Business Council and other business associations are the brains behind BSA and have established a project management office to ensure collaboration with government and to use the available business resources and capacity to support each other, public sector initiatives and collaborate with other social partners in labour and civil society.

This collaboration across the public and private sectors will see business being aligned with government to put the needs of South Africa first.

Task teams have been set up to proactively assess and implement business initiatives to deal with the impact of Covid-19 in health, the labour market and the broader economy, all of which will be assisted by a communications team.

We have come together on three main issues: defending the people against this health risk; the economy; and working with labour to cushion the impact on workers. These teams are developing and implementing capabilities and responses, and ensuring alignment with government’s efforts, with a particular focus on small companies – including those in tourism and hospitality, that have been devastated by Covid-19 and the lockdown.

Banks have changed some of their policies to ease the financial pressure on customers. Mines have opened up health care facilities to local communities. The health care industry is broadening its cover.

Retailers have issued directives restricting the purchase quantities of in-demand items to curtail panic buying. We have come out very strongly against unscrupulous profiteering and will continue to do so.

Members of BUSA, and business in general, have been encouraged to speed up payments to SMEs, and to provide tax relief and fiscal support, and rethink their supply chains to provide a lifeline to small businesses.

We are working!

Social compacts

What’s becoming obvious as we adapt to Covid-19 and the national lockdown is that social compacting – working together, making compromises where necessary, finding common ground – is the only thing that can save us.

Anyone who’s handled a crisis knows it’s not just how you handle the crisis that counts; it is also what you do afterwards to rebuild, restore and (most importantly) learn lessons to avoid falling into the same situation again

We all look forward to the day when Covid-19 is beaten and we can return to the “new normal” of life after the lockdown. As we do so, we should keep at the front of our minds what we have done to beat Covid-19, so that we can replicate these strategies and tactics in our battle plan to get the economy back on track.

One thing is for sure: we will need the same determination and calibre of leadership to rescue the economy that we have seen so far during Covid-19. And we will need it for a very, very long time.

* Pityana is president of Business Unity South Africa

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