/ 14 April 2020

Quo vadis, South Africa?

In the headlights : Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa.


After years of decay and deficiency, the executive has stood up to the Covid-19 pandemic. Its reflexive information campaign has dominated national news cycles; its narrative has sought command over the crisis. The executive’s approach appears to have calmed the national mood. Its reaction has been determined, but where the nation will emerge at the end of the pandemic is unclear.

The declaration of the state of disaster on March 15 has placed democratic South Africa in uncharted territory. In terms of the Disaster Management Act, the executive is afforded sweeping powers. The first regulations issued in terms of the Act on March 18 indicated a bellicose response. Though it included no mention thereof, the regulations paved the way to the national lockdown declared on March 23. Ours would be a securitised path of command and constraint. The department of defence was instructed to “release and mobilise any available resources”. The closure of schools, the limitation of gatherings and visits to correctional and other facilities, as well as a ban on the sale of alcohol, all contributed to a framework of control. Additional directives are increasingly justified by the narrative of a war on the virus.

Given our reality, though, war-like analogies and approaches are dangerous. The evasion of war has been central to the democratic state; our national ethic is one of peace and reconciliation. South Africa’s brutalised long-term and corrupted short-term history have resulted in a traumatic and broken present. Today our state, our institutional capacity, our nation is vulnerable. The reason President Cyril Ramaphosa’s goal is the capable state is simply because our state has not been capable. A frail state cannot easily handle the rhetoric and implications of war. Its effects are unpredictable and often uncontrollable.

Because of its global and exceptional nature, the executive has looked abroad to find ways of dealing with the pandemic. As many others have, South Africa has followed the Chinese path of restriction. But we are not China and although this avenue appears effective epidemiologically, the broader consequences of a strategy based on limitation present compounded implications and begs existential questions. What will the lockdown do to our fragile socioeconomic situation? Our economy has been brought to a standstill. The resulting broad-based downturn, job losses and bankruptcies will have a dastardly effect on us all; the poor will be hardest hit. 

On Thursday April 9, Ramaphosa declared that the initial 21-day lockdown would be extended by 14 days. Lockdown, especially applied to over-crowded informal areas, cannot be a lasting strategy. But a simple return to normality will negate all the costly efforts made by South Africans. When we eventually emerge from the lockdown, the battle will not be over. While it helps to curb the spread of the virus, a lockdown can only really buy time for more extensive plans to be put into place. Without these efforts the benefits of lockdown will be short lived.

The executive’s securitised approach is not sustainable. It needs to evolve. The lasting effects on law and order, presently unknown, could be devastating. The extended lockdown period should be used to develop an appropriate national strategy.

First, we need an all-of-government approach. While the executive may lead the campaign, the judiciary and the legislature have critical roles to play. In true Ramaphosa style, the president has corralled opposition parties to support the efforts of the government. While the state of disaster is no time for antagonism, opposition parties do hold important roles in asking tough questions of the government’s approach and actions.

As for Parliament, its check on the executive has virtually ground to a halt. The Disaster Management Act does not impose requirements on the executive to report its actions to Parliament. The lockdown has come at a time when parliamentarians are required to work with people around the country under the scheduled Parliamentary Constituency Programme. Lockdown must not be used as an excuse by MPs not to execute their mandated oversight of the government’s actions. Direct involvement with the people in a safe or even digital realm will afford MPs critical insight into the realities on the ground. Parliamentarians can move around freely; they are classified as essential services.

When in terms of the new regulations, he intervened in the functioning of the courts, declaring a partial closure, the justice minister, Ronald Lamola, arguably encroached on the powers of the judiciary. In so doing he underscored the need for concordance between the executive and the judiciary during the ongoing crisis.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng rebuked the minister in a letter. He reportedly asked whether the executive’s interpretation of the Disaster Management Act does not afford it “more extensive and restrictive powers” than those provided under the more severe state of emergency. “Even in the case of the state of emergency”, said Mogoeng in an earlier letter to colleagues, “the Constitution, empowers the courts to pronounce on the validity of the declaration … Courts therefore have to stay open”.

Herein, the chief justice reminds the executive that all exercise of power remains subject to the law and the review of the courts. The speaker of Parliament will do well to follow this example. In executing her constitutional duties she must ensure that Parliament continues to function not through the haphazard interpretation of its members, but as an institution. For one, as has been widely suggested, Parliament could establish a committed ad hoc committee that oversees the execution of Disaster Management Act regulations.

In his April 9 speech, Ramaphosa laid out a three-part strategy to deal with ongoing effects. This includes an “intensified public health response”, “a comprehensive package of economic support measures” and “a programme of increased social support”. These measures are welcome. Their introduction, however, does not present a new vision but a response to ongoing problems

Data crunching and statistical modelling are useful tools through which to understand the problem, but these remain inside a worldview of control, suggesting what should be avoided. The executive requires a strategic vision that extends bureaucratic management to chart a path forward. Its orientation should serve the nation by moving from containment to liberation. Such a guiding approach should open channels to salvage our economy and our democracy. We need to ask what is effective while asking what is just; ongoing flexibility is essential.

We cannot simply copy from others who often have different ethical foundations and geopolitical interests. A successful strategy resides in an honest and thorough comprehension of our national realities. Given that fighting the pandemic extends the technical war on the virus, the tactics needed to overcome the broader ramifications must be based around the inherent understanding of self.

China’s authoritarian strategy stems from its national ethic. South Africa’s course of action should be guided by what is foundational to who we are and aspirational to what we strive to become. Instead of a war-like response, our strategy must be charted by the principles and values of our constitutional democracy. This is not only the legal approach, it is also the most just. When the pandemic eventually subsides, our approach to the crisis will have determined where we emerge and who we have become.

Our national strategy must actively involve the public to rally against the virus and its ramifications. In his April 9 speech, Ramaphosa stressed that “an essential part of our response to this emergency is the principle of solidarity … As we emerge from this crisis, our country will need to undergo a process of fundamental reconstruction”.

Civic responsibility, public-private partnerships and ubuntu should lead the way in this process. The public’s response has been encouraging, but the journey will be long. It will also probably be uphill for some time. Nevertheless, crises are opportunities. They are moments of disruption that allow deep introspection and existential realisation. South Africa has struggled with an identity crisis since 1994. Now is a chance like no other to evolve from our historical woes, to put into place a thriving and capable state.