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Leadership in Question (Part Five): In a pandemic, tran...

South Africa


Leadership in Question (Part Five): In a pandemic, transparency and compassion must be part of democratic stewardship

Illustrative image | Sources: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg / Getty Images | EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma

In a period of considerable danger, presented by Covid-19, it is essential that leadership enjoys public confidence. But the trust enjoyed early in lockdown has been dissipated by high levels of corruption and security force abuse. There is also a lack of transparency. The public needs to know and ‘buy into’ whatever approaches are adopted.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four in this series.

Addressing the danger, indeed the public health emergency, of the coronavirus in all its mutations continually evokes contrasting qualities and reactions in human beings who all fear contracting the virus and wish to see it removed from their various societies.

On the one hand, we in South Africa are “all in this together”, more than has been the case with most social ills in recent times. It strikes down rich and poor, prime ministers and homeless people, young and old, queer and straight, South African citizens and foreigners.

The medical advice we receive has a humanistic element that may be familiar to all religions and progressive philosophies as well as resonating with the notion of ubuntu. We are asked to take steps to act on and defend our common humanity and interdependence. When we are asked to wear a mask it is not in the first place to protect ourselves from the disease but to prevent the spread of particles we may carry and to protect others. We hope that others will also wear masks so that we can avert infecting one another.

The principle of mutual solidarity being drawn on is the same as the unionist slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” and that of socialism and all ethics of mutuality, compassion, empathy and, indeed, love. The response to the virus has brought out a sense of responsibility and the best in many people, especially health workers, large numbers of whom continue to contract the virus and many have died in performing their ethic of service, defending those who fall ill, in the service of a common humanity.

But the advice we are given, relating to practising hygiene, for example, also speaks to individual self-concern and preservation, what we need to do at our own instance, to save ourselves. But we are not all located in a way that makes this possible.

The measures to resist the virus have had to work in societies like South Africa that have fault lines that affect the way people and institutions respond, divisions and relationships that reflect privilege and advantage or exclusion and unmet basic needs. This is the context where some have contracted the virus because conditions of poverty and homelessness make it hard to protect one’s own wellbeing and that of others with whom one is in close contact. As is well known, those who are homeless or live in informal settlements or townships who have never been provided with proper housing and sanitation, cannot comply with many directives that depend on resources that are unequally available to the population. Practising physical distancing is impossible in the cramped conditions many experience, where they have any shelter at all.

But, worse, in a country that reeks with graft, some have seized on the crisis as an opportunity to defraud the state and weaken the capacity to resist the virus and assist those who contract Covid-19 by entering into lucrative but fraudulent contracts – with often massively inflated prices – for the procurement of personal protective equipment and other items required to ensure the survival of health workers and facilities needed in the “war” against Covid-19.

Personal agency is stressed by governments and many scientists – the need for all to act with responsibility, in ways that do not spread the disease, by observing basic rules. There are obvious “superspreader” events where participants are clearly blameworthy. But the context of inequality bears heavily on the most important precepts for keeping safe and preventing the spread of the virus: the need to wash hands regularly, to maintain a physical distance, wear masks that are regularly washed and other requirements. 

It may well be that all are prepared, in theory, to pull together as one in the sense that everyone fears the virus and many of us now know a number of people who have died. It is true that some do not wear masks without good reason. But sometimes guards and others wear unwashed masks obviously not out of choice but because of their condition of existence in poverty with no remedy in sight. Still, others do not have the means to make or buy a mask at all and washing it regularly does not arise. 

After 26 years of democracy, the inequalities of apartheid continue or have even intensified. Whatever the rating of South Africa on one or other world inequality index, the poor who remain mainly black people are often homeless or in homes without proper shelter, access to water, sanitation and all the other facilities and infrastructure needed to keep safe at the most basic level.

This has been the case from the onset of the lockdown in late March 2020. There was too little time, even if there had been the intention to fulfil, sometimes promised speedy housing projects.  

Furthermore, the security forces were unleashed (yes, “unleashed”, as in attacking dogs) to enforce the regulations but, in fact, very often to terrorise those who were on the streets and to force them into some or other dwellings that were temporary shelters from the police, but often not shelters from the disease, with overcrowding, exposure to the elements and often lack of water, soap and sanitation. (I recognise that some will take offence to likening police to attacking dogs and that there are very many police who conduct themselves in a humane manner, but that was not the case in many reported cases during the first lockdown.)  

In the months that followed, there were extensive abuses perpetrated by security forces during the lockdown. There does not seem to have been adequate self-reflection by the government or a clear and unqualified statement that it will not be tolerated. Despite the extensive unlawful violence perpetrated by the security forces President Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Year message is unqualified in supporting them

It is important to create a culture of compliance with the law and rules that are part of the campaign to keep people safe. But there must be no ambiguity on the limits to the powers of law enforcement agencies, and the bounds of legality. 

Large numbers of South Africans consented to the lockdown for the greater good, but none of us invited the security forces to attack the poor and often kill with little in the way of censure from the authorities. That the injunction to act together, and care for one another, coexisted with callous and often sadistic police and SANDF actions, has undermined and continues to undermine the sense of mutual solidarity that may have been revived as an enduring good.

In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis there was an atmosphere in the country that evoked memories of earlier days of post-apartheid unity, when, despite flaws, people tried to make the country work and unite for important purposes.

But the ANC has obviously lost the desire to deploy the skills it once had in hearing and acting together with what used to be its support base. It now listens selectively and does not appear to incorporate into its thinking the conditions and the cries of those who still exist in indefensible conditions – paradoxically the conditions from which many of its leaders emanate.

Decisive but top-down fireside talks have been more attuned to announcing decisions than a sense of a need to listen and explain, with an awareness of how announcements were to be carried out in the varying conditions of the country, with poverty, unemployment and hunger – often starvation – now more widespread than before the lockdown. 

This emergency leadership mode did have to be decisive, but it lacked a sense of compassion, for how the message was to be diffused and barriers in acting on it from the top, at the level of government and all the way down to more or less threadbare households barely managing to provide shelter or survive, sometimes having their elementary shelters illegally destroyed.

Scientists continually stress that what they know about Covid-19 may change, but what has remained constant has been the need for personal agency in taking steps to protect oneself and others from contamination. This is true even of the most humanistic scientists. But we need to ground agency, as always, in the concrete conditions that people face and not simply blame all who do not comply without taking adequate account of the conditions that make it impossible for them to act on sound advice.

And what has not been done stares people in the face and the government does not adequately admit that years of ANC rule, including widespread stealing of resources by leading figures, play a significant part in the vulnerability of most of the people. It refuses to name what has now been seen on television screens all over the world.

That there has not been the required self-reflection was demonstrated in the blockage at the Beitbridge border during the Christmas and New Year period, where truckers and others waited days to be processed, without water or ablution facilities. It is reported that a (disputed) number of people died at the border, while it appears that when there was public focus on this, steps for Covid-19 testing were suspended. We may wonder what the consequence of that was. Clearly, despite the large number of government departments handling exit and entry, there was not adequate preparation. 


Although it is unknown when a Covid-19 vaccine suited to South Africa’s needs (requiring refrigeration facilities and distribution logistics that can be managed) will be available, there are financial barriers to acquiring and distributing it. It is unclear who will get the vaccine and how it will be administered, even though the broad priority groups have been announced. Whether distribution can be fairly managed, given the record of this government in administering relief measures, is open to question.

At this point, it appears the government wants to centralise distribution.  But the cooperation of private medical schemes will be required in their stated plan and it is unlikely that such schemes will allow their members to be low down in the queue. This may mean that those with access to private medical aids may be able to jump queues and that the more vulnerable may well wait longer.

This class inequality is part of an international “class struggle” (to use a now unfashionable word, which represents the truth in this case) where some of the wealthiest countries are already able to distribute the vaccine and in some cases have already bought up more than can cover their whole population.

South Africa is a relatively poor country, made poorer by the thievery by, or connived in, by many of current leaders. But some countries at similar levels of economic standing appear to have negotiated deals to supply a vaccine, while the South African process remains opaque.  

It is urgent that the vaccine question is addressed in a much more open manner than other measures in managing the lockdown. Everyone concedes that it is a crucial element in the country’s wellbeing. It is also acknowledged that uneven distribution will negatively affect the capacity of the country to achieve herd immunity, just as the hoarding of vaccines in wealthier countries while poorer ones are starved of them will prevent international stability. DM

Professor Raymond Suttner is completing work as a visiting professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth. Suttner served long periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history and social questions, especially relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.


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