Cyril Ramaphosa is managing to keep his balance as he walks the Covid-19 tightrope
Although the number of people critical of the president is rising, there is no doubt he has risen to the challenge and offered visible leadership in a crisis
Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in the world’s economy — and it appears that it is not yet done. Among the countries affected have been the largest and wealthiest to the smallest and poorest, with their economies all stretched to different levels.
Although we have lived through the HIV/Aids epidemic, which was given free reign in this country to cause maximum devastation and claim thousands of lives that could have been saved, thanks to the callous policies of the administration in charge at the time, we have not had to live with as much fear as we do now. We knew then how to avoid contracting HIV, but we don’t know how to avoid exposure to Covid-19. We have been told what to do to reduce or minimise the chances of contracting it, but nobody can say with certainty that he/she will not contract it.
The SA economy, which was already in trouble before the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country, having shrunk considerably in quarter four of 2020 because of Eskom’s load-shedding (which went up to an unprecedented level 6), has taken a huge hammering since then. With the economy shut down in April, with the exception of essential services, and with a limited return to work in May under lockdown level four, there is no doubt that both quarter one and quarter two of 2020 will also record significant negative growth levels. Indeed, we are certain to experience a huge deficit in our GDP for the year.
We will not be alone. Many other countries across the globe are set to have similar experiences. That means that we are heading for a global recession. That is deeply worrying, given the degree of the world’s interconnectedness today, something which, although a great positive, is also the reason Covid-19 has travelled seamlessly from China to different parts of the world.
Thankfully, we have been lucky to have real leadership provided at government level since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the number of people who have been critical of him and the government has been rising steadily in recent weeks, there is absolutely no doubt that President Cyril Ramaphosa has risen to the challenge and offered felt — and even visible — leadership during this crisis. This has contrasted sharply with his apparent reluctance, until then, to take tough decisions that which had the potential to upset some of his supporters within the ANC-led alliance.
SA’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has compared favourably with the way that other countries have reacted to it. While there have since been various controversies raging about some of the regulations that have been put in place by the government, there was hardly a discordant voice that greeted the decision to place the country in a comprehensive lockdown with effect from March 26.
That decision was met with praise from all quarters. Discordant voices started to emerge when President Ramaphosa announced an extension of that level-5 lockdown until the end of April. At first it was the tobacco lobby that shouted the loudest, but then others joined the chorus in the days and weeks that followed. That chorus became deafening after the government decided to move the country to a level-4 lockdown, with some of the tough regulations remaining.
Understandably, business and other economic actors have been impatient with the government and very eager for the lockdown to be lifted either in full or at a much quicker pace. There can be no denying that, necessary though it was, the lockdown has worsened SA’s economic malaise. That is why there is a lot of merit in the calls for the lockdown to be relaxed or even lifted.
However, this is one time when it cannot be easy to be in the shoes of Ramaphosa and his cabinet colleagues. Unlike the official opposition, which can shout from the mountain top about the need for the lockdown to be lifted pronto, without any conditions, Ramaphosa and the government have to walk a tightrope. They have to worry about the effects of the lockdown on the economy, but they must also think of the number of lives which stand to be lost were they to act too hastily.
It is very easy for people sitting comfortably in their suburban homes and mansions to be impatient with the government and to call on Pretoria to lift the lockdown overnight. After all, they have no problem with overcrowding and can isolate themselves easily, should self-quarantine be necessary at some stage, and will have ready access to some of the best healthcare that this country’s private sector can offer.
When one is accustomed to such comfort (which continues to be an undreamt-of luxury to the majority of our compatriots), it is easy to be selfish in one’s outlook.
In a country such as ours, with its ugly past of apartheid, sensitivity is of the utmost importance. Yes, the economy has taken a hammering and steps need to be taken swiftly to open the country up for business and to stimulate the moribund economy, but that must not be seen to be done at the expense of fellow compatriots, especially those without the ability to wash and sanitise their hands on a regular basis throughout the day and to change protective masks every day. Logically, that leaves the government in a position where it has to take calculated risks to open up the economy while also ensuring that Covid-19 is not given free reign.
As many nonpartisan compatriots will agree, the government has done phenomenally well, notwithstanding some missteps along the way and some over-the-top actions and regulations by some excitable and gung-ho cabinet ministers.
Over the past two months, Ramaphosa and his government have given real leadership to the country, and for that they have to be commended. They can never take decisions that will be universally popular. Not only is it impossible to please everybody, but leadership, by its very nature, is not a popularity contest.
In his most recent address to the nation, Ramaphosa also had the humility to acknowledge that there may have been some missteps along the way and to apologise for that. Personally, I can ask for no more than that. I can only wish them well as they continue to deal with a very difficult, unprecedented challenge. They can do with our support, rather than the deafening chorus from the whingers.
• Nyatsumba is CEO of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.