Covid-19: the double national and continental challenge of Cyril Ramaphosa

Its policy of combating the pandemic is drawing more and more criticism, both in the opposition which considers it dangerous for the economy and public freedoms as among the population, who plague the ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco. And yet Cyril Ramaphosa could well mark the history of South Africa, with his management of the pandemic. His case is all the more interesting since he is managing this crisis on two fronts: his country on one side, and the continent on the other in his capacity as President in office of the African Union. In its May 12 edition, the Daily Maverickrevealed that an overwhelming majority of South Africans (85%) had confidence in President Ramaphosa’s treatment of the coronavirus epidemic.

An informal seller sets up his stand while the country has just relaxed the containment measures put in place since March.
© MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

A crucial moment to manage

In this time of health crisis, to which is added an unprecedented economic and social crisis, the value of political leaders is measured by their ability to manage the fight against Covid-19. On the one hand, it is about respecting the right to health of every citizen, while limiting their right to free movement. On the other, it is about taking measures, even unpopular ones, and anticipating the consequences of this pandemic on the daily lives of populations and imagining a post-Covid world 19. The African continent is no exception to this rule . The action of political leaders, heads of state is scrutinized. Their positioning, their action, their decision-making – quick or not, their logic or contradiction, are judged, applauded, even vilified.

With more than 30,000 cases and 650 deaths, South Africa is all the more a case apart from being the country in sub-Saharan Africa most affected by Covid-19. For the past two weeks, the epidemic has progressed rapidly. The University of Cape Town research group Modeling and Simulation Hub Africa (MASHA) predicted that the country could have a million cases of coronavirus and more than 40,000 deaths linked to this virus by November 2020. of these figures, the head of state probably had no choice but to take the strictest measures. The application of such measures was sometimes accompanied by police violence, the Minister of Defense Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula condemned the “abuses” committed on civilians by soldiers, abuses revealed by videos circulating on social networks. Do we have to remember it? Some 3,000 soldiers have been deployed to enforce this total containment.

Address the health crisis without shutting down the economy

By decreeing the coronavirus natural disaster with the triggering of the Disaster Management Act, Cyril Ramaphosa has undoubtedly made the bet to save the maximum of human lives, supported by his Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize. But, under the threat of a historic recession and a serious social and food crisis, the head of state had no choice but to accelerate the return to normalcy. As of Monday, June 1, the country will descend to health alert level 3, which sounds the gradual restart of most sectors of activity but also the reopening of schools and churches. In the light of this recovery, how to measure and judge the action of the South African head of state? Can he get away with it internally when the threat of legal action is real? What trace will he leave in the memory of Africans as President in office of the African Union?

Read also Coronavirus: South Africa, an African country apart?

Target of political parties

“Thank God it’s not Jacob…. (Thank God, it’s not Jacob … Zuma) implying “imagine the disorder that would reign if Jacob Zuma was still in business …”. This expression launched by the journalist Ferial Haffajee has become viral among South Africans. Applauded when he plunged his country into containment to stem the coronavirus pandemic two months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa slowly saw his action questioned, to the point of becoming the target of all critics.

As in all the countries of the continent, the Head of State faced a difficult choice between protecting people and allowing them to earn a living.
© JEROME DELAY / AFP

It should be noted that Cyril Ramaphosa has not really had a break since coming to power in May 2019. At 67, this former millionaire businessman heads South Africa since the forced resignation in February 2018 of Jacob Zuma, pushed towards the exit by the ANC because of the strong suspicions of corruption hanging over him. And as soon as he took power, his measured temperament, cautious in politics and his tendency to favor concertation, often exasperated his detractors.

If on the right, the Democratic Alliance (DA) supported it for a while, the opposition party regretted that the relaxation of the confinement came “too late for millions of South Africans who have already paid the high price for government hesitation ”. “This confinement costs our economy 13 billion rand (670 million euros) every day,” added the head of the DA, John Steenhuisen, denouncing the decisions of “authoritarian people” who “endanger our democracy” . On the left, the Fighters for Economic Freedom (EFF) led by Julius Malema considered that the easing of constraints was too rapid. “Our grandmothers are going to die like the grandmothers of Italy died,” they warned.

Standing out a little more from his predecessor, Cyril Ramaphosa publicly acknowledged, last week, mistakes in the management of the crisis. “Some of the measures we adopted were unclear, some contradictory and others poorly explained,” he conceded.

Read also Covid-19: South Africa questions its strategy

The pandemic management method in question

The questioning of Cyril Ramaphosa is not linked to a lack of action, but rather to his exercise of power. Indeed, it is a question of a “martial” management of the pandemic which can be perceived as contrary to a democratic practice of power. This feeling is linked first of all to the triggering of the Disaster Management Act as well as to the creation of a command structure, the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on March 17. A strong power is exerted there which, in normal times, would be ill-suited to a democracy where concertation, negotiations, transparency are the watchwords. Led by the President of the Republic of South Africa, the NCCC coordinates the national plan to contain the spread and mitigate the impact of Covid-19. If it brings together a little less than twenty ministers and their directors general as well as the armed forces, the police and intelligence which meet regularly, this entity appears opaque and its mode of operation autocratic. This impression is further accentuated by the organization of strictly confidential meetings. The information on decision-making is itself confidential. With this opacity, the question that emerges is who oversees those who coordinate this plan of struggle and to whom is President Ramaphosa responsible?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa dressed in his military fatigues addresses soldiers from the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) at Doornkop military base in Soweto, March 26, 2020, as they prepare to maintain public order during containment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.
© AFP

NCCC, a questionable legitimacy

These questions have the merit of being raised because this NCCC has no constitutional status. There are no legal rules to guide the government in its decision-making. However, as Professor Pierre De Vos, a specialist in constitutional law at the University of Cape Town so rightly suggests, “it would have been impossible for the executive to face the crisis without circumventing the legislator and many checks and balances. imposed by the Constitution on the exercise of executive power. In fact, the Risk Management Act of 2002 (and by extension the NCCC) allows the government to bypass Parliament and avoid many of the official checks and balances on its power. ” In this rather particular context, it would be quite unfair to totally condemn the crisis management of the South African president, especially since since the confinement and then the deconfinement by phase, this one is addressed every Wednesday and Sunday in the South -Africans to report on the situation.

Read also Covid-19 plunges South Africa’s GDP by 7%

Read also Carefully anti-Covid-19 deconfinement in South Africa

Challenges: anticipating economic problems

If the crisis management by Ramaphosa seems autocratic, he also has to his credit his ability to anticipate possible problems regarding the use of the resources mobilized to fight against the Covid-19. A fact which has undoubtedly gone unnoticed would tend to highlight this capacity for anticipation. To understand, it is important to return to the disastrous economic and social contexts of the country. Struggling since the 2008 financial crisis, South Africa has been hit by the recessionary virus, with a collapsing currency, endemic unemployment (29%) and a poverty rate that makes it the most unequal country of the world, according to the World Bank. Without counting a debt of a little more than 60% of its GDP (which could reach 80% in 2021), which limits a little more the room for maneuver to finance the fight against the Covid-19.

A solidarity fund to protect from corruption

To overcome these major difficulties, a Solidarity fund was therefore created on March 23, 2020, the objective of which is to bring together 4 billion rand (2.53 billion rand already obtained and 2.87 billion rand announced) and to work closely with government and the private sector, while being independent of these two entities. This independence is not trivial. As proof, during his speech on March 23, the head of state alluded to possible attempts at corruption.

South Africa has moved to level three of its pandemic management plan. All sectors of the economy, except those at high risk, will be allowed to reopen.
© MICHELE SPATARI / AFP

No one in South Africa has forgotten the years of resource capture and the state capture scandal. President Cyril Ramaphosa therefore had no choice but to reassure potential donors, which the country badly needs. He therefore opted for transparency and put it this way: “I want to make it clear that we expect all South Africans to act in the interest of the South African Nation and not in their own selfish interests”. “We will act very firmly against any attempt at corruption and profits linked to this crisis.”

The president therefore mobilized special anti-corruption units which were supposed to speed up any legal proceedings against the bad guys. It is obvious that the specter of a possible “state capture” cannot be overlooked, especially since the government has launched tenders for the purchase of goods and services to strengthen the health system and ensure support for vulnerable people. By placing this Solidarity Fund outside of state structures and by appointing an independent directorate and a council to supervise it, President Ramaphosa is undoubtedly very cautious.

Read also The renewal of Africa will be political or not

After the national challenge, the continental challenge

By focusing on coordination, anticipation and mobilization, Cyril Ramaphosa has shown seriousness in the quest for the best strategy. An approach that he also tries to implement as President in office of the African Union since the beginning of the crisis. Since taking office, Cyril Ramaphosa has focused primarily on internal affairs, with foreign policy limited solely to the trade and investment relationships necessary to strengthen the troubled economy of South Africa.

President Ramaphosa played the card of the national consensus to convince of the good progress of his action in the fight against the coronavirus.
© JEROME DELAY / POOL / AFP

The AU presidency has forced him to get personally involved, especially since in recent years South Africa has been criticized for its xenophobia towards African migrants. At the head of one of the most affected countries on the continent, Ramaphosa’s requirement and experience in management are not too much for the African Union which has a Center for the Control and Prevention of diseases, CDC. When the AU office was first convened on March 26, the role of this agency was reinforced by Cyril Ramaphosa convinced that only a continental vision and coordination will stop the spread of the coronavirus. AU Bureau member states have contributed just over $ 12 million to an African Covid-19 fund to get started and a pledge of $ 4.5 million in aid for the scientific work of the CDC.

Does the AU benefit from Ramaphosa’s feedback?

Through the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, the African continent appeared more and more united in the face of this pandemic and it was this approach that convinced the international financial institutions, especially when negotiating the moratorium on African debt. The only African member of the G20 and at the same time the head of the AU, President Ramaphosa’s South Africa was able to relay the decisions taken by the AU Bureau. The appointment of special envoys is typical of his leadership style. ” The challenge of this pandemic has shown how Africa can work together to solve its own problems, ”he said recently. Proof that his voice carries on a world level, Cyril Ramaphosa has just contributed to the publication of a tribune with fifty world leadersb including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the President of the Italian Council, the French President, Emmanuel Macron. They are calling for more “resilience” and “cooperation” around the world after the pandemic, during a videoconference held by the UN on financing for development. “We need to be innovative” and “think outside the box” usual, added the president of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, using the antiphons of the Canadian and Jamaican Prime Ministers, Justin Trudeau and Andrew Holness.

Read also The AU chooses four high-flying special envoys against the Covid-19

* Marianne Séverin is a research associate at the laboratory for Africa in the world (LAM), Sciences Po Bordeaux.

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