President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: KOPANO TLAPE/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: KOPANO TLAPE/GCIS

Just a month ago in Africa’s largest economy, a reform that seemed impossible became possible. Nigeria ended subsidies that kept petrol prices low.

The government needed the revenue to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. It also began to make moves to reform its currency exchange rates and diversify its economy from a dependency on oil exports.

Across Africa, long-delayed reforms in governance are suddenly on the table. Both the challenge of the pandemic and the prospect of the continent’s first recession in more than 25 years have put leaders on notice. Even before the coronavirus crisis is over, civic activists and international creditors are demanding deep reforms in badly managed regimes.

In SA, this desire for structural change was echoed in a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also serves as the head of the 53-nation AU: “We are resolved not merely to return our economy to where it was before the coronavirus, but to forge a new economy in a new global reality.”

However, comprehensive reforms face a formidable obstacle in SA. It is well-documented that, after 26 years in power, the governing ANC is bloated with corruption and incompetence. Breaking its inertia will be a challenge even for Ramaphosa, who carries enormous credibility as a chief architect of SA’s democracy and for his success in business, but who seems little inclined to buck his party.

Then there are external constraints. For the first time, SA has asked for financial aid from the IMF to help support a post Covid-19 stimulus package. Nigeria has already received the largest IMF package for an African country — $3.4bn. 

African nations will need to draw on their previous experiences in making significant reforms. For SA, the relevant lesson is a recent one — the early post-apartheid years of the late 1990s when new institutions were formed.

The virus crisis is liberating many Africans to demand greater resilience in their societies. There is no shortage of ideas from civil society and financial institutions about how to build a stronger post-pandemic economy.

With the coronavirus exposing weak governance in Africa, its people are also tapping their strength to fix it. /Boston, May 21

Christian Science Monitor

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