The arrival of a new coronavirus to our shores called Covid-19, after having wreaked havoc in the world’s most advanced countries, could not have come at a worse time for President Cyril Ramaphosa. His presidency might well be defined by how he handles this crisis, writes Pieter du Toit.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the French phrase force majeure as denoting an event beyond one’s control, almost an act of God. It also explains it is a recognised legal concept often inserted into contracts by companies in order to absolve them of liability if they are unable to fulfil its terms due to uncontrollable events.
A mere three weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa was almost wholly consumed with his government’s attempts to rescue a terminally ill economy, weighed down by the misfiring electricity utility company Eskom and the mismanaged national carrier SAA. His finance minister Tito Mboweni had again delivered a morbid national budget, announcing that dramatic cuts to government spending, including the health budget, would be needed to stabilise the fiscus.
And everyone was preparing for the protracted battle between the state and its employees after government also announced its intention to start throttling public sector wages. All of this against the backdrop of the looming and expected downgrade of South Africa’s sovereign rating by Moody’s Investors Service, the last of the three major ratings agencies that still gave the country a wide berth.
Today Ramaphosa is facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his presidency in having to marshal strained state resources to fight a pandemic that has overwhelmed cities and countries far wealthier and societies immeasurably further developed than our own.
The novel coronavirus, which leads to the Covid-19 disease, has forced Italy into a national state of emergency last seen during the Second World War, ravaged one of China’s major industrial centres and has shut New York City down completely. It has forced the United Kingdom to prepare for the worst, led to Spain revisiting the destruction of its civil war and compelled Germany to release $600 billion in emergency funding.
It’s no stretch to say that even though our hospitals aren’t yet collapsing under the pressure of tens of thousands of sick and dying people, preparing for when this comes to pass is Ramaphosa’s biggest test since becoming head of state.
Infections have skyrocketed over the past week. Last Sunday, there were 51 confirmed cases. That number increased by almost 400% in less than seven days and last night stood at 240.
Our rate of infection tracks that of countries like France, Spain and Germany who, once they breached 100 confirmed infections, within days cleared 200 infections.
Three days after breaching 100 confirmed cases, South Africa was at 240.
By comparison, France stood at 204, Germany at 262 and Spain at 259. Italy, one of the worst affected globally, registered 453 cases and the United States 336.
And then the curve started to steepen.
Building a national coalition
It has been a week since Ramaphosa made the dramatic evening announcement that he was declaring a national state of disaster, imposing a range of measures designed to prevent the spread of the virus. It was followed by a lengthy briefing on Monday attended by 18 ministers, each announcing similar arrangements which their departments would be implementing, including the closures of schools and universities.
There have been daily, if unpredictable and erratic, announcements by the Department of Health about our steepening rate of infection, with Health Minister Zweli Mkhize meeting with representatives of the different medical associations and visiting Bloemfontein, where a potential catastrophic incident of infection was recorded.
Ramaphosa himself has been at pains to rally broad support for his efforts, holding a no-holds-barred meeting with opposition political leaders in Tuynhuys on Tuesday. And whatever he told them in one of the conference rooms just to the side of the main entrance hall to the old Dutch governor’s weekend pile, it scared the bejesus out of then, because they all came out grim-faced and echoing everything Ramaphosa said.
On Thursday, at a similar meeting at the presidential guest house at the Bryntirion executive estate in Pretoria, he managed to convince organised religion to send their flocks home and to refrain from holding gatherings while uncertainty about the disease abounds.
This week it will be the turn of big business and labour who will be implored to join Ramaphosa’s national effort, although it is understood that he has already been in informal contact with representatives of the big banks and certain financial institutions in order to help prepare an economic response to the disease, which is already doing enormous damage to the economy.
John Steenhuisen (DA), the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, said afterwards he has confidence in Ramaphosa’s ability and his approach to the unfolding crisis. “I would have done exactly the same as he has done in the same situation. I think he is doing a really good job and he needs our support.”
According to two officials with direct access to the president, there wasn’t one single event that pressed the president into action, and he has been following the outbreak of the virus closely since it escalated, first in China and later in Italy.
One explained that the president wants to avoid the declaration of a state of emergency, but that it would be on the table if the situation escalated to such an extent that the country’s health system threatens to collapse.
The other official indicated Ramaphosa isn’t prone to rash or impulsive decisions and that he based his decisions on proper analysis of current events and the possible repercussions of inaction.
And according to an initial epidemiological analysis of the virus’ trajectory in South Africa, the country’s health system could be completely overwhelmed if drastic interventions weren’t undertaken, with projections of infections and deaths reaching hundreds of thousands.
A wartime president
A columnist in The New York Times this week wrote about that country’s delayed response – thanks mainly to President Donald Trump’s neglect to take the pandemic seriously – and how it can extricate itself from the hole it has dug.
During the Second World War, he wrote, one of the Ford Motor Company’s factories churned out a B-52 bomber every 63 minutes as the whole country ramped up its collective war efforts. Why don’t companies, faced with the destruction of a faceless and colourless virus, do the same with the production of protective equipment like masks, aprons and gloves so desperately needed by today’s front-line soldiers, doctors and nurses?
The same could be said for South Africa.
Although Ramaphosa has been visible and vocal since the escalation of the crisis seven days ago, he is going to have to whip his ministers into something resembling urgency and efficiency. And he’s going to have to execute any and all interventions with a mostly broken and otherwise creaking machinery of state.
It is almost inconceivable that a minister like Fikile Mbalula, who has never been effective or serious about executive office, will be able to manage the country’s vast transport system, a system which will serve to be Covid-19’s most effective conduit. And there’s Lindiwe Zulu, minister of social development, someone who will have to manage the social fallout of a national epidemic, seemingly off shopping and prancing around in a video on Twitter saying she simply cannot bear remaining in voluntary social quarantine.
And then there’s the country’s public hospitals, largely and woefully mismanaged and underfunded, despite the heroics of hundreds of doctors, specialists and nurses waging a daily battle against a system which each year seems to be regressing further and further.
Just this week the Division of Revenue Bill – the act of Parliament that implements the national budget – was passed by the National Assembly. In it the health budget was cut by almost R4 billion, while SAA was given a bailout of R16 billion.
Ramaphosa’s presidency might well be irrevocably shaped by the way in which he handles this crisis. Some weeks ago, the same was said of his pending battle with public sector unions.
But the force majeure of a virus which emanated in China and spread throughout the known world, causing death and misery likened to the Spanish Flu of a century ago, means domestic crises and palace politics – in and of its own major, career-ending challenges – will now be deprioritised.
And where developed countries can call on an efficient public service and infrastructure, vast reserves to fight the pandemic while saving their economies, Ramaphosa has no such luxury. A decade of corruption, poor governance and mismanagement has seen to that.
It’s a perfect storm for Ramaphosa, its his Hurricane Katrina.
Hundreds, if not thousands of people, may die while he is president. The economy, already emaciated and weakened, could crater further. Our health sector could collapse. In order to prevent this, the president must be uncompromising, something which goes against his grain.
Ramaphosa needs to accept he is now a wartime president. And the virus is the enemy.
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