COVID-19 in South Africa: Leadership, Resilience and Inequality

In a world looking for leadership, South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa has been remarkable. One year after he carried the time-worn ANC through a national election, South Africans are crying out for more.

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Cyril Ramaphosa at NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg where facilities are in place to treat coronavirus patients. Photo by JEROME DELAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Cyril Ramaphosa at NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg where facilities are in place to treat coronavirus patients. Photo by JEROME DELAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

In the COVID-19 crisis so far, Cyril Ramaphosa has been widely praised for displaying the decisive leadership so many hoped for when they cast their ballot for him in May 2019. Buttressed by others such as health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and on a simple objective to prevent transmission, South Africa has been a lesson to the world. Act fast. Act hard.

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous response to the HIV crisis cast a long shadow over his legacy, and Ramaphosa has taken note. South Africa has had one of the tightest lockdowns in the world. No exercise. No cigarettes. No alcohol.

The lockdown was imposed when the country had only around 1,000 recorded cases and just two deaths. As a result, transmission from returning travellers has not yet led to an exponential infection rate within the community. The government’s swift reaction has bought much needed time with the peak now seemingly delayed to September or October.

Continental and national leadership

Ramaphosa has also emerged as a key focal point for Africa-wide responses. As current chair of the African Union (AU) he leads the continental engagement with the World Health Organization (WHO), and the various international finance institutions, while South African officials are working with the AU and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) on a push for African debt restructuring.

He has also been active in trouble shooting to unlock external assistance to the continent, including from China and Russia. Appointing special envoys is typical of his boardroom-honed leadership style.

International and regional partnerships are vital for resilience and the arrival of 217 Cuban doctors to South Africa is strongly reminiscent of the liberationist solidarity of the Cold War era. And regional economies remain dependent on South Africa to protect their own vulnerable citizens. Following the 2008 financial crisis, it was South Africa’s regional trading relationships that remained robust, while trade with its main global partners in China and the US dropped.

Despite the plaudits, Ramaphosa remains vulnerable to challenge at home, notably around his failure to stimulate South Africa’s moribund economy. On the eve of lockdown, Moody’s joined its peers Standard and Poor’s and Fitch in giving South Africa a below investment grade credit rating. The move was a long time coming. Long mooted economic reforms were slow to materialise, and South Africa had fallen into recession.

Ramaphosa depends on a small core of close advisors and allies, initially united in apparent opposition to the kleptocratic rule of President Jacob Zuma and the deep patronage networks he created within both the party and the state. But this allegiance is being tested by economic reality. Support within the party was already drifting prior to the crisis.

Disagreements are not just technocratic – there are big ideological questions in play around the role of the state in the economy, the level of intervention, and its affordability, with key government figures sceptical of rapid market reforms. Energy minister and former union stalwart Gwede Mantashe is wary of job losses, and minister of public enterprises Pravin Gordhan protective of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Before coronavirus hit, Ramaphosa seemed content to allow these policy disputes to play themselves out with little decisive intervention.

Slow progress on reform, against worsening economic performance, left Ramaphosa and his allies exposed. In January the president missed the UK’s African Investment Summit in order to assert control over a party meeting at which it was expected his detractors would seek to remove Gordhan.

COVID-19 has sharpened thinking

As the independently assertive - and eminently quotable - pro-market reformist finance minister Tito Mboweni stated, ‘you can’t eat ideology’. Accelerated reform and restructuring is required if the government turns to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance.

For the first time, Gordhan has been forced to deny a bailout to beleaguered state airline South African Airways (SAA), and the government’s lockdown bailout of R500 billion has been applauded by business. Much like the fiscal stimulus and recovery plan of 2018, it relies on smart spending, targeting sectors with high multiplier effects. It also includes significant reserve bank loans.

But it has been criticised for not doing enough to help the most vulnerable. There is considerable fear of what could happen when the virus takes hold in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements where social distancing is almost impossible, basic toilet facilities are shared, and HIV and TB rates high.

There are mounting concerns of the humanitarian cost of a prolonged lockdown, and the government has been faster than others in implementing a tiered lockdown system, trying to get people back to work and keep the economy afloat.

South Africa has been criticized by the UN for the use of lethal force by security forces in enforcing lockdown and, in a society plagued by corruption, there are fears legislation to stop the spread of false information could be used to restrict legitimate reporting on the virus response or other issues.

COVID-19 shines a spotlight on societies’ fault-lines worldwide. South Africa is often touted as having one of the highest levels of inequality in the world but, in a globalized economy, these divisions are international as much as they are local.

Resilience comes from within, but also depends on regional and global trading and financial systems. South Africans and international partners have long recognised Ramaphosa’s leadership qualities as an impressive voice for the global south.

But he must also be an advocate for South Africa’s poor. This crisis could accelerate implementation of his landmark pro-poor National Health Insurance and Universal Health Care programmes. Or the hit of COVID-19 on top of South Africa’s existing economic woes could see them derailed entirely. Ramaphosa must push through economic reforms at the same time as managing COVID-19 and rebuilding trust in his government.