A Conversation With Judith February on Political Leadership and COVID-19 in South Africa
from Strength Through Peace

A Conversation With Judith February on Political Leadership and COVID-19 in South Africa

CFR Senior Fellow for Africa Studies Michelle Gavin interviews writer, lawyer, and governance expert Judith February.
Women carry bags of maize as people queue to receive food aid amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, near Pretoria, South Africa, on May 20, 2020.
Women carry bags of maize as people queue to receive food aid amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, near Pretoria, South Africa, on May 20, 2020. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters via File Photo

Too often, foreign policy conversations that aim to be global in scope lack sufficient attention to African opinions and equities. By 2050, one in four people in the world will be African. From questions of war and peace, the future of capitalism, the viability of democratic governance, and the fate of the climate to the institutional architecture that facilitates international cooperation, the future should be informed by Africans.

In an effort to bring a broad range of perspectives to the CFR community, Senior Fellow for Africa Studies Michelle Gavin spoke with a number of prominent Africans in different fields about their work and priorities. No one person can speak to the incredible diversity of the continent’s opinions and ideas, but our hope is that these dynamic individuals can help enrich readers’ awareness of and sensitivity to African dynamics, and perhaps encourage readers to learn more about their work.

More on:

South Africa


Politics and Government

Judith February is an acclaimed writer, lawyer, and governance expert in South Africa. She is based at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and is also a visiting fellow at the WITS School of Governance.

Your President [Cyril Ramaphosa], from a distance, has been getting rave reviews for his COVID-19 response. Acting early, clear communications to citizens, being a little audacious getting out there with testing and tracing. It looks like an exercise in strong leadership in crisis. Does it look that way on the ground?

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. We have a lot of viewpoints, which are very polarized, and extremes on either side. I suppose South Africa is not unique in that way. First we had the state of national disaster declared, and then March 23 when Ramaphosa announced that a hard lockdown was coming into effect on March 26, and that South Africans would have to stay at home. Of course it was very good to go into lockdown early, given the pressure that would be placed on our healthcare services if we were to delay acting or follow “herd immunity.” The latter was seen to be a risky strategy given what we have seen in the United Kingdom (UK) and Sweden, for instance. By March 17, South Africa had only confirmed eight cases of local transmission.

Your point about being audacious is interesting. South Africa, complicated as it is—given our socioeconomic inequality, poverty, the fact that our state has become largely incapable because of years of state capture—had many people wondering how this was going to work? In addition, South Africans are notoriously rule-averse.

Sometimes South Africa surprises in that way though, that we can do something audacious, and what seems to be completely right. I think that what Ramaphosa did that night by announcing a hard lockdown was completely right, and he was also very clear to communicate up-front why it is that we needed the lockdown. What was also refreshing about it was that he was relying on the science. He was saying, we’ve seen what has happened in Italy; we’ve seen what has happened in the UK. We don’t want to get there, especially given our high levels of inequality, poverty, unemployment, and the fact that our health system on any given day is under strain, let alone having hundreds of thousands of people presenting, being infected, needing ventilators. South Africa is a country with enormous disparities of wealth, many who go to bed hungry every night and, added to that, millions who have comorbidity, particularly HIV and tuberculosis. Those vulnerabilities are entrenched. It was also refreshing hearing the president being clear and open about what needed to be done. The perennial question everyone had after that night was, “imagine former President Jacob Zuma had been at the helm?” Ramaphosa certainly met the political moment that night. He took a tough decision, which he knew would cause hardship and also economic challenges.

We also had some brilliant leadership from our Minister of Health Zweli Mkhise, who himself is a medical doctor. He has stuck to the science and been calm and rational. We had a really good briefing from the scientists from the Medical Advisory Council like Professor [Salim] Karim and others, talking about the science of the pandemic, the benefits of a lockdown, and when South Africa might reach its peak. So far, so good. Government and the private sector together set up a solidary fund into which billions of rands have flowed. The aim is to leverage private sources of funding in South Africa, to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), food parcels and other necessities during this pandemic. You have billionaires, wealthy South Africans, contributing to the fund given that state coffers are under severe strain given almost a decade of state capture under Zuma. What it shows again and again is that South Africa, for all its complexity, has an enormous amount of goodwill at the base of society that keeps things going. There is a large swath of those in the private sector who simply want to get this country moving forward.

More on:

South Africa


Politics and Government

But unfortunately, and there is always a but in South Africa: while Ramaphosa has the makings of a smart, progressive, modern leader—it is certainly his bent—he’s also part of the African National Congress (ANC), and when he won the presidency of the ANC in 2017, he won by a very narrow margin, and given the deep divisions within the ANC, it meant he won by making some uncomfortable compromises. That means he has a cabinet which is made up of erstwhile enemies, made up of some people he probably doesn’t want to have there. What we’ve seen, in some cases, is that some of those individuals are just not fit for purpose, almost like large parts of the ANC itself. . . so, it’s a mixed bag. You have the president leading at the top, you’ve got the lockdown regulations, but the different ministries have to enable those regulations and have to see that things happen, and that’s where South Africa predictably has fallen short.

It’s laid bare some of the state’s incapacity and incompetence—including with regard to the defense force. When Ramaphosa put the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) out on the streets, he said this is going to be a “life-giving mission,” “you are on a mission to save lives,” he said. But there has been brutality and a man, Collins Khosa, was killed in Alexandra township. His family went to court to ensure that someone was held to account for his death. They used their constitutional rights to do so but really they should not have needed to. Individual ministers, specifically the Minister of Police Bheki Cele, have used militaristic language, thus emboldening some within the police force and the SANDF to act without regard for citizens’ right to dignity. The court affirmed that right yet again.

The militaristic language employed by some ministers also shows the difference between members of Ramaphosa’s cabinet—some “hawks,” some “doves,” some constitutionalists, and others who have an approach which is out of place in a constitutional democracy. It also again, and in many ways, reflects the weaknesses of the ANC itself.

You made the point that you can have great decisions at the top, but you need people implementing. How much of the problem is with individual ministers, and what their agendas and competencies are, how much is about the capacities of the civil service in South Africa? Given the last decade in your country, is the civil service able to deliver?

A lot of these institutions have been ravaged. Part of it is that we have a bloated civil service, or what we would call public service. The way in which Jacob Zuma held on to power was first by giving increases to the civil servants over the previous period of three years, the last of which was meant to kick in in March of this year, but there was no money to pay these increases and that has become a kind of festering sore with public servants and unions. Second was just hiring too many people. Those people are just occupying positions, but they are not really there to serve the people. So there’s incapacity because of institutionalized sloth.

We have to invest in systems, as we see with the child support grants. Ramaphosa rolled out an economic package to relieve social distress amounting to 500 billion rands, and that was going to be an increase or top up in the child support grant, payment to individuals who are unemployed. In South Africa, you’ve got 17 million people on social grants of some kind. But the implementation has been in shambles as more people have had to be assisted. Government hired somebody to head up the social security agency at a very high salary. But what systems have actually been put in place to make it safe, and to make it secure for people to get their money without endless queuing in difficult circumstances? That kind of capacity has been ravaged, and that threatens to undermine what Ramaphosa is trying to do.

Having said that, the current Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu, to me, is actually disinterested in helping the poor. I do think if you had somebody at the head of that ministry who had a sense of urgency, things could get done. It’s not comparable, but we delivered the World Cup, which nobody thought we could, because we had a particular period of time and we had to deliver or there would be egg on our face. I don’t understand why it is that we therefore cannot do better when it comes to crucial issues of ensuring dignity to the most vulnerable in our society. That has to do with the quality of individuals that Ramaphosa has around him, and many of them have let him down. We do need to be building up the capacity of the state, and hiring the best people for the jobs—a constant issue in South Africa where people are often hired because of their proximity to the governing ANC and not because of their skill. Ramaphosa is trying to shift that but it’s very complex.

Just to circle back one last time to this question of audacity. President Ramaphosa has shown really strong, somewhat audacious leadership. Why did it take so long? South Africa has been in this terrible economic situation. Before all conversations were about COVID-19, the news from South Africa was really alarming—watching the credit rating sink, and the Eskom debacle going from bad to worse. This is from a distance, of course, but it felt like there was an absence of clear strategic direction, or bold strokes at reform. So I’m curious. Why now? Does this crisis enable him to unleash some leadership that he somehow was constrained from exercising before?

I think in a strange way it does. The question is whether he is going to use this moment? Do we have space, in a country like ours, for a deliberative president, for someone who takes time to mull things over? This coronavirus, because it requires a kind of leadership from the top, because people want to see the president out there doing things, does give him the space to be extremely assertive with bold reforms. One is hoping that he will, though he seems to be rather worn out by this crisis—who can blame him? But there is so much going on at the moment not just around coronavirus, but for example, around South African Airways and other state-owned enterprises who are requiring state bailouts. I am astounded that we are having these conversations still when the fundamentals are so obvious—we can’t afford to bail out under-performing state-owned entities. You have the minister of finance, clearly he is wanting to implement the structural reforms necessary, but the political space for him to act appears constrained.

Bold action to structurally reform the economy is long overdue. But what Ramaphosa has done, slowly but surely, is try to clean up all of these institutions. The South African Revenue Service, for example, Transnet, the National Prosecuting Authority. . . hopefully there will be some prosecutions with regard to state capture and Jacob Zuma’s corruption. He is facing trial currently—a not insignificant fact. There’s the first one around Transnet, which is the rail authority, and how much corruption there’s been there. There seems to be a very good case that’s been put together by the NPA, and it will be interesting to watch that because it’s a template on how to deal with other state capture matters.

But Ramaphosa has been slow, he has been deliberative. Part of that is about the fact that the ANC itself is a shambles when it comes to economic policy. It spends all its time fighting between Luthuli house, which is the ANC headquarters, and the Union Buildings where Ramaphosa is, about things like the mandate of the Reserve Bank. You’ve got someone who is the secretary-general of the ANC who makes the most uninformed comments on public policy and on economic policy. The Minister at Trade and Industry, for example, Ebrahim Patel, while an honest man, also sees trade and industrial policy as sort of an intellectual exercise, versus actually getting the economy growing and working again. It feels as if we are walking in treacle.

So it has been slow, and people have been asking whether this is the moment for Ramaphosa to actually assert his authority, because in a way he has more space. You don’t really hear from Luthuli House these days, you don’t really hear from Julius Malema, the upstart populist opposition leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who is always having a go at Ramaphosa. You don’t really hear from them because the space is filled by the president having to lead. One would have thought that now would be the opportunity to deal with things head-on and, ironically, to expend the political capital this crisis has given him. But the president is not one for confrontation with his party, even if there is more room because we are in crisis and there is less time for dissent. Also, there is a local government election happening next year. The ANC stands to lose a considerable amount of support if they don’t back Ramaphosa fully. The ANC lost a lot of support during the Zuma years, yet in the last general election, it held on because of Ramaphosa. The people certainly gave the ANC another mandate but at 57.5 percent, that mandate was conditional.

I’ve written a lot of articles about this. Ramaphosa has the capital. He needs to actually spend that political capital, or be a lame duck. You’ve got those two choices, and there’s nothing in the middle. He’s been reluctant to do that because he’s been reluctant to take on his party and those who oppose him with ruthlessness. So it’s all been very slow.

I think the part about him that sort of is confusing is that he is a very strategic individual. He plays for the long game. But the problem is that in South Africa, some decisions have to be made. The long game might be too long for us.

I wanted to get back to the question of abuses and security forces who have overstepped in policing the lockdown in South Africa. How does that layer on with some popular frustrations with democracy—some Afrobarometer polling really surprised me with the number of South Africans willing to trade away hard-won political freedoms to get better service delivery. What’s the mood of the country? How stable is the situation, particularly given that the economic pain, even with the best possible decisions at the top, is going to be there for a while?

Yes, and the economic pain was there already even before COVID-19. In terms of the abuses, the South African police and defense force—we haven’t made the transition from an apartheid-era police and defense force to what that means in a democratic state. Policing needs to happen with the consent of people. In South Africa it’s very top-down, and that consent is missing. Also, data shows South Africans’ trust in leadership and institutions is diminishing. South Africa is not unique in that. That loss of faith is global.

In South Africa, we cannot underestimate the inequality, the deep levels of poverty. I think eyes will be opened in the middle class as they have seen people queuing for food and desperately hungry. But millions were going to bed hungry every night before COVID-19. It’s easy here to live in a complete bubble.

But these abuses of human rights—somebody was killed at the hands of the defense force—those need to be investigated. There is a strong civil society and media shining a light on that. The press is really free to report on these horrors. We do know about it. There is no suppression here which is good. The fact that we also have open courts that are independent really helps us.

But what worries me is that the president needs to speak up about these abuses. He’s cursorily dealt with it. He needs to take on the ministers within his cabinet who seem very casual about these incidents.

Despite the trust issues, if you look at South Africa and our voting patterns, when the ANC lost power the EFF did not gain as many votes as one might imagine in a society which is as unequal as ours. The majority of South Africans are not in the populist extremist line. If they were, they would have ousted Ramaphosa and put Malema in power, crudely put. So the data should be a wake-up call. For how long can our democracy actually be the shell and the framework without people enjoying their full constitutional rights? In South Africa we’ve got socioeconomic rights, like the right to healthcare, education, water etc., which are justiciable. Yet, how long can the framework survive without meaningful change?

A major threat to our democracy is apathy. We saw that in the last election with very few young people coming out to vote. Apathy, disinterest, and a low-grade protest action which leads to a kind of paralysis are all dangers. We need to make those important economic reforms. The future is uncertain with regard to the economic and social issues. But I still do think the majority of South Africans have kept faith with this democracy, despite it all, because at various pivotal points it has worked for us.

Are there actors who vilify the courts and vilify the media?

All the time. Some of those individuals are those within the ANC who have lost out in the Ramaphosa era. Jacob Zuma was leading the charge, because of course he’s been charged with corruption, and his trial was meant to start on May 6. He believes the trial is all part of a big conspiracy against him. Some within the ANC have been known to call the judges counterrevolutionary, and call the media the tools of white monopoly capital. And so it goes on. But the overwhelming majority of South Africans understand. Even if people are poor, they get that they’ve been betrayed by corrupt politicians. The 57.5 percent of votes that the ANC got in the last election was conditional. The traditional ANC supporter showed it could take its vote and put it to another party. It is conditional. One hopes that the ANC got that message.

The irony in South Africa is that we’ve got this big Zondo Commission which is looking into state capture, and that’s going to go on for a while yet.  But while some information and evidence being heard at the commission has been new, most of it is not. Much has been reported on in the public domain by the media, has been discussed on television, on radio, in social media. We know what Zuma did. It’s just a question of the ANC needed to have dealt with it sooner and the prosecuting authority needs to move more swiftly. It’s not a country where we lack information about what has happened in the last ten years. The courts and the media actually were the bulwark against our slide completely into failed state territory. We owe a lot to the courts in terms of holding that constitutional space.

One piece of President Ramaphosa’s leadership that has impressed people here has been the way he has used his role as the rotating head of the African Union (AU) to pull the continent together, make science based briefings available to all heads of state, pool knowledge, and send some very clear and smart messages to the international community about what is really required to keep the continent from sinking into economic devastation. Incredibly impressive from a distance. Do South Africans care about that? Does the idea of continental leadership matter to people, or is it sort of an aside because there is so much to deal with domestically?

Without wanting to be flippant, there is so much happening. With South Africa there is always so much happening anyway, and now with coronavirus there is even more. I think what is foremost in South Africans’ minds is how are we going to deal with what is on our plate right now. In most surveys done over the years, South Africans have as their main concerns issues which are close to home—unemployment, housing, access to good education, safety and security and food security. International issues are at the very bottom of ordinary people’s concerns. I sense that some South Africans see the president engaging with South African Development Community (SADC) and the AU and wonder why he is spending his time on that rather than opening up our economy, dealing with food insecurity—which has come into sharp relief despite government assistance, people are forming snaking queues for food parcels here. But despite ordinary citizens’ valid concerns, the international focus is important, because if you look at how much migration there is between South Africa and Zimbabwe as just one example, it is not in our interests to see Zimbabwe implode because of COVID-19. And we have people from all over Africa who have come to South Africa to try to make a living.

But we also face our own systems placed under severe pressure and South Africans remain focused on that. The unemployment insurance fund is buckling. I spoke to somebody who runs a small business. Five weeks ago, he put in the unemployment insurance claim for his staff. He’s still waiting for that to be processed. For five weeks he paid the staff out of his pocket. He can’t do that for much longer. On the other hand, someone else has had twenty-three of his thirty-two staff paid from the fund, so the system’s efficacy is patchy. Many South Africans may in this context find the SADC or the AU response to be an intellectual exercise.

We are all very focused on the way in which South Africa is going to ease the lock down in the next weeks. Ramaphosa has committed government to a risk-adjusted approach to easing lock down and to a phased reopening of the economy. He has also said that some metros, districts and provinces will be placed on different levels of lockdown. This differentiated lockdown will require reliable data and a state agile enough to implement such a nuanced approach. In a sense the next weeks will be even more crucial than the decision to announce a hard lock down in late March. It will certainly be more complex to implement.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail