Ralph Mathekga: Ramaphosa's decisiveness on Covid-19 should extend to the economy

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the SA National Defence Force.
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the SA National Defence Force.

The crisis induced real fear in our politics and society and removed consensus as a requirement for decision-making, paving the way for Ramaphosa to lead with less obstruction, writes Ralph Mathekga.

The spread of the coronavirus in South Africa will have a significant impact on our politics, including Cyril Ramaphosa's presidency.

The aggressive way in which the virus is spreading across the world has brought upon world politics a greater sense of urgency and national sense of purpose; the attributes that were lacking in global politics generally.

Here in South Africa, President Ramaphosa has earlier been vocal about a lack of consensus as the main reason why our policy implementation has ground to a halt, particularly when it comes to implementing reforms in the public service and across state owned enterprises (SOEs).

Even the reality of the impending Moody's downgrading could not induce a sense or urgency in our policy machinery.

This was the pre-coronavirus policy environment in South Africa.  

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, Ramaphosa found himself commanding an army of willing followers in the most aggressive fight against the spread of the virus.

Suddenly, everyone rallied around the president and there was a consensus that he should show decisiveness and take control of the streets to curb the spread of the virus.

It is at this point that our politics was frozen and the coronavirus dictated how we respond to this crisis.  

President Ramaphosa did not let the crisis moment go to waste; he stepped up and took charge in a moment that requires wider consultation on what ought to be done.

His party, the ANC, is also under lockdown as public gatherings are prohibited.

The party's contentious NGC (National General Council) has been postponed. Also frozen in time is the ANC youth league, whose (elective) conference has been postponed as well.  

As far as the opposition parties are concerned, it's also all clear for President Ramaphosa.

The wider policy discussions has died down, and the opposition is also frozen.

The coronavirus has taken so much of our collective attention, that it took a day or so for news about Moody's downgrading to sink in.

Of course it is now about our survival, and the economy will be dealt with later.

The spread of the virus has given Ramaphosa a platform to unleash an executive style presidency, a SWAT-team Presidency to lead us through the crisis.  

It is reported that when informed about Moody's downgrading of South Africa to "junk" status, Ramaphosa told Finance Minister Tito Mboweni that we should now "move boldly on structural reforms".

This is interesting in the sense that the President did not ask for consultation with the ANC's alliance partners, he directed action.

The President is clearly taking the emergency, all-hands-on-deck approach to nudge South Africa towards a sense of urgency.

Meanwhile, while Ramaphosa urges us to get on with the homework and fix those things that Moody's recommend we revisit, the ANC has made a moral case, accusing the sovereign ratings agency of being insensitive by downgrading us in the middle of a global pandemic with unfathomable repercussions.

But, the Commander-in-Chief Ramaphosa prefers to act.  

The question that arises in my mind is how long this attitude by Ramaphosa will prevail?

How long will he be allowed to wield his executive power on demand?

The window period of the coronavirus crisis may close soon, bringing back more tension in our politics to the point where Ramaphosa goes back to being a lame duck president, forever seeking a consensus.

This could happen immediately after the 21 days of lockdown. 

If the political wind in South Africa changes altogether at the end of the lockdown, then it means that Ramaphosa will be unable to march ahead with structural reforms of the economy.

The pressure that will be created by the lockdown will need to be managed carefully, else it will explode and create more political tension in a country that requires serious policy focus.

When the other commander-in-chief (cic) in red overalls comes out of lockdown, the first thing he will do, is to attack Ramaphosa's presidency and dislodge all the respect he would have gathered during the lockdown while opposition politics were frozen.

Opposition parties would certainly criticise government's post corona situation, and the inequalities laid bare during lockdown will fuel our politics and further shift us away from policy consensus.  

That there will be an attack on the coronavirus truce is inevitable.

The only important question for me is whether Ramaphosa will be able to stretch the lockdown decisiveness beyond the health crisis into the economic reform zone.

President Ramaphosa could use his newly found firmness to sort out the economy and other things in the country.

In this way, he may also be able to repel criticism that would try to dislodge him as the country's Crisis Supremo once Covid-19 has been fully suppressed.

This brings me to one last point; Ramaphosa has only shot at this crisis, and he cannot afford to miss. 

Former President Jacob Zuma cried foul that he would do much for this country if he could be a dictator for a few weeks.

Ramaphosa has the coronavirus pandemic crisis at hand, and it reached him at the time his presidency needed consensus to implement policies.

The crisis induced real fear in our politics and society and removed consensus as a requirement for decision-making, paving the way for Ramaphosa to lead with less obstruction.

This is the moment for the President to show he can rise above the politics.

However, he must lead South Africans to victory against Covid-19, else he will face serious political problems after 21 days of lockdown.

If Ramaphosa's administration can show that it contained the virus after 21 days, the PR from such an experience has endless possibilities for his leadership and presidency in general.

A win against the spread of Covid-19 could bring with it more leverage for Ramaphosa and for him to sort out other matters of national importance, with less political resistance.  

- Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn. 

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