Q&A with Tinyiko Maluleke: The ironies of the impact of coronavirus on Africa

The are ironic results for Africa since the coronavirus outbreak - but will they last after the pandemic is over?

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the Africa Trade Investment Forum in Sandton. Picture: GCIS.


Political analysts say the drastic measures being taken by African countries to minimise the spread of coronavirus could spur the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement into motion sooner than expected – and see countries being forced to keep those conditions permanently once the pandemic is over.

They include travel bans on European countries and holding virtual meetings with multilateral organisations, saving millions.

In a question-and-answer session with Eyewitness News reporter Nthakoana Ngatane, the University of Pretoria’s professor Tinyiko Maluleke has spoken about the ironies of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Africa.

Is it truly ironic that African countries are imposing travel bans on former colonial powers?

Yes that is indeed an amazing irony, the fact that African countries can halt the entry of people from the so-called first world into their countries, but I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures. I don’t think any single African country would have chosen and wanted to be in a position where they are forced to choose this line of action for economic reasons mainly, because African countries have continued to rely on tourism from the first world and would not have dared think about this in peace times, but these are not peace times, one has to understand that irony in that context.

Is it safe to say coronavirus has forced African countries to face the reality that trade with Europe is dispensable if necessary?

I wouldn’t want to read too much positivism into this decision of African countries to issue travel bans for first-world countries or former colonial powers. I would like to see it as a pragmatic move that is probably going to be temporary and not something that is going to last for too long.

That said I must say that pandemics and epidemics like coronavirus have the capability to force societies and governments to venture into areas and innovate into areas that they may not have thought to. Think of the influenza virus in 1918, prior to that we didn’t have a department of health that cut across the whole country, so pandemics can make people innovate themselves into areas that they had never thought about. It has the possibility to make us change and perhaps even change permanently.

Governments are holding virtual meetings with multilateral organization, surely this means ordinary citizens have ow seen what they are capable of, and are now empowered to demand that their countries spend less on travel for example, and focus more on intracontinental cooperation and trade?

Certainly, and these capabilities were always there. It was always unnecessary for a long time to go to Geneva and to go to all these places to have meetings which could have been held virtually because of the facilities that are available. So we are going to now to discover a lot of possibilities that we were neglecting and many of them are already available and who knows maybe the dream of the free trade area in Africa needed something as dramatic as coronavirus to be taken seriously by the very people who have been talking about it for so long.

There has been a lot of unnecessary spending in terms of travel but also a lot of neglect of resources that are already available. I’m talking about technologies for meetings and technologies that could help the agri-sector which in my view African countries will now have to rethink carefully about how to leverage.

I think our eyes are open; we know that it is not necessary for our ministers to travel as often as they do, we know that trade across the border maybe more possible and more profitable than trade with China, as important as China is in the global economy.

Are we likely to see citizens demanding that the measures that their countries have now taken be made permanent?

Africans may demand, I don’t think we are there yet, the feeling across the globe at the moment is one of shock and panic, the actions that are being taken are knee jerk, and not well thought out. But that’s fine because my sense is that should we be able to break the back of the coronavirus in a month or two, you will hear much more serious discussions between and among Africans about the kinds of things on which we spend money and about the kinds of dreams about which we are willing to talk forever and not doing anything.

This is also true regarding improving the health systems on the continent in Southern Africa and seeing how interdependent we are and focusing more on public services that are not there at the moment because the coronavirus is going to hit us because public services are weak and one of those conversations that we are going to seriously have is what is going to be done to strengthen this, and how we are going to spend differently.

Tinyiko Maluleke is a leading and internationally-recognized researcher in his field, specialising in religion and politics, as well as black and African theologies.