Thuli Madonsela: Leadership will determine if we emerge better or worse post Covid-19

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (GCIS)

Will Covid-19 be the moment where we shift towards democratic and collaborative leadership that catalyses a process which heals of the divisions of the past? asks Thuli Madonsela.

Reflecting on leadership and the coronavirus reminded me of a story I was told by a grandmother a few years ago.

In a poor village far away, a tired and hungry sage was taken in by the villagers.

They gave him food and a place to sleep and showered him with kindness throughout his stay. Noticing that the food they all shared was little, the sage asked about their means of sustenance.

The hungry and emaciated village leaders told him that, after an attack by a vicious drought, a single cow was all that was left.

They explained that the cow’s milk was shared by all and, if there was surplus, it bartered for small supplies.

When the sage left with his assistant in the early hours of the morning, he asked his assistant to bring the cow too. Though shocked at this apparent act of cruelty, the assistant brought the cow.

Die coronavirus. Foto: Gallo Images/Getty Images

The coronavirus. (Gallo Images/Getty Images)

When they came to a village that had plenty of cows, the sage gave them the cow, leaving his assistant in utter shock. 

Years later, the sage and the assistant returned to the village, only to find everyone well fed and the village brimming with prosperity. Shocked and confused, the assistant turned to the sage for answers as he had expected compounded poverty.

The sage explained that removing the cow was a gift to the villagers in return for their kindness.

This apparently cruel act sought to eliminate a comfort zone that kept the villagers poor because it encouraged them to perform below their potential.

Without a refuge for retreat, the villagers were forced to be more resourceful in finding ways to make a living.

In that search, they discovered ways for successful farming, despite the drought they had had for years. As they produced more than they needed, they sold the surplus, which led to prosperity. 

I would not suggest that the coronavirus (Covid-19) is a sage that has benevolently forced us to innovate our way into prosperity by disrupting our survivalist normal.

However, that Covid-19 has disrupted our socio-economic comfort zone, is a reality.

Covid-19 has accidentally given us a new lens to see the stark realities that have always been around us, regarding extreme poverty, inequality and economic inefficiencies that go with a country unable to optimally leverage its diverse human and natural resources for global competitiveness.

In his address announcing the government’s risk-adjusted approach to the lockdown imposed since March 26, to contain Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa conceded that we cannot go back to the way we were.

What will become of us?

It is my considered view that whether we end up better or worse primarily depends on leadership and policy choices.

Given that policy choices and design are a leadership competency, our future primarily depends on leadership. If we are to win the battle Covid-19 has thrown us into, what kind of leadership primes us for success?

My view is that our qualification of leadership positioning us for success depends on our measure of success.  

My measure of success, as a social justice researcher, is reaching a point where no one unduly dies from Covid-19 or policy responses to it, and achieving catalysed advancement of equality and related social justice and human rights ideals in the Constitution.

Success also speaks to strengthened democratic governance, the rule of law and peace, with the latter incorporating enhanced healing of the divisions of the past as envisaged in the Constitution.

Success should further incorporate South Africa playing a meaningful role in the success of all other nations, particularly those with whom we cohabit the African continent. 

Perhaps we should also establish common ground on the meaning of leadership.

At the Thuma Foundation for democracy leadership and literacy, we regard leadership as the art of influencing and inspiring yourself and others to think and act in a particular way.

In relation to Covid-19, leadership would mean influencing and inspiring ourselves and others to think and act in ways likely to generate an outcome where no one unduly dies.

And where the adverse impact of Covid-19 and policy responses to it on economic and social life is minimised, with no one left behind or disproportionately prejudiced. 

When I pose the question regarding who should lead in seminars I present, most respond that the president must lead.

They are right that he or she should shoulder most of the leadership responsibility and concomitant accountability.

Indeed success in preserving lives, the social fabric and economic well-being in countries such as New Zealand has been attributed to great leadership at head of state level.

South Africa’s President Ramaphosa was also lauded by the local media and the United Nations, among others, for exemplary leadership regarding swift, decisive and responsive policy responses to Covid-19. 

The president met met with Premier Sihle Zikalala

President Cyril Ramaphosa during a visit to assess KZN's response to the coronavirus. (GCIS)

More recently, things have begun to go a bit pear-shaped. Many are asking the President to step up. Truth be told, though, the responsibility must be shared by all.

The Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 (DMA) was crafted with the understanding that the president must lead from the front within a shared leadership framework.

An Intergovernmental Disaster Management Committee comprising Ministers in portfolios that are relevant to the disaster confronting the nation or region at any given time, provinces, represented by MEC, Municipal Council representatives selected by SALGA, are expected to be part of a committee chaired by a designated Minister.

That Minister is currently the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA). The DMA further sees a role for specialised management in the form of public servants, disaster management experts and subject matter experts as part of the National Disaster Management Advisory Forum established under section 5 of the DMA.

Traditional leaders, business, academics and others are also expected to be part of this structure.

As the Social Justice and Coronavirus Covid-19 Policy and Relief Monitoring Alliance (SCOPRA), we expressed a concern to the Minister regarding an apparent disregard of the provisions and structural architecture of the DMA, to the country’s, detriment.

The views were contained in a Policy Brief prepared and sent as a letter to the Minister of COGTA in response to the Alert Level 4 Regulations issued on April 29 with a view to extending the national lockdown for an indefinite period of time subject to Covid-19 transmission improvements that will justify a gradual relaxation.

It is unclear where the DMA structures are and how a dominant structure, such as the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), to whom decisions are frequently attributed, fits in the current Covid-19 response management architecture.

The role of Parliament has also become unclear, despite there being no provision in the DMA that suspends its participation in key decisions, particularly those that curtail fundamental rights or deviate from the voted budget.

Even a State of Emergency, declared in terms of Section 37 of the Constitution and the State of Emergency Act 64 of 1997, does not curtail Parliament’s powers.

Instead, Parliament is given special supervisory powers to ensure constitutional compliance. 

Contrary to the DMA, current disaster management coordination is nationally centralised and politicised with chaotic consequences that include underservicing, over servicing, clientelism, corruption and theft.

It would be unreasonable in addition to anathema to the architecture of our democracy to suggest the Executive must involve Parliament and the public in everything, particularly given that agile decision-making is key in an emergency.

It is worth noting, though, that it is not accidental that there are 25 mentions of democracy or democratic governance in the Constitution.

This as Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in the EFF case [2016] was part of a deliberate departure from the undemocratic and unaccountable State in the past. 

Part of the departure from the past is a move towards collaborative leadership, partly captured in constitutional provisions on cooperative government in Section 26.

There is no suspension of democracy in the DMA, while the limitation of fundamental human rights is permissible if consistent with the limitation clause in Section 36 of the Constitution.



Ours is meant to be a representative and participatory democracy, heavily anchored in accountability.

Collaborative leadership is essential not only for democratic governance, it is a basis for trust and, concomitantly, the buy-in, which is essential for the legitimacy of policies that drive voluntary compliance.

Media reports suggest declining voluntary compliance.

It is my considered view that a more collaborative leadership approach, as was the case when the process started, but more in line with the DMA, would engender more voluntary compliance.

It is important that all diverse voices are heard, regardless of social class.

The consultation over the draft version of the latest regulations is laudable in this regard, though the amount of time given could have been better and the crowd sourcing of ideas and disaggregated data on diverse social reality could have commenced before the regulations were drafted.

Participatory democracy also optimises having citizens better informed about the why. Furthermore providing all political formations and diverse citizens opportunities to influence the policy design enhances content that respond more meaningfully to the life realities of diverse groups and communities.

However, leadership is still important for ensuring that desired outcomes are still be achieved despite diverse views inherent in participatory democracy.

What kind of leadership fosters a participatory democratic governance that yields desired outcomes, which in this case would be health, livelihoods and socio-economic progress and parity within the broader constitutional vision of society?

My experience, which includes 7 years as a Public Protector, is the importance of purpose driven leadership. A closer look at the Constitution suggests that purpose driven leadership is expected hence a clear articulation of the societal vision in the constitution.

Thuli Madonsela spent seven years as the Public Protector. (Gallo Images)

The Constitution further defines the character of the state necessary.

In this case ethics are placed at the centre in terms of section 195 on principles of public administration and sections 96 and 136 on ethical requirements for members of the Executive.

Members of the Executive are further required to put constitutional matters first under section 237 and such responsibilities include the equality duty in section 9 and the section 7(2) injunction to protect and advance of human rights, which include equality and human dignity

In her book titled Confidence, Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter lauds Mandela’s leadership that helped clutch a nation from a cycle of decline and precipice of catastrophe and placed it on a pedestal of hope.

Among leadership attributes that made this possible, are respect, accountability, connections, collaboration, and an enterprising mind that fosters a culture of confidence.

A major part of that leadership is involving all and making them feel a sense of belonging and equal mattering. President Ramaphosa was lauded for similar leadership at the start of the Covid-19 policy responses.

However, high-handed communication by some of his ministers peppered with dismissive approaches to certain policy inputs and
impact concerns, is increasingly eroding trust and with it, voluntary compliance while engendering polarisation.

It is my considered view that the epic achievements envisaged under the Constitution and the DMA presuppose leadership that is ethical, purpose driven, impact conscious and committed to serve all.

Will Covid-19 responses rise to the level of collaborative leadership and participatory democracy envisaged in the Constitution and the DMA, going forward?

Will Covid-19 be the catalyst that leapfrogs us from barely surviving to prosperity. Will we be rich as the village whose cow was abruptly taken away, or will we find ourselves with worsened fortunes?

Our future depends on leadership in terms of policy choices and the ability to collaborate as a united force.

Will the Covid-19 be the shift moment towards democratic and collaborative leadership that catalyses the healing of the divisions of the past and fosters a democratic society anchored in shared prosperity and the rule of law?

It all depends on all our next moves, with the President bearing the bulk of responsibility for influencing and inspiring those moves.

- Thuli Madonsela is a former public protector and academic chair in social justice research at the Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch University. 

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