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Olympics of crisis management – SA is competing in a triathlon in fighting the pandemic

Ronak Gopaldas is a political economist, ‘pracademic’, writer and speaker. His work focuses on the intersection of politics, economics and business in Africa. He is currently a Director at Signal Risk and a Fellow at the Centre for African Management and Markets at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

For global leaders who are trying to navigate leadership during the Coronavirus pandemic there are a number of lessons to be drawn from the experiences of triathletes.

The Olympics Games are a joyous occasion which tests the limits of physical, emotional and mental resilience. They celebrate the very best of the human spirit. Sadly, the global Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the 2020 edition of the games will no longer take place. Instead, the very essence of humanity is being tested to its limits, in far more challenging, consequential circumstances. 

We now find ourselves in the Olympics of crisis management as countries and governments battle to keep apace in the toughest races of their tenures. Across the globe, countries find themselves simultaneously battling a trifecta of crises in the political, economic and public health spheres. 

Like a triathlon, which traditionally entails three disciplines – swimming, cycling and running, each demanding a different skill set – global leaders are having to balance the demands required of them at each phase of this pandemic-induced crisis: a triathlon of governance.

The first phase of the race, the swim, is key. It sets the tone for the race and if executed properly can serve as a platform from which to launch for a medal position. Here, speed out of the blocks initially can provide an advantage, but athletes need to be wary of peaking too soon and pouring their energy into only one discipline. The race is long, and failure to judge the distance properly will result in costly mistakes. 

Extending the metaphor to the political domain, many global leaders have managed to rally citizens around common purpose and elevate public trust in their leadership. In a climate of uncertainty, political credibility has rapidly been invoked by their speeches and actions, which have provided reassurance to fearful citizens. By positioning themselves as protectors-in-chief and appearing on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, incumbent leaders have almost universally improved their popularity. 

Leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize have done this both quickly and effectively and ensured compliance with a new social contract. But even though it is important to start well, experienced racers warn that those who come out fast initially do not always win. So, while Ramaphosa’s leadership has rightly been lauded for the assurance it has provided the country, it alone is not enough. It is a necessary but insufficient first step in a multiphased and multifaceted crisis. Two equally – if not tougher – legs remain. Adequately managing the crisis requires masterful execution in all three phases.

In phase two of the race (the cycle; usually the longest segment), technique and skill must be matched with speed. During this part of the race, athletes need to balance mental and physical concerns – not only do they need to take stock of the first phase of the race, they must simultaneously prepare for the next phase, without losing grip with the present. 

Similarly, in phase two of the crisis, technocratic discipline rather than populist leadership will take centre stage. Here, the difference between the optics of leadership and actual leadership will become apparent. It will become clear that visibility is not the same as effectiveness. As the complexities of the crisis begin to hit home, facts will matter more than feelings. This is likely to become far more relevant as the juggling act between lives and livelihoods becomes the critical conundrum for policymakers. 

Herein lies the challenge for South Africa: having ostensibly done well and set a steady and strong pace in the first leg of the race, the question is whether it can straddle the correct balance in phase two.

On the healthcare front, South Africa’s strategy thus far has been compelling, drawing praise from bodies like the World Health Organisation. The combination of rapid and widespread testing, proactive decision-making and heightened collaboration between the private and public sectors in formulating solutions has impressed. Tellingly, health minister, Zweli Mkhize – a medical doctor with deep knowledge and expertise in the field – has adopted a collaborative approach and communicated effectively and transparently. His strategy has leaned on experts to guide and formulate appropriate policy responses that factor in the pre-existing socio-economic obstacles to the virus containment effort. 

Economically, however, South Africa’s response has been slower and less decisive than required. With the country facing its most acute crisis in decades and the prospects of business failures and job losses mounting, the government’s guidance and plans to offset the fallout had left a lot to be desired – up until Tuesday’s revelation. Though delayed, the bold fiscal measures (totalling R500-billion) were a welcome relief – despite concerns about implementation. More clarity is still needed around which strategic sectors of the economy will be reopened, and how and when this will happen, but a sense of urgency on the economy seems to finally be upon the administration.  

The point here is that it cannot be a binary approach – the economic and public health imperatives are interlinked. In much the same way that transitions between disciplines on race day need to be smoothly managed, South African policymakers will need to establish a harmonised and effective approach to handling the joint health and economic dynamics. 

Remaining in contention during the last leg of the race requires successfully navigating the first two parts. This part (the run) is about stamina and endurance. Important is that athletes need to keep one eye on the finish line. With fatigue setting in, the challenge is not only to keep spirits high, but also to keep momentum going. 

In governance terms, what does this mean?

The final stage of the race is the long term. With an eye on what happens post-crisis, policymakers will need to ensure that the damage to their economies is kept at a minimum, and that they use the crisis to ensure greater public investment, increase transparency and accountability, and provide policy certainty and meaningful reforms. Winning countries are those that are able to simultaneously manage the slowdown, co-ordinate healthcare, and rally their citizens.

For global leaders, there are a number of lessons to be drawn from the experiences of successful triathletes. 

First: flexibility. In the same way that triathletes adapt to changing conditions during the race, so too must policymakers adapt strategies, mobilise resources and prioritise effectively in a way that is responsive to a rapidly evolving and ambiguous environment. 

Second is understanding that a race can’t be won with one strong discipline, but it can be lost with one weak one. This is critical – focusing energy and resources on different areas at different intervals and prioritising effectively is something that both athletes and governments need to do to achieve their desired outcomes. 

Third, while learning and observing from others is important, each country – like athletes – needs to understand its own strengths and limitations and race its own race. In this sense, it is important to customise policy responses with a sound appreciation for contextual factors.

South Africa has already embarked on its triathlon and was quick out of the blocks, but needs to be aware that the race goes beyond the swim. While there has been positive progress, the pandemic is far from over and will require continued collaboration and coordination to overcome. More important, the country needs to develop consistency in the sound public health response, collaboration and coordination in the political and policy response – and urgency, decisiveness and transparency in the lagging economic response. 

As a country that has emerged as a torchbearer for crisis management, South Africa could yet emerge at the finish line in a medal position. But doing so will require the combination of speed, skill and stamina – a core skill set that is equally relevant to policymakers as triathletes. DM


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