First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Out with the old, in with the new: Rethinking everythin...

Defend Truth


Out with the old, in with the new: Rethinking everything in SA, from Covid-19 to our shared future


Dr Phillip Dexter is the Chief Operating Officer of NIH. He writes in his personal capacity.

Unless the government can lead in an honest, credible fashion and get business, labour and the rest of civil society behind it to ensure that we use the Covid-19 crisis to transform our society, we will carry on lurching from one crisis to the next and eventually spiral into decay and ruin.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be the single most powerful influencer of our recent past, the present and our foreseeable future. South Africans were shocked to find themselves back in Level 3 lockdown over the festive season. While it was hardly surprising, given the rapid escalation in the number of infections and deaths over the last few weeks, it has been a rude awakening for many of us.

Yet, this second wave raises a number of questions, among them why were we not prepared for the second wave and why is there no vaccine rollout? As important as these questions are, there are other strategic issues we need to apply our minds to, for even if we make the necessary short-term interventions now and even if the vaccine rollout begins it will not deal with fundamental issues the crisis has brought into stark relief.

Most importantly, unless the government can lead in an honest, credible fashion and get business, labour and the rest of civil society behind it to ensure that we use this crisis to transform our society, we will carry on lurching from one crisis to the next and eventually spiral into decay and ruin.

The first issue we must debate as a society, and which the government seems not to be seized with, is that of understanding that short-term interventions such as lockdowns will not strengthen society to deal with the pandemic and all its consequences.

South Africa needs to debate what can only be described as a post-Covid-19 vision for the country. It has become trite to say that the world will never be the same. As banal as this truth is, it is true, nonetheless. Yet, the government seems to be choosing to respond to the pandemic with short-term interventions.

That would be OK, in a sense. But those interventions often do not seem to make any sense, or are too little, too late. We shut down beaches, but we let malls stay open. We make the sale of alcohol and cigarettes illegal, yet these are freely available illegally. Worst of all, we expect people to behave in particular ways towards Covid-19, but we do not give the same attention to challenges that are as real, or even more direct, threats to lives.

Quite often, those in leadership positions do not set an example by adhering to the very regulations they enact. Sadly, we also see an emerging culture of authoritarianism, brutality and heartlessness from some in positions of power. Government determination to avoid increasing our debt also means that fighting the virus is being done with funds previously allocated to achieving important socioeconomic changes. There is a danger that gains made since 1994 will be lost and the country will emerge with greater levels of poverty than before.

Here is the dystopia we face from now onwards, unless we think and act decisively. More lockdowns, continued social distancing, persistent unnecessary deaths, higher unemployment, poverty and inequality. Apart from having to deal with Covid-19, there will be other viruses. Dealing with Covid-19 effectively and all that follows will mean we must ensure we:

  1. Have a national health system in place to deal with the challenges we face in a humanitarian and egalitarian manner;
  2. Create conditions for social distancing and sanitising in all aspects of our lives, including wearing masks and hopefully some technological upgrade of these asap;
  3. Renegotiate the access to, and use of, public spaces and all private venues, restaurants, bars, etc to ensure that these are not overcrowded;
  4. Renegotiate and change the nature of our relationship to harmful substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and other recreational drugs;
  5. Understand that substance abuse and the abuse of such drugs is a social illness and not a crime;
  6. Ensure that everyone has a home, water, sanitation and so on, and, if their work allows, that they can work from home;
  7. Ensure all learners are able to access education at all levels online;
  8. All live in a safe and secure environment, free from abuse, exploitation and discrimination;
  9. Establish a socioeconomic environment that is fair, just and equitable, including the necessary grants and support to ensure poverty is eradicated. This means redistribution of wealth through direct and indirect taxation, underpinned by public confidence that the funds raised will be managed well and used to systematically reduce inequalities; and
  10. Transform our economy and society to one driven, based and focused on technology, robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, while at the same time ensuring that there is decent work for all.

If we use this period of economic and social restructuring to effect the necessary transformation of our society, we can emerge from this pandemic a stronger, more united, socially cohesive society. We can prepare the next and future generations of South Africans to be ahead of the curve in economic terms and address the social evils of poverty, inequality and unemployment that have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We should never downplay the threat of this pandemic, or the failure of the government to pay as much attention to other pandemics. As it has with gender-based violence (GBV), the government must lead our society in the struggle to defeat all the illnesses we have: physical, psychological, social and economic.

The contradiction is that while the government is mobilising us all to fight Covid-19 it is not doing the same to fight malnutrition, addiction, mental health problems, depression, crime, poverty, inequality, all other health crises and joblessness. This renders the calls leadership makes superficial and even hollow.

Some are even claiming (unfairly) that the focus on Covid-19 is a diversion, distracting us from addressing the underlying problems that the virus is exposing for all to see on a daily basis. That is not true, but if all we do is prioritise fighting the pandemic and we do not use this moment to reset everything, it looks that way.

Transformation must occur at the individual, family, community, local, national and global levels. The government’s responsibility is to create the environment for this transformation to take place. Other social forces, such as opposition parties, business, labour, religious organisations and the rest of civil society are supposed to support the government when it is doing the right thing and challenge it when it is not. We must all take responsibility, but the government of the day must lead, boldly, or it simply becomes the captain of a sinking ship.

Covid is not the cause of all of our challenges, but it has exposed the brutal reality of the contrasting conditions in which we all live. The “Covid moment” must be used, not as an excuse to do nothing or further defer our dreams, but rather as a catalyst for a decisive move towards a more just and caring society in which all have a share of the country’s wealth.

The president, in particular, must lead, as he has in the fight to stop the spread of the virus, in the urgent rollout of the vaccine. But he must also lead in ensuring that we throw out the old and usher in the new. DM


"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]"

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 1

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted