President Cyril Ramaphosa met the political moment on Sunday evening.
As he announced sweeping measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa, one could see the gravity of the challenge etched on his face.
At that moment we were at the sharp end of the politics of disease.
The address took place far later than the scheduled time. At the time we were told that the president was still consulting stakeholders. Some may have scoffed at this but consensus on the approach to the pandemic is crucial if all sectors of society are to work together to fight the pandemic. It also makes it far easier to ensure that guidelines are followed by all sectors of society, from churches to businesses. The delay, however, was a PR faux pas.
So, whether Ramaphosa could sense it or not, he had already started on the back foot by the time he addressed the nation.
In fact, at that point social media – never a measured assessment of anything – had started making varied cynical assumptions about the imminent address. Ramaphosa was not in control, the ANC is trying to shape his message, he is a “lame duck”, he will say nothing of import, and he is behind the curve on the science. “Rama-late”, some called him. And so it ran on.
It is in moments like these when one again realises how destructive the “wasted years” under Jacob Zuma really were. Not only did Zuma lead a government that was ethically bankrupt, he himself was implicated in the looting of the state.
And so the more corrupt the head of state and the higher the levels of corruption, the further trust wanes in the democratic government to perform even the most basic tasks. The ANC-led government of Jacob Zuma repeatedly failed to do as it promised, hence the deep cynicism about government.
Since Ramaphosa became president, he has tried to regain the trust of the citizenry. Yet, his government has made slow progress in fixing what has been broken. Progress has been made in removing the most egregious forms of state corruption, but not as much as some thought. This has created further cynicism in a country whose citizens are tired of paying for corruption and malfeasance over and over again. South Africans want to see those responsible for the looting “in orange overalls” and mostly express frustration at Ramaphosa’s overly consultative approach in relation to his party.
Load shedding, deepening levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment and an economy in the doldrums have not helped to shift the national mood either.
So, when Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Sunday evening, the political mood music was already sombre.
South Africa with its socio-economic challenges, poor living conditions for the majority of citizens, many of whom suffer from tuberculosis and live with HIV/AIDS, can ill afford the “community spreading” of the coronavirus.
As Ramaphosa laid out stringent measures that would almost immediately change the way we work and live, it was clear that he had grasped what is at stake.
It takes a president to lead from the front and do what is necessary to set the tone for dealing with a national disaster. And so, so far so good even though the implementation of rules and guidelines will not be easy in a country which is rule-averse. Unlike the Germans, say, we are not obsessed with order.
In the parlance, Ramaphosa’s speech “landed well”.
This was no time for the petty divisive politics either inside the ANC or on the opposition benches. It did not, however, stop the EFF from releasing a poorly worded, out of touch statement the next day. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance read the mood and immediately pledged support for the president’s stated interventions.
Some may argue that the coronavirus is what Nicholas Nassim Taleb would term a “black swan” event. Its three characteristics being that, “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
The countervailing argument, however, is that the coronavirus was not in fact “outside the realm of regular expectations”.
Health experts like Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, have been speaking about a pandemic of this nature for a while now. At the 2019 Hay Literary Festival, Sridhar spoke eloquently about a pandemic of this sort as something governments around the world ought to prepare for. The speed of the movement of people and goods and globalisation “run riot” would, she asserted, have to have repercussions over and above the ones we already live with. In fact, one of the examples she used was someone carrying a disease from China to mainland Europe. Her words then were prescient indeed.
Sustainability and societies’ resilience has always been associated with discussions on climate change. In a country like ours, these debates are even more complex. How do developing countries acquire climate resilience in the face of other pressing challenges, is the perennial question. Now may be a good time to deepen our understanding of how the inter-relatedness of the world impacts on our approach to public health, poverty and disease.
Our global inter-relatedness requires better preparedness in terms of sharing resources and research and simply keeping up with the science. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, this is ever more urgent. The United States, with Trump’s “America First” mantra, has abdicated much of its global leadership role. All’s the pity, though it does provide opportunities for other countries to take leadership roles in various ways.
South Africa, despite our National Planning Commission and its 2030 vision, has never been good at planning ahead. This is a country that prefers to fly by the seat of its pants and hope for the best.
But, if the saying goes that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, then the coronavirus provides us with the opportunity for real “joined-up” government. The ANC has always spoken about this but has done a dismal job in the past 26 years. We see the effects of such failure all around us, especially at the local government level. Given the lack of skill and capacity within the state, it will continue to be a challenge for years to come. The dysfunction within the ANC and cadre deployment only makes matters worse.
Now, faced with an immediate crisis, there appears to be greater resolve and unity across government ministries. This resolve will be sorely tested in the coming weeks. What Fikile Mbalula does as minister of transport now has a direct impact on the president’s plan to fight the coronavirus and Mkhize’s plan to stem the tide. Any failure will be felt immediately and dramatically.
Many have already criticised Ramaphosa for doing “too little, too late”. That seems a trifle unfair. He has shown more leadership on the issue than Donald Trump or Boris Johnson for instance.
Ramaphosa has followed science and has been clear in assessing the seriousness of the situation. But, South Africa has a long way to go to ensure that community spread of the pandemic is contained and also that the president’s plan is implemented.
This will mean, for instance, that when the guideline is that no more than 100 people may gather, this guideline is implemented no matter whom it affects. We can have no backtracking on what Ramaphosa has said. Thus far, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has done an impressive job of keeping the public informed in a transparent manner.
At the time of writing there appears to be a delay in providing the public with the latest infection rate. Testing is probably not being done at speed for a host of reasons. That will need to change through harnessing public and private resources and mass communication campaigns about the virus.
Timely briefings are crucial in this fight against time and the pandemic. In addition, concise, credible information assists in gaining the public’s trust during a time of crisis. Silence begets conspiracy theories and a sense of panic at the perceived loss of control.
In his State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa repeatedly talked about restoring our social compact and called on all social partners to work together to deal with our myriad challenges.
In many ways over the last few days, this has happened as government, business and labour met together to deal with the impact this pandemic will have on our already ailing economy. The consequences of further job losses are too ghastly to contemplate. We will not be able to avoid them, however, and so we need to plan ahead for an inevitably difficult time.
While we have witnessed the Darwinian selfishness of those with privilege engaged in illogical panic buying, we have also seen many businesses and ordinary people reaching out in pragmatic ways to ensure that we survive this crisis.
As Ramaphosa said, this is a conclusive “thuma mina!” moment. It is also a distinct moment of social solidarity. Thus far, South Africa has seen the coronavirus spreading from those who have travelled overseas and have returned. In other words, the contagion has come from the privileged in our society. This could very easily become uncontrolled community spread and has far-reaching implications for our already severely strained health system.
Social solidarity is required of us all in this moment but even more so from those of us who are privileged.
Our futures are intrinsically interlinked, black and white, rich and poor. What we choose to do to protect our fellow South Africans cannot only be up to the state. Citizens can use this conclusive moment and make it one of altruism, business can try to do the same – many already have, despite the strained operating environment. As the infection rate rises, we will need focus and clarity from all sectors of society.
Despite our oft-debilitating collective cynicism, South Africans have a history of solidarity at the precise moment of crisis.
Now is not the time for despair but for individual and corporate acts of responsibility.
We have been here before, albeit in a different way. What is required of us now is equally Herculean. DM