The hungry and members of the homeless community, queue for food parcels near and inside of The Kwa Mai Mai market in the Johannesburg CBD, during a food distribution programme on April 13 2020. Picture: ALON SKUY
The hungry and members of the homeless community, queue for food parcels near and inside of The Kwa Mai Mai market in the Johannesburg CBD, during a food distribution programme on April 13 2020. Picture: ALON SKUY

Before we first heard of a coronavirus in Wuhan I had just completed Jared Diamond’s recently published book Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. As I read it my mind constantly referenced its relevance for SA. As a country we were undoubtedly already in crisis, most of it of our own making: state capture, an incapable state, failure to deliver even the most basic of services, power shortages and flagging investment. Then, wham! Covid-19.

Now, as we digest the easing of the lockdown to reactivate the economy, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement last week that we must not “merely return our economy to where it was before the coronavirus”, but accelerate structural reforms, raises the question: if we couldn’t get done what needed to be done before the pandemic, how can we expect to do so afterwards, when the economic crisis will be amplified?

The temptation is to look at the moment. We are feeling fortunate for having Ramaphosa and his health minister, Zweli Mkhize, to bring calm and responsive leadership that defers to science and evidence. The president’s collaborative leadership style — a source of criticism before Covid-19 — is now appreciated. And Mkhize, the daily voice of the response to the pandemic, provides a humility and transparency that defies the culture of government we’ve come to know.

But is this enough to pin our hopes on? What more do we need in our arsenal to get through these unprecedented circumstances? Diamond provides us with some important touchstones by which we can assess our coping mechanisms. But let me digress to one country that is not among his case studies but of which I have personal experience and which shows the importance of national behavioural factors in influencing the future trajectories of economies.

Some years ago I visited Vietnam to understand why it had so successfully pulled itself out of poverty. In the 1980s, 60% of its people lived below the poverty line, compared with 15% just 20 years later. The Vietnamese had a storyboard of themselves: they spoke of being pragmatic, flexible, forward-looking, independent, good at managing instability and focused. They prided themselves in never having taken compensation from the Americans, though doing so would have been morally justified. They exuded a quiet self-confidence, which some said was born of their success in ejecting significantly more powerful occupying nations.


I left Vietnam feeling that these behavioural attributes had provided the foundation for their successful strategy of “Renovation”. So, on reading Upheaval I was fascinated with Diamond’s approach of extrapolating individual coping mechanisms for nations in crisis. He pulls out 12 factors that psychology has identified as important to individuals and considers their applicability to nations in crisis. The table shows that most of the factors are behavioural, and as with individuals they dominate the successful transition through crises.

How does SA stack up as a country capable of managing crises, using his framework? The critical foundational blocks to coping — acknowledging the problem, accepting responsibility, delineating the problem and honest self-appraisal — have barely featured in SA since the last major externally imposed crisis, the 2008 financial crash. Not only did we waste the lessons from this crisis but the country went into even deeper trauma as a consequence of Jacob Zuma and his cronies. Honesty — let alone honest self-appraisal — was very far from their minds. Instead, a culture of blame and entitlement was exacerbated.

Diamond regularly touches on the theme of victimhood, cautioning against it as a blockage to breaking through problems. Finland provides an apt example. There, the Soviets mounted two wars between 1939 and 1944, with devastating loss of life. Bizarrely, Finland had to pay sizeable reparations to the Soviet Union. It did this because of an overriding national imperative: safeguarding its independence. It went even further and developed a relationship of “trust” with its Soviet neighbour to stave off future risk to its independence. As Diamond writes, “Finland is an outstanding example of honest, ultra-realistic self-appraisal ... Finns had to avoid falling into the trap of letting self-pity and resentment paralyse their relations with the Soviet Union.”

Ironically, the huge economic effort required to reverse the war damage to livelihoods and property, and to pay reparations, became the stimulus for Finland’s industrialisation. Similarly, in the early ’90s South Africans applied the same honest self-appraisal of global geopolitics and the prospect of a clear winner emerging out of the apartheid struggle. As hard as it was — and as disappointed as many people have become — the negotiators brought to the table pragmatism and flexibility while not compromising core democratic values. They successfully brought SA back from the brink and managed a process to take the country from crisis into a period of significant positive reforms.

Importantly, a key actor of that time, Ramaphosa, is leading the country through the current crisis. He is clearly drawing on his previous negotiating experience, building consensus and bridging partisanship. Today, he speaks again of a social contract to take the country out of its corona-induced trauma. 

We have two very recent and diverse historical experiences of crisis: one where honest self-appraisal and pragmatism opened up a democratic future; and the other, just 15 year later, where the denial of values and the country’s underlying problems resulted in embedded corruption and a hollowed-out state, which is now ill-equipped to manage the third and potentially most significant crisis in SA’s short era of democracy.

Which experience will dominate our responses? Upheaval shows that behavioural responses are crucial to outcomes; that refining the coping mechanisms of countries is both a science and an art. Amid the pandemic we have been emphasising science as the means to slow down — and stall if possible — the progression of Covid-19. But to transcend this crisis we may well require more creative responses, with a greater focus on curating those factors that Diamond identifies as critical to coping effectively. Let’s start with honest self-appraisal.

• Cargill is CEO of Strategy Execution Advisers and author of  ‘Trick or Treat: Rethinking Black Economic Empowerment’.

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