On 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa stood in front of the nation and proclaimed solemnly, that South Africa would be going into a national lockdown as a matter of necessity to counter the threat of an uncontrollable spread of COVID-19. During that speech, which won acclaim both locally and abroad as an augury of leadership on his part, the President spoke at length about how South Africans, working together, would be able to triumph against the spread of the virus. Almost all South Africans embraced the strict restrictions imposed on the understanding that a strong social partnership was required to allow the public health system an opportunity to adjust to the new reality. Most South Africans stayed at home as directed and avoided unnecessary travel. Those deemed to be essential services had the rare privilege of witnessing a country under lockdown, with roads being empty all round.
Three months later, a different picture has emerged. Along with a seeming explosion in South Africa’s numbers of infected and a slowly growing death rates, many South Africans have now entered into a difficult relationship with lockdown regulations. Many do not see the logic in the regulations and simply refuse to abide by them. Though many observe the necessary safety and health protocols, such as social distancing, the wearing of masks and the sanitising of hands, there is, more and more, a grudging sense that government does not really know what it is doing and risking the livelihoods of many for no discernible benefit. The continuing conversation about schools closure is perhaps most emblematic of the deteriorating confidence that many have in government.
Largely this is understandable as COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of what everybody thought was sacred. Suddenly we are all confronted with the reality that government has the power to intrude into our freedoms in ways that those born after 1994 could not think possible. The universality of the rules means that even those who have never known restrictions on their freedoms are faced with the reality that our freedoms can be curtailed for the common good.
Business is perhaps the most shaken, as Ramaphosa’s government , which came on the scene promising a partnership with business and labour, has largely failed to live up to expectations. While labour already got its rude awakening when the public service salary increases were not effected in April, business is finding that a lot of what has been promised by Ramaphosa and his governing coterie by way of increasing consultations and a listening posture are nothing but platitudes. The alcohol and tobacco industries have probably borne the worst of this, with bans imposed on the trade in tobacco and alcohol products without even so much as a hint from those in government. Even worse, government has then refused to give any clear direction on when these sectors are likely to return to trade, which would allow them the means to plan and make the necessary provisioning for their sectors.
Even though many South Africans may sympathise with the difficult balancing act that governing has to embark on to save lives, many are questioning the extent to which government sees South Africans as partners that can be properly trusted to do their part in dealing with a common enemy. The business sector will be especially annoyed as it has firmly supported the Presidency of Ramaphosa, despite some of the misgiving that many have had about his government’s ability to decisively confront the challenges facing the country. Tragic as COVID-19 is for all South Africans, it is nonetheless an opportunity for South Africa to reset and chart a new path for its growth and development. The Finance Minister has been very clear that South Africa needs to take hard decisions now in order to avoid being forced to do so later. Perhaps the President may want to listen closely to his Finance Minister and realise that any hard decisions will require partnership for them to be palatable. Akin to the adage that ‘nothing about us without us’, any sacrifices required of South Africans must be properly canvassed with South Africans, even those whose objections can be foreseen. This will help to counter the perception of ‘ad hoc-ery’ coming into decision making and hopefully dampen the annoyance that many have about irrational decisions, however, beneficial these will be in the long term.