President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the Department of Health’s data centre. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)
President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the Department of Health’s data centre. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

Covid-19 In SA: The President’s words ring hollow

By Clyde N.S Ramalaine Time of article published Apr 17, 2020

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South Africans, on the 14th day of Covid-19 lockdown, received the news of an extension from President Ramaphosa.

It, perhaps, becomes essential to start assessing SA's state-led leadership on Covid-19 lockdown. Karen White, in her provocative analysis of Thabo M Mbeki, juxtaposes the leadership styles of Mbeki and Ramaphosa in ANC negotiations by citing a period of the Codesa talks during the transition.

According to White: “Ramaphosa brings matters to a head through brinkmanship; while Mbeki works with what is possible, to establish a beachhead for further advances, while Ramaphosa forces a deadlock to shift the balance of power in his direction.”

Political theorists define brinkmanship as “the art or practise of pursuing a dangerous policy to the limits of safety before stopping, especially in politics”. I thought about this as I considered the political leadership choices and hitherto celebration of Ramaphosa and his team for a Covid-19 lockdown.

Suzi Wilson, in an assessment of political leadership for Covid-19, points out the distinct leadership of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Wilson concurs with academic Michael Baker who considers New Zealand as having had the “most decisive and strongest lockdown in the world at the moment” - and that New Zealand is a huge stand out as the only Western country that's got an elimination goal for Covid-19”.

Wilson juxtaposes Ardern's proactive leadership to that of the UK's Boris Johnson and summarises the contrast: “British prime minister Boris Johnson's pre-recorded speech in his March 24 lockdown announcement, that offered no chance for questions from the media, while framing the situation as an “instruction” from government, coupled with a strong emphasis on enforcement measures.

In my assessment, Johnson's address, an hour apart from the Ramaphosa’s address, adopted a pre-recorded speech as his March 24 lockdown announcement, also offering no chance for questions from the media or elsewhere, while framing the situation as an “instruction” from government, coupled with a strong emphasis on enforcement measures.

It can thus be argued that Ramaphosa, like Johnson, was seeking nothing but compliance. Does this translate to pursuing a dangerous policy implementation?

In a twist of events, Ramaphosa is literally a failing president if the economy, increased unemployment rate, lack of true investment, and a failure to implement ANC policies to name a few are made the tools for assessment, before the advent of Covid-19. Today, in some circles, he is celebrated as a hero for having saved the day on Covid-19 immanent in his swift lockdown call.

While Covid-19 is dimming US president Donald Trump's chances of a second term as the days unfold, in the southland of Africa, it came as a proverbial "Godsend" for Ramaphosa, who until now, has failed at every critical area as a president.

While the president is heard in "direction-giving", he is muted in "meaning-making" and "empathy".Ramaphosa remained silent on the abuse served on the poor in townships at the hands of the SANDF and SAPS, four days into lockdown when he addressed the SA citizenry. We waited to hear a president unequivocal in calling for the heads of those who violated human rights and informing SA that he already had met with the respective ministers while expressing his disgust. Right here, the president proved himself lacking in empathy for the township citizenry.

One of my growing criticisms of the series of Covid-19 lockdown presidential announcements is the fact that he steps out and in stoic Teleprompter-aided fashion, shares what he has already concluded with the Covid-19 Command Centre.

The president does so without affording any audience to engage on the rationale of any of the slew of conflicting, less explained, equally less co-ordinated statements.

Now I can appreciate the Disaster Management Act as presenting unique circumstances under which SA is currently governed that affords the executive more discretion and power during this period in order to save lives.

We have seen, since the advent of Covid-19 lockdown, a bevy of ministers in a practical sense wholly out of depth, often arrogant and defensive and in-congruent on a coherent process to assist its citizenry beyond mere compliance.

To explain what I am saying,the person who runs a small business is bombarded with television statements of billions of rand available to assist him at the concept level. This is regurgitated without any practical information as to how the resources ought to be accessed and what criteria qualifies a business for assistance.

On Thursday, the president announced that R354 million had already been availed to small businesses, meaning some businesses already had accessed this. We heard Minister Thulas Nxesi boldly say R30bn is now available for the UIF. What does this mean in a practical sense? Break it down so that we can understand how to access the funds. Tell us what rules apply and what rules are waived for accessing.

While Minister Nxesi tells us the R30bn is ready and available the small business, the guy that has a small government contract with a 90-day period for payment is awaiting and is falling behind in his UIF contributions, directly because of this.

This disqualifies him to accessing the much needed relief this fund offers during these extraordinary times of Covid-19.

The president, at a concept level, tells us he is engaging the banks since the DA proposed a reprieve for four months on consumer debt.

Why are the banks allowed to punish people who have been in arrears, and therefore, denying them access to the reprieve? Where is the president's power to direct the banks on this and where are the ministers to work out the modalities in process with the banks?

It cannot be that governance in a strange sense is suspended and has come to an end where ministers are hiding behind "it’s a crisis".

This postulated disconnect in itself is increasingly testing the patience of the masses and if not arrested swiftly may uncontrollably spill over into the streets. If people decide to defy the lockdown, it may not be because they detest a concept, but the emptiness of unexplained processes.

* Clyde Ramalaine is a writer and political commentator. He is also a SARChi  D. Litt. Et. Phil candidate in Political Science at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media. 

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