This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a raft of relief measures to cushion the economic blow suffered by South Africans in the Covid-19 outbreak. His “extraordinary coronavirus budget” means that R500-billion will be injected into the economy and will be used to prop up businesses — subsidising wages and creating new jobs.
It will also bring relief to people who have been left most vulnerable by the effects of the outbreak.
The South African Social Security Agency, tasked with distributing the expanded grants announced by Ramaphosa, says it expects an extra six to eight million informal workers claiming grants, on top of the 18-million people currently supported by the system.
This extra help is the result of lessons that have been learned the hard way, with a national lockdown sending millions of people to the verge of starvation. Schoolchildren suddenly didn’t get their one meal a day at school. Precariously employed workers lost their income. Companies retrenched or cut salaries. The extreme inequality of this country was suddenly exposed and the government did not yet have a plan to help.
Focus number one has been on the healthcare system, which got a R20-billion injection from the budget.
The World Health Organisation continues to praise South Africa’s public-health response to the pandemic. That praise, however, will be long forgotten if we are not able to meet all our other challenges with the same alacrity.
When so much of our response, health, and economic or social welfare is also dependent on the calibre of the people leading vital institutions, there has never been a better argument for capable public servants who just get the job done. The stories emanating from the Eastern Cape over the past two weeks about how poorly the province is handling Covid-19 are a cautionary tale in this regard. And when so much of the infrastructure in that province is broken, or damn near broken, this ought to be a moment of reckoning for leaders who have continued to enjoy power without accounting for what they have actually done.
This, surely, is an opportunity for the government to just do better. We are meant to place our trust in an already broken and massively corrupt state, handing over much of our rights in return for protection against Covid-19.
Trust is not given. It is earned.
Ramaphosa mentioned a “new social compact”. He also pointed out that nothing will ever be the same again. Certainly, the government should not be the same again. We must use this moment to demand that the government realigns its priorities.