QONDILE KHEDAMA: Epidemics can lead to a long-term loss of confidence in leaders

History has shown us that epidemics can lead to a long-term loss of confidence in the state. Although President Cyril Ramaphosa has lifted South Africa’s state of disaster – with some rules still in effect - the negative impact of the pandemic will continue to haunt us. The COVID-19 impact could be bigger than it seems.

It is an indisputable fact that the pandemic was beginning to erode trust in the political leadership. As the US political commentator Mark Schmitt puts it: “Lack of trust in government can be a circular, self-reinforcing phenomenon: poor performance leads to deeper distrust, in turn leaving government in the hands of those with the least respect for it.”

The first government imbizo held in North West bears testimony to that. The event that took place after the relaxation of COVID-19 regulations was not only overdue, but a phenomenon people have been waiting and yearning for in the past two years. The turnout bares evidence that communities couldn’t wait to physically interact with those they elected to power. The almost universal enthusiasm with sometimes chaotic scenes displayed by participants gathered in a marquee planted in the middle of the capital city Mahikeng summed up what people longed for since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020.

Again, the mood as displayed by participants was notably showing that they couldn’t wait for their government to consult them. It could tell that the pandemic did not only alienate people with authorities but also presented severe communication challenges and not only in South Africa but throughout the world. Marcel Fafchamps, professor of economics and senior fellow at the Centre on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, commented: “Here are some of the changes I anticipate. Please note that many of them were already in the background and could have occurred anyway, but I suspect less fast and less strongly. Civil liberties were severely curtailed during COVID-19. New tools and technologies were introduced to control people better, including phone apps that identify likely social interactions between people.

"These tools will be used by totalitarian regimes to control their population better, on the Chinese model. Furthermore, people working from home will be much harder to organize and much easier to target individually by repression. I therefore anticipate population control to become more efficient and effective, cutting down the productivity gap between autocratic regimes and democracies. As a result, democracy will be on the defensive, its spread will be reversed in many parts of the world, and democracies themselves will infringe more on civil liberties. We are entering a post-democratic era”.

The government’s deployment of different communications techniques such as digitisation of public participation process - now termed e-participation - occupied an important space in enhancing citizen engagement. In comparison to legacy engagement methods, digital engagement continued to offer significant advantages with regard to citizen reach. It saves costs, information is being received immediately and it increases communication symmetry. To realise these advantages, governments must not only create digital versions of existing participation tools, but also develop new participation channels, mechanisms, and metrics. On the flip side, this did not make it easy either for the state to meaningfully engage with communities, rather it in a way paralysed the public policy processes and the ultimate consequences would be a weakened government. Traditional ways of public participation (physical contact) remains a universal and a principle that is accepted by all spheres of government and mandatory in a participatory democracy as practised in South Africa. It is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy and has benefits for politicians, public servants, and civil society.

According to a PLOS ONE research article, since the outbreak in the first quarter of 2020 most governments have been operated in an “emergency mode”. Academics, analysists and media send warning signs at the beginning of the pandemic about risks such as authoritarian power grabs, speeding up surveillance and other "temporary" measures that will eventually outlast the pandemic. Despite the fact that some political actors were indeed ready to exploit crises to change policies or institutions, effective and agile, coordinated, consultative and collaborative approaches among government and nongovernment actors have taken the spotlight. However, public participation in COVID-19 policymaking - using citizen advice in value-laden health policy decisions - has been notably absent. Even routine forms of obtaining public input requiring minimal effort from public officials were most of the time hardly deployed. In most countries there were no efforts of citizen involvement in COVID-19 policymaking. The article further demonstrates that countries such as Scotland, Belgium or Estonia - amongs others - had their fair share in involving citizens in policymaking in general and crisis policymaking in particular.

This point is further elevated by Orkun Saka, visiting fellow in the European Institute, who conducted extensive research on the impact of epidemics on young people’s confidence in those in power and produced thought-provoking results showing that public trust is vital if governments are to effectively lead. Once lost, that trust is hard to win back and cannot be disputed that pandemic opened a gap between authorities and electorates.

At the height of the pandemic different sectors of the community have expressed views through opinion articles, commentary and literature reviews on how the South African government boldly managed the pandemic despite setbacks such as allegations of corruption on PPEs; accolades continued to pour in. One is tempted to implore that the same vigour we have seen during this time be carried out with the same determination. It’s an undisputed fact that the pandemic has exposed long-standing structural weaknesses that have progressively worsened since the global financial crisis of 2008–09 and the World Bank in its reports chronologically details this dilemma.

According to the World Bank’s South Africa Economic Updates - South Africa’s weak recovery is putting pressure on the fiscus. For the first time ever, public debt is now at almost 80 percent of GDP and under the current trajectory debt levels will not stabilise before 2026. However, the current global recovery is helping South Africa, especially the strong rebound in China and the United States - two of its key trading partners. As other emerging markets are recovering faster, South Africa’s economy could have benefited more in 2021 if integration with the rest of the world was stronger.

Deloitte Center for Government Insights executive director William D Eggers says governments aren’t going to be returning to business as usual. “The window of opportunity is open right now, and leaders can make sure the recovery leads to a brighter future.”

The process of “a new normal” is forcing the state to capitalise in making needed changes including reviewing policies in order to provide public service differently and improve service delivery.

In order to inject life salient concepts such as public participation, post-COVID-19 feedback is an important means by which government should react to the plight of citizens. Accountability notes that the effectiveness of government towards its citizens is determined largely by the quality of the feedback mechanisms. In honouring and respecting the “voice of the electorates”, the government cannot delay to tangibly respond after having been presented by constrictions on the matters raised at the re-energised izimbizo to be attended in a meaningful way such as actual delivery of services rather than incomprehensible verbosity.

Qondile Khedama is a communications practitioner, social commentator and writer. He writes in his personal capacity.