OPINION: Ramaphosa’s handling of Covid-19 and the complexities of statesmanship

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President Cyril Ramaphosa at the end of his address to the nation on Thursday. (GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa at the end of his address to the nation on Thursday. (GCIS)

These first steps do not go far enough given the desperate socio-economic conditions of our society. People of South Africa have to go back to work soonest - and education has to continue, writes Phumlani M. Majozi.  


Statesmanship is no simple task. Those who have practiced it attest to the complexity of the profession.  

The journey to statesmanship alone is a gruelling one in politics.

One needs to have a clear vision and agenda if they want to become a successful statesman one day. Hence, not everybody in politics succeeds to become an influential and successful statesman.  

Statesmen operate in challenging environments plagued by competing interests. Determination is a prerequisite to getting anything done for the public good.  

They are endlessly scrutinised, their decisions analysed and held to account on a daily basis. 

Because of the daily barrage of criticisms statesmen endure - it is crucial that they project calm as leaders - especially in times of crises. 

At Harvard University back in 2012, American former Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger said that there is a difference between an observer and a participant in the international affairs of a country. 

Among the observers are journalists and academics. They analyse the affairs of the country. As observers, they have a luxury to change their opinions anytime they want.  

A statesman, Kissinger says, is a participant serving in government - and does not have such a luxury. He has to implement, act, as crises land on his table. Given the pressures, sometimes the urgent will be given more attention than the important.  

As a statesman, not everybody will admire you. With the decisions you make, you draw admirers, but also create enemies for yourself.  

Throughout his stellar and controversial career as a diplomat, Kissinger also argued that often, statesmen are faced with a situation where they have to choose between the two evils.

At times, the choices presented to them are all imperfect. 

In my view, Kissinger’s philosophy on statesmanship in international affairs also applies to domestic affairs. A statesman faces similar challenges in domestic policy. 

However, regardless of the environment statesmen operate in - I believe they have to be firm in their convictions. Key to a successful leadership, is the ability to convince the populace to buy into your agenda and coalesce behind you.  

It is my opinion that a statesman’s decision-making needs to be influenced by scientific data presented by experts - not emotions and whims. If scientific data drives his decision-making, then he will always be doing the right thing regardless of what his detractors say or think. 

Has statesman Cyril Ramaphosa handled Covid-19 right? 

In fairly and objectively assessing Cyril Ramaphosa’s handling of Covid-19 as a statesman and President of South Africa, it is vital to factor in the complexities of statesmanship I have outlined above. 

With Covid-19, and the limited knowledge we have on the virus, Ramaphosa has been confronted with a crisis where he has to make very tough, urgent decisions.

He has had to choose between the two evils, in light of the limited knowledge he has on Covid-19, and the state of health in South Africa.  

In a country where millions live with pre-existing conditions, and millions are unemployed in a dire economy, he was always bound to suffer a barrage of criticisms in whatever policy decision he took as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A lockdown was always going to cause serious carnage to the economy - as we are already seeing now. 

But it would have also been irrational and insensitive of Ramaphosa’s administration to not impose any form of lockdown or curfew in fear of the harm to the economy.

The risks of the virus are too high in South Africa. 

For observers like us, it’s been easy to criticise and chastise him on social networks - and we can change our minds anytime we want.

He has a health crisis on his plate that he has to confront and surmount - with volumes of information being thrown at him. And time is not on his side. 

For the first time, I sympathise with President Cyril Ramaphosa. He has made mistakes in handling this health crisis and I understand his mistakes.  

However, I think the stimulus package of R500 billion to reboot the economy is misguided - as it will plunge the country further into debt and slow down the economy.  

I believe the approach to rebooting the economy should be focused on upgrading the healthcare infrastructure so that it withstands the virus - and opening up of markets and tax breaks to revive the private sector to go back to work and create jobs. 

The stimulus package is too expensive - and it will hurt us in a few years from now. 

On the relaxation of lockdown restrictions effective next month as announced last night, Ramaphosa has taken the first steps in the right direction.  

But, these first steps do not go far enough given the desperate socio-economic conditions of our society. People of South Africa have to go back to work soonest - and education has to continue. 

The total lockdown has been an overreach that is damaging to people who wake up every day to work and earn an income.

And human liberties have been violated on many occasions by the law enforcement. It is my opinion that a targeted, regional lockdown would have been fitting. 

In the next few weeks and months, vigorous testing must continue, restrictions lifted speedily, and precautions taken throughout the year.  

The vulnerable such as the elderly and those living with pre-existing conditions must try to isolate themselves until we win the fight against the virus. 

There's no solution to this crisis, there are only trade-offs. We have to do what is least damaging to the country. And Ramaphosa needs to be smart and do better. 

 - Phumlani M. Majozi is a politics and global affairs analyst, senior fellow at AfricanLiberty.org, radio talk show host and non-executive at Free Market Foundation South Africa. Views expressed here are his own. Twitter: @PhumlaniMMajozi. 

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