With news this week that Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has tested positive for Covid-19, questions have been raised about what precautions are being taken to safeguard President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Around the world, presidents and heads of state have not been spared.
The UK’s Boris Johnson spent several days in intensive care recovering. Brazil’s hard-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, had tested positive despite earlier downplaying the disease. And although Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza officially died of a heart attack, it is suspected Covid-19 was the underlying cause of his death, after Kenyan media reported his wife had been flown to Nairobi to seek treatment.
All three are said to be recovering, and even conducting provincial government business while in isolation at home.
The Presidency told the Mail & Guardian that Ramaphosa is taking measures to safeguard himself from contracting Covid-19, including changing his schedule to conduct more work remotely. However, he is still travelling to assess the country’s readiness as the coronavirus wave hits.
“To date, the president has visited five provinces and the deputy president two provinces since the outbreak of the pandemic in the country, and have had a number of visits to assess government’s state of readiness in terms of healthcare capacity, provision of personal protective equipment and other social services,” said presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko.
“[The protocols] are designed to prioritise people who most need testing kits, which, as you know, are in short supply across the world. These protocols direct that people who are already in hospitals; are health workers exposed to people with confirmed cases of Covid-19; or display symptoms should be tested. Neither the president nor the deputy President currently fits into the above categories,” she said.
Diko said Ramaphosa and Mabuza had not been in face-to-face contact since March, but are in “constant communication and contact telephonically and [through] virtual meeting platforms”.
What the Constitution says
So what happens if the president were to contract Covid-19 and not be able to perform his duties?
Constitutional law professor at the University of Cape Town, Cathy Powell, said the statutory provisions make it clear that there cannot be a power vacuum in the executive and that the line of succession includes the entire cabinet.
“Section 90 of the Constitution gives a long list of people who can step into the role: the deputy president and the entire cabinet before we get to the speaker of the National Assembly. Only then will the constitution run out of options,” Powell said.
She said that although there is a risk of the president not being able to fulfil the duties of the office, the Constitution provides mechanisms to avoid a constitutional crisis.
“If you’re getting into a kind of a crisis where everybody is being wiped out, it’s clear we would have by then have moved into a state of emergency.”
The executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Lawson Naidoo, pointed out a Covid-19-positive president would not necessarily be unable to work.
“We’ve seen now with premiers who’ve tested positive that they’re still able to fulfil their functions because they’re not so ill that they can’t continue to function,” Naidoo said.
Voter registration drives, public education, the demarcation of municipal boundaries and voter turnout could all be potentially affected.
The current term of office for municipal councils and councillors expires on August 4 2021, with legislation stipulating an election must be held within 90 days of that date.
“If it were to come to pass, and the pandemic pans out in a way that we’re not expecting, and it’s practically impossible to hold an election by November 1 2021, Parliament will have to consider legislation to extend the tenure of local government until such time it’s possible to hold an election,” Naidoo said.