Jabulani Sikhakhane | Covid-19 has shown us one thing: Politicians know little about SA

Jabulani Sikhakhane (supplied)
Jabulani Sikhakhane (supplied)
  • Politicians and civil servants have displayed that their understanding of the economy falls short of what's required to change the country for the better, says Jabulani Sikhakhane. 
  • A government that knows very little about the complex interlinkages in an economy cannot make sound economic policies to grow that economy - rather, it runs the risk of ruining it. 
  • A government must also understand the country's people. People don't just change their behaviour because they are told they must. 


South Africa’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that politicians and civil servants know very little about the country they govern.

Their knowledge of the workings of the economy, specifically its complex interlinkages, as well as how the majority of the people live, falls far short of what’s required to change South Africa.

A government that knows very little about the complex interlinkages in an economy cannot make sound economic policies to grow that economy, let alone change it to achieve certain socio-economic objectives.

Rather, it runs the very real risk of destroying that economy. That’s because changing the structure of an economy, that is the composition of its sectoral parts, as well as transforming it to ensure greater participation by all citizens is a much more complex and tricky undertaking.

As a start, it requires policymakers to know very well what is it that they have, well before they seek to change it into something else.

Also, a government that knows very little about how its population lives and makes a living, has no hope in hell of mobilising that population to stem the tide of a pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the South African government – all three spheres of it – know very little about the complex interlinkages in the economy. Let me pick just one example, informal waste collectors.

You would expect at least three national government departments, plus provincial governments and municipalities, to have a keen interest in informal waste pickers and their activities. They ought to have a good idea of their role, specifically how they fit in into the waste recycling value chain. You would expect this from a government that professes deep interest and desire to change the lives of the poor, especially Africans.

The national departments are Environmental, Forestry and Fisheries, Small Business Development, and Trade and Industry. Environmental affairs’ interest in informal waste picking is pretty obvious. And so is Small Business Development’s. Ebrahim Patel and his Trade and Industry officials should know what happens to the waste: to whom do the informal waste collectors sell it to, who processes it and to what end. Lastly, does that waste, in raw or processed form, get exported?

But the way government shut down the informal waste collectors at the start of the lockdown showed a lack of understanding of their role in the economy. This, despite the fact that there’s plenty of research that has been done on the role of the informal sector, including work done by state-owned entities such as the CSIR.

Environmental Affairs has a Waste Picker Integration Guideline for South Africa which supposedly forms the basis of government support for waste pickers. The Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) also reportedly has initiatives to assist waste pickers.

But when Cabinet decided to shut down informal waste picking activity, it appears that the ministers responsible for environmental affairs and small business development didn’t flag the plight of informal waste pickers and their role in keeping the country’s environment clean. A more generous interpretation would be that it simply wasn’t uppermost in their minds.

That’s why the ANC’s proposals to reconstruct, grow and transform the South African economy run the risk of not achieving much (that is if we are lucky), or, if luck is not on our side, a destruction of the South African economy.

Government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed how little government knows about how South Africans go about their daily lives.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa threw some tough words at the nation this past Sunday, he showed a lack of knowledge that behaviour is a complex phenomenon. It is influenced by various factors, within the individual and beyond. It is a government’s responsible to understand those factors and develop a toolkit of how it can change behaviour in times of crisis. Clearly, government went into Covid-19 with no such toolkit. Nor has it developed any since.

The art of persuasion

People don’t change their behaviour simply because government has proclaimed that they must. It takes a lot of persuasion, and to persuade successfully, government must have a good understanding of what informs the behaviour it seeks to change. Most importantly, government must understand what are the barriers to the change it seeks to bring about.

It would therefore help if government officials walked the streets regularly to interact with people who run businesses, both formal and informal. They also need to know their fellow South Africans better than they know themselves. Fellow South Africans should be fellow South Africans not only in presidential addresses to the nation.

The very best of activists understood this very well in the 1970s and 1980s. Those involved in the Durban Housing Action Committee, for example, knew that no speeches and slogans about the racist minority regime were going to get communities to join the struggle against their oppressors. Activists had to mobilise communities around their day to day experiences, and from there demonstrate to those communities how their daily experiences linked with the broader struggle against the apartheid regime.

The same applies to the fight against Covid-19. Covid-19 is the big invisible enemy. Messages about flattening the curve or the need to reduce pressure on the healthcare system make no sense to an average South African who is pre-occupied with how to feed his or her family. It’s worse for a South African who has had very bad experiences of the that public healthcare system.

Today, government officials can learn a thing or two from economist Wandile Sihlobo. His knowledge and analysis of what’s happening in the agricultural sector is richer because of the insights gained during his visits to farmers across the country.

He picks up nuances that are absent from the dry statistics about the sector, or even better, he picks up things that have yet to show up in the statistics. Above all, he develops good rapport with farmers.

Jabulani Sikhakhane is Deputy Editor of The Conversation. Views expressed are his own. 

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