Fighting Covid-19: The rise of the premiers


If President Cyril Ramaphosa is the lead actor in South Africa’s Covid-19 disaster epic, it’s his ministers, tasked with drafting and enforcing national lockdown regulations, who are the supporting cast. But in the background, providing the human face and holding the scene together are South Africa’s provincial premiers. 

Provincial hospitals will bear the brunt of the public health crisis of the coronavirus spread. Public schools, overseen by provincial departments, will have to deal with the fallout of a critical loss of teaching time and, in the worst-case scenario, the cancellation of the school year.

Provincial social development and welfare departments will have the unenviable task of handling a food-shortage disaster that will affect the poor and working class if the lockdown limiting movement and the running of the economy continue indefinitely.

Provincial governments are the ones at the forefront of this  Covid-19 fight. The weight of the task ahead sits on the shoulders of provincial leaders.

That’s why it’s no surprise that, according to sources, Ramaphosa is getting some pushback in the presidential co-ordinating council handling the national response to the pandemic.

Premiers in South Africa’s most economically developed provinces (which also happen to be the worst hit by Covid-19 cases) are said to be offering their own solutions, specific to their province, in tackling the crisis, while being guided by the national strategy.

The premiers of the three worst-affected provinces, Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, have not wasted any time in showing they’re capable of leading and being the public face of the pandemic response in their provinces.

From Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s online press conferences and on-the-ground style of leadership and Western Cape Premier Alan Winde’s Facebook question and answer sessions and prompt release of provincial infection statistics to KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala’s exercise tips to keep the mind and body healthy, premiers have been sure to be seen at the forefront of informing the public and boosting morale.

Political analyst and lecturer at the University of Cape Town Sanusha Naidu said the roles and importance of provincial government are coming to the fore during the pandemic in a manner that has not yet been seen in South Africa’s history.

“Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic of this nature and this proportion to see this kind of leadership to emerge in South Africa in the relationship that premiers have with the national, and the national with provincial governments,” Naidu said.

Provincial leaders have gone out of their way to drop the suit jacket and tie and roll up the sleeves in coordinating their provincial response.

They’re embracing technology — live-streaming press briefings and releasing videos on social media — thereby bypassing the traditional media filter and speaking directly to residents.

“They’ve all been very visible. They haven’t been hiding behind their offices. You’ve seen a visibly shaken Alan Winde when the first deaths in the Western Cape were announced. You see David Makhura on the ground being very visible. Even Sihle Zikalala being very visible, especially with the spike in cases there in KZN. And they’re getting the support from their MECs. So it does show that we can do,” Naidu said.

Naidu added that the Covid-19 pandemic will put the ongoing debate on the need and number of provinces on hold for now. The ANC has for some time now been suggesting that the number of provinces be cut.

Naidu said provinces and premiers are showing themselves to be the link between the national government in Tshwane, and local government in every city, town and village in the country.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

Coalition politics and law: The fight over Tshwane

With coalition politics on the rise, particularly in local government, this kind of court case is likely to become more common

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread

Press Releases

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday