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JUDITH FEBRUARY: This is what SA needs until we turn the coronavirus corner

opinion

South Africa now sits in the midst of a near perfect storm - battling a pandemic and load-shedding all at once.

Is there any wonder that President Ramaphosa looked weary when he addressed the nation on Sunday night, smack bang on time at 8pm?

The tone has decidedly changed. When the country went into hard lockdown towards the end of March, there was a sense of solidarity. We were all staying home for the sake of each other. As time has worn on and as the toll on the economy became greater, South African spirits have flagged.

It did not help that government made a few lizard-brained decisions along the way. The continued ban on cigarettes has produced a lucrative underground market which people openly profess to be utilising. When churches opened it felt as if the risk-adjusted strategy was undermined. There have been many reports of churches reopening with hundreds of people in attendance. Lifting the ban on alcohol despite the dire warnings from trauma doctors around the country was unwise. One can still go to the cinema and a casino.

And so here we are in the midst of a health and an economic crisis. It is predictably bearing all the hallmarks of the features of South African life. We are, after all, a country of serial rule-breakers. So, when Ramaphosa sternly warned us about masks, social distancing and pointed out errant behaviour, it came as no surprise.

In a country where actions rarely have consequences, the failure to adhere to rules must come as no surprise to Ramaphosa or anyone else.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is back in her position after being suspended for two months for breaching lockdown regulations.

As usual too there are ‘holy cows’, the industries the government refuses to take on, for instance, the taxi industry. How is it feasible to allow 100% occupancy for short taxi trips and 70% occupancy for long-distance travel? Long-distance travel ought to be an exception and one is no less likely to become infected with the coronavirus in a sardine-packed taxi en route to work than one is travelling in a long-distance taxi, surely? It is pretty obvious that government does not want to take on the taxi industry for fear of a violent backlash. The recent truck drivers’ strike is evidence of how very quickly shutdowns and violence happen in this country.

There have also been reports of COVID-19 funding being stolen and five people were arrested in Pretoria while police confiscated vehicles allegedly bought with relief money.

A new low in the time of a pandemic surely? Though in South Africa, we always seem to find new lows.

So, in the midst of this confluence of the contradictory, it was always going to be tricky balancing livelihoods, reopening the economy and the pandemic itself.

We have to ask some serious questions about the state of readiness of some hospitals in Gauteng as well as the crisis that is unfolding in the Eastern Cape. What was done during the hard lockdown to prepare hospitals for the inevitable surge in coronavirus cases?

We are in the midst of the storm and somehow, we will emerge from it. But when all this is eventually over, South Africa faces economic devastation, hunger and deeper levels of inequality.

Ramaphosa has committed his government to re-establishing the social compact between government, business and labour.

What this pandemic has shown us is that we have to do more to ensure that the nexus between government, business, civil society and citizen groups is strengthened, thus enabling us to work collectively towards a society that is more just and less unequal.

This pandemic has shown us how desperately we need a capable state.

It has also shown us that different sectors can no longer work in isolation. If we have any hope of succeeding in the future, we need to combine public and private resources and expertise, where appropriate.

Last month the indefatigable Health Minister Zweli Mkhize called for a ‘grassroots’ fight against the virus as he launched the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Social Behavioural Change. It includes faith-based organisations, trade unions and civil society.

“The fight against COVID-19 is going to be won at home, in a church, in a taxi, on the streets, in a restaurant… and in every part of our social lives. It is not about whether there is a curfew or there is a policeman watching your movements. This is now about every South African taking the fight on,” Mkhize said.

It took a while for government to get to this point.

It skipped a beat right at the start with the failure to include community workers and local leaders as they attempted to educate citizens about the dangers of the virus. Public information campaigns have been too little, too late and not as pervasive in all areas as they ought to be. The ‘top down’ approach so loved by our inefficient state simply increases citizens’ scepticism and also provides ample opportunities for fed-up citizens to breach regulations.

But, it needs to be more proactive in partnering with communities. Mkhize’s MAC is a first step. Government’s focus should now also be a far-reaching, single-minded 11-language campaign to educate people about this virus. It should reach everyone - rich and poor, young and old.

It will be a while until we turn the coronavirus corner in South Africa and around the world.

We face multiple crises at present, chief amongst them are livelihoods and the economy. Many of our previously self-inflicted wounds are now here to haunt us in dramatic ways. They now require an urgent tourniquet.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february