South Africa

Coronavirus: Lockdown Op-ed 8

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s job performance 

President Cyril Ramaposa. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

A high level of trust strengthens the belief that government has the technical expertise, knowledge and capacity to make fair, effective decisions. 

An overwhelming majority of South Africans (85%) express trust in President Ramaphosa’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak. Trust in the President, government, and political institutions such as the police and South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is critical in determining effective responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

A decline in trust can lead to lower rates of compliance with rules and regulations

In a survey conducted by University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) we find the vast majority of survey participants (85%) believe that President Cyril Ramaphosa is doing a good job in handling the Covid-19 outbreak. This picture has remained unchanged across three successive phases of interviewing, covering the period from 13 April until 4 May, with the share stating that he is doing a “good job” or “very good job” fluctuating in a narrow range between 82% and 89% over the period. Conversely, very few participants believe that Ramaphosa is performing poorly in his response to the pandemic (ranging between 2 and 4%).   

Graph 1 – Trust in President Ramaphosa’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, by phase of the survey (%) Question: Would you say that the following are doing a good job or a bad job in responding to the Coronavirus outbreak?… President Ramaphosa.

 

As a final question in the survey, participants were asked to provide, in their own words, a personal message for President Ramaphosa. The bulk of the messages were encouraging and supportive of the work performed by the President, as the select examples below illustrate:

“As a young man I believe in you as a President of South AFRICA and appreciate your efforts on trying by all means to protect your country and we as SOUTH AFRICANS support our President in this difficult time.  #InRamaphosaWeBelieve” — 18-24 year old, Black African man, Sheba, Mpumalanga:

“Dear Mr Ramaphosa we thank you for all the things that you are doing to protect our lives we really appreciate you and we are blessed to have you as our President we trust you and we believe in you please continue to lead us! We are keeping you in our prayers because we know that this is hard on you also but together we are strong and this pandemic shall pass” – 18-24 year old, black African woman, Kwa-Thema, Gauteng:

“Mr President, so far, your office has done a marvellous job in trying to flatten the curve of this unpleasant pandemic (Covid-19). Do not mind the civilians, we are always complaining, I guess that has to do with human nature. Keep doing what is best for this beloved nation. We chose you as our president because we trust you can do all the best for this country. God bless you and the nation” — 25-34 year old, black African male, Mthwalume, KwaZulu-Natal. 

On the other hand, very few survey participants’ provided negative messages to President Ramaphosa. A young (18-24 year-old) white woman from Athlone in the Western Cape said:“Mr. President I’m so happy to say that you are a great leader and continue being the person u are ….but I’m slightly dissatisfied with the help my community is getting”. 

The high level of trust may be a result of Ramaphosa’s regular engagements with the nation and his acknowledgment of the sacrifices the people are making under extremely difficult circumstances. The President has also been successful in mobilising support across society, including most sectors of business, civil society, faith based organisations and opposition parties. 

Damaging trust?

While the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic requires a collective effort, there is little doubt Ramaphosa is playing a leading role in establishing a closer bond between government and its people. Unfortunately, there are government officials and institutions that are potentially damaging the trust and relationship between the state and its people. Minister of Police, Bheki Cele’s uncompromising and patronising approach to those contravening the lockdown regulations has been criticised for dampening the public’s level of trust in the police. But, people want to feel safe, and many messages echo this: “The fact that the police and army are not at the townships at all people think it is business as usual and there are no police or military to make sure people adhere to the lockdown regulations.” What a conundrum. 

Graph 2 – Comparing evaluations of the President, police, and army’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, by phase of survey (% good job/ very good job)

 

All three phases of the survey demonstrated that approximately half of adults believe that SAPS is performing well in handling the coronavirus outbreak, varying between 49% and 52% over the period examined. The SANDF received similar approval ratings to the police, fluctuating between 44% in phase 1 and 52% in phase 3. Negative comments have emerged in this latter phase:

“The attitude of Minister Cele and Mbalula who in communicating regulations have almost turned lockdown to be punitive rather than helpful. An example is where regulations prohibit the sale of alcohol however the minister reads this to mean prohibiting citizenry from drinking which culminates in people reportedly being victimised for hoarding alcohol in their houses. They lying to the whole country.” 

The perceived effectiveness and legitimacy of specific Cabinet ministers and institutions is also likely to have a bearing on continued confidence in the executive’s handling of the outbreak and support with lockdown-related decisions. For instance, there has been debate about the performance of specific high-profile ministers and the messages being conveyed to the public, including Ministers Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Fikile Mbalula and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Administrative errors involving the disbursement of critical life-saving resources are also likely to increasingly shape public perceptions of government’s Covid-19 response. For instance, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) accidentally double paid grant beneficiaries in the Western Cape on 4 May, while some pensioners received no money at all. On the same day, thousands of beneficiaries in KwaZulu-Natal went to overcrowded pay points only to leave without money.

Poverty, inequality and unemployment are major threats to trust in institutions such as the President, government, police and army. In a previous article, we argued that the economic consequences of the lockdown negatively impact on those most vulnerable in South Africa. Besides unequal financial burdens, the lockdown also causes considerable emotional problems. 

The problem of balance 

Despite the negative emotional and socio-economic impact, the South Africa population has been relatively patient with the restrictions imposed by the lockdown. However, President Ramaphosa cannot indefinitely continue the lockdown. He is in a very difficult position as he must find the correct balance between protecting the nation but, at the same time, ensuring that people sustain their livelihoods. People expect to work but they also want the assurance that they are protected from contracting the coronavirus at work. As responses from nurses, mine workers and teachers show, more could be done to provide safe working conditions. 

The South African government’s lockdown strategy has been criticised by many sectors of our society. Helen Zille, DA federal council chair criticised the government’s level 4 lockdown regulations and indicated that the curfew is more about control and is a clear example of military rule. Zille also spoke out against the Disaster Management Act, which created the room for the establishment of the national coronavirus command council and the concentration of power in the hands of the executive. Controversial radio personality Gareth Cliff voiced his concern about the impact of the lockdown on the economy and he felt that many people like him are not afraid of the coronavirus any more.    

South Africa has been relatively successful in containing the spread of the coronavirus and minimising the impact on its fragile health system. Level 5 of the lockdown also provided government with the necessary time to prepare and train health personnel to tackle the pandemic. However, the population is starting to feel frustrated and helpless. While some people can control these feelings, others have disobeyed the lockdown measures from the start and more are joining in the act. Another author reported that the police and army are already struggling to control people in poorer and more populated areas. The Covid-19 pandemic therefore requires us to work together and to find safe, productive and sustainable environments to perform our daily routines.

(Un)conditional support 

We examined who was providing their unconditional support to President Ramaphosa to extend the lockdown and who is willing to support the extension with major changes to the regulations. The survey indicates that unconditional support for the lockdown extension among those who trust Ramaphosa to do a “very good job” in handling the coronavirus outbreak stood at 64% at the time of Phase 1 and 60% at Phases 2 and 3. However, unconditional support for lockdown has risen among those that have a negative view of the President’s performance. About 5% was recorded for Phase 1 and 22% for Phase 2. The gap in unconditional support between those that trust/distrust the President is still very large (38 percentage points). It has nonetheless closed from a 58 percentage point difference. It appears that even among those who believe Ramaphosa is doing a bad job in handling the coronavirus outbreak some provide unconditional support for the lockdown extension. 

Graph 3 – Support for lockdown extension, by trust in the President’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, by phase of survey (%) Note: The percentages displayed in the bars represent averages across all three phases of surveying.

To maintain support for the lockdown President Ramaphosa will need to convince particularly those who believe he is doing a bad job that the government is competent and have the ability to deal with the pandemic. In order to do this, government must ensure that it can deal with all glitches such as non-payment and double-payment of social grants. A previous article in this series highlighted support for food parcels to everyone who needs them as well as the creation of a special grant that all South Africans receive each month to help cope during the coronavirus crisis.  Failing to do this will damage the reputation of government and consequently trust in government. 

President Ramaphosa must continue to build upon his regular engagements with the nation. This social compact between Ramaphosa and the people, and his collaboration with business, civil society and labour needs to expand across all government departments and all spheres of government, and compliance and implementation at local government level must be closely monitored. Reassuring the people that government is available to help them during this difficult time will encourage people to trust and work with government. The joint fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is essential. The people of South Africa must believe they can contribute to the fight against the coronavirus. They must not feel helpless and locked-out. DM/MC

This is one of a series of articles based on the Covid-19 Democracy Survey conducted by researchers from Centre for Social Change (CSC) at the University of Johannesburg and the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division (DCES) at the Human Sciences Research Council. The survey can be undertaken free of charge, by anybody in South Africa aged 18 or over with access to the internet. Go to:  https://hsrc.datafree.co/r/CovidUJ. Results were weighted by race, age and education, making them broadly representative of the population. Phase 1 of the survey covers the days from 13-18 April, Phase 2 from 18-27 April, and Phase 3 from 27 April onwards. See: https://www.uj.ac.za/newandevents/Documents/UJ HSRC summary report v1.pdf. The survey uses the #datafree Moya Messenger App on the #datafree biNu platform. 

Narnia Bohler-Muller is divisional executive of the Development Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research programme. HSRC and adjunct professor of law, University of Fort Hare. Yul Derek Davids is a Chief Research Specialist in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC. Benjamin Roberts is a Chief Research Specialist and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC. Kate Alexander is a Professor of Sociology, South African Research Chair in Social Change, and Director of the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.

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