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Contributing to the Solidarity Fund – a civic duty

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Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

Can we really in good conscience applaud government’s exhortations to the private sector to donate – or silently approve calls for workers to take pay cuts – only to grumble when asked to do the same? Quō vādis, South Africa?

The civilian population has since time immemorial been the ‘home front’ that plays a vital and indispensable role in times of war, peace, upheaval or crisis.

During World War II, the home front rendered support on various levels to the troops fighting abroad.

High school and college students dropped out to take up jobs in factories to keep the economy going. Housewives volunteered with the Red Cross. Families were encouraged to grow their own food and recycle everything, from cooking fat to scrap copper and paper, that could be used to make supplies for the troops. 

Millions in the United States and United Kingdom heeded the call from their governments to purchase war bonds, with workers encouraged to invest at least 10% of their salaries in the bonds as an act of patriotic duty. In other instances, they submitted to automatic payroll deductions. These massive drives netted millions of dollars to support the war effort.

Against the foregoing, the activities of the home front have been similarly critical in periods of national reconstruction. Across the developing world post-independence, the patriotic spirit of millions of men, women and children was engaged to rebuild entire societies. 

In the early 1960s post-independence, Cuba trained and dispatched 25,000 volunteers into even the most far-flung rural areas to teach people to read and write. These literacy brigades that comprised citizen volunteers, some of them teenagers, selflessly contributed to dramatically raising literacy levels to nearly 96%, among the highest in the world.

In Thomas Sankara’s Burkina Faso, citizen community brigades were mobilised to sink wells, plant trees, build clinic dispensaries and roads, and construct public housing. In the mid-1980s, Sankara launched a ‘battle of the railways’ where volunteer civilian workers laid hundreds of kilometres of rail to facilitate the transportation of raw materials and essential goods, and later emergency famine relief supplies to neighbouring Mali and Niger.

A 2007 Reuters report on Sankara’s death notes that to help pay for these social development projects, he deducted a month’s salary from top civil servants and military officers.

The latter would no doubt have engendered unpopularity in some quarters, as would the many other examples of personal sacrifice. And yet the understanding has been that such a contribution is necessary for the greater good of the people and country. The ‘we are all in this together’ spirit strengthened morale and reinforced national unity. 

Meanwhile, the world is currently waging a new war – this time against a pandemic that is unprecedented in modern history and which is spreading so fast that even developed countries have been unable to contain it.

It is no longer relevant to debate the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. The stark reality is that the whole of humankind is under threat as the number of infections continues to rise, as do the number of deaths.

Under the astute leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African government has acted decisively to contain the spread of the coronavirus. 

This week the Ministerial Advisory Group on Covid-19, chaired by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, presented solid data as evidence that the decisions of our government, specifically of declaring a national state of disaster and imposing a nationwide lockdown, have played a key role in slowing down the upward trajectory of coronavirus infections.

At the same time, government – which has consistently maintained open, transparent and regular communication through various platforms and official languages – has warned against complacency. Our scientists have warned that we cannot escape the worst of the pandemic and that exponential growth is unavoidable. To this end, the lockdown must continue to be observed by all, because social distancing and maintaining proper hygiene are our best and only preventive measures in the absence of a vaccine. 

Lockdowns and quarantines – including self-quarantine – to contain pestilence and disease, are not without precedent. They were employed as far back as the Middle Ages at the times of the bubonic plague, among others. 

Metaphorically, it is like a tsunami heading towards you with nowhere to run. Right now, the only place to hide is in our homes, with no or absolute minimal physical contact with anyone outside this boundary. Today we know far more than we did back then – that minimising physical contact and practising good hygiene is a must if we are to survive this devastating pandemic.

Therefore, we must all #StayAtHome – because lives matter.  

The economic fallout will be substantial, exacerbated by ratings agencies’ downgrades. Coupled with widespread unemployment, poverty and inequality, it is the most vulnerable in society that will feel the impact most. International data has shown that inequitable access to healthcare results in increased deaths, especially among the poor, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.

But we have a plan, an eight-stage response that focuses on screening and detection; primary prevention, social distancing, surveillance (especially of hotspots), tracking medical care and case management, psychological management in bereavement, and monitoring and vigilance.

We can be justifiably proud of our national response that has garnered praise on the continent and beyond. For example, no other country but ours has deployed over 28,000 community health workers to screen and test in communities.  

We must brace ourselves for the next 12-18 months. Over this period, the state must fully mobilise behind the eight-stage response plan. It must ensure supporting policy environment and mobilise financial relief efforts. It must also strengthen institutional capacity and response.

We will hold back the tsunami, but this needs substantial resources – financial and otherwise. Since South Africa is not a beneficiary of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the current extraordinary situation is putting a strain on our already stretched national resources.

However, our country has a rich history of displaying solidarity and pulling together when necessary. Right now, South Africa’s special protective factor or ‘mojo’, as Prof Karim puts it, has to be our solidarity.

It is in this spirit that President Ramaphosa announced the establishment of a national Solidarity Fund to support the effort to contain the coronavirus, and provide the necessary support to those infected and affected by the disease. The president has called on all citizens to contribute in some form.

The Solidarity Fund aims to support those who cannot support themselves during this trying time – assisting our people to stay afloat at a time when millions are living below the breadline. 

The executive is leading from the front. The president, deputy president, ministers and their deputies will take salary cuts to contribute to the Solidarity Fund. Various political parties, including the Economic Freedom Fighters, have also said that their public representatives will take salary cuts. We have seen similar commitments from across our country by, among others,  big corporates, small businesses and academia.

This is our ‘home front’ in action. We may not be at war, but we stand united as though we were.

What about the over two million civil servants tasked with driving the state’s developmental and transformative agenda, and in upholding its social contract with citizens? Before it became a pejorative term, they could best be described as the Mandarins; an advanced detachment engaged in revolutionary acts of transformation while prudently managing scarce public resources. 

In an unprecedented show of solidarity, the Forum of South African Directors-General (FOSAD) has followed the lead of the national executive by committing that each member will contribute a sum of R30,000 to the Solidarity Fund and has called on all senior civil servants to similarly contribute.

The symbolism of this gesture must be seen in the context of the renewal taking shape in the public service. Directors-General (DGs) are leading the way to change public perceptions about government and build a new narrative of a caring and responsive public service committed to advancing the national democratic project. They are leading anti-corruption efforts and managing incompetence, which are necessary steps towards renewing the promise of building a developmental state characterised by a competent, ethical and people-centred public service.

Senior managers, deputy DGs, chief directors and directors play a vital role in this renewal of the civil service. In their ranks are men and women dedicated to the ideals upon which this country was founded, with a commitment to see the economy grow and contribute to changing the lives of our people.

Requiring senior government managers to contribute to the Solidarity Fund at a time of financial strain for all is not about ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ or an attempt to cleanse negative public perceptions about the civil service. 

FOSAD is not forcing other senior civil servants to contribute to the Solidarity Fund. The call for everyone else to contribute, including executive managers in state entities, should be interpreted as a demonstration of civic duty at a time when our country and its people are in dire need of assistance. It is a plea for altruism and empathy at a time when we, the civil service, like every other man and woman in this country, are being asked to sacrifice.

Can we really in good conscience applaud government’s exhortations to corporates in the private sector to donate, or silently approve calls for workers to take pay cuts, only to grumble when asked to do the same? Quō vādis?

We are all in this together. This may not be wartime, but the urgency is no less significant. Together with the workers in our stores, factories, hospitals, police stations and other essential services, our role is to strengthen the government and the national effort until this pandemic is contained. 

We are the home front. Let us stand up and be counted as well. Yes, we are all in this together! DM

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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