Leadership in the Time of Corona
Updated: Apr 10
by Rehad Desai
If I were the President’s speech writer, this is what I would recommend he tells the nation, the region, the continent,and indeed the wider world.
“Our nation has once again been called to action so we can stop the unnecessary loss of tens of thousands of our people in the coming days, weeks, and months. Millions of our numbers sacrificed their liberty, and tens of thousands their lives, in the fight for a just and non-racial South Africa. Tens of thousands organised community support for those living with Aids and political action around the demand for free and accessible treatment for the those living with HIV from our very own government. This has left our country with rich traditions of social mobilisation that now need to be harnessed to fight the invisible enemy of COVID-19. Before I outline some principles of how we should and indeed must work together, let me digress.
South Africa forms part of the cradle of human civilisation. It was here that we learnt to become human, to cooperate, to collaborate and establish forms of social organisation. Our evolution into modern humans was premised on caring for our young, frail and elderly, and it was female led. It was here where the tree of life emerged. It was here where the notion of Ubuntu emerged, ‘I am because of whom we all are’.
It is here that we will stand tall and once again become the beacon of hope for Africa and the wider world. It is here that we do everything within our powers to stop our society collapsing and with it civilisation. It here where we must start to rebuild our society based on need not profit. It is here where united we stand and divided we fall.
It is now time for us to embrace this philosophy of Ubuntu. Not one of us can afford to live in some hyper individualised bubble. The very essence of civilisation is at stake. This requires that government utilize all the resources at its disposal to rapidly reinforce our health care system so it operates as one universal health system. This will require that we mandate and requisition the private sector to support our public health care system with everything it requires.
We will have to train all community health workers to work within tight safety protocols. Protecting oneself is protecting the country. We will ensure that protective clothing and other materials are manufactured and distributed freely to all. We are appealing to all our tertiary institutions that have now closed to help facilitate the establishment of student brigades to assist community health workers with educational outreach and the implementation of measures that can help quell what we are expecting to be a large scale outbreak. We must stand shoulder to shoulder and look to our youth to engage, educate and protect our communities, and to do so with the police and army.
Unfortunately, we do not have the amount of trained health professionals we now require. We are appealing all health professionals, including those now retired to be voluntarily seconded into the public health system. We are calling on those nations that are in the position to help to assist us with trained staff, ventilators and mobile testing station. Social solidarity is now critical in every sphere of life.
We will use this opportunity to urgently put in place the policy that demands adequate water and sanitation for all. This will take some time but again we will requisition all the available professional and company based capacity we have to ensure that we all enjoy first world standards.
We will be led by the latest science and the mistakes and successes elsewhere. We will trace and quarantine individuals on a large scale. We will ensure the safety and security of all those quarantined and will be appealing to all community-based structures to assist with this. This is now the immediate priority.
We will not impose stringent measures to stop public movement without firm guarantees that all can access a universal basic income grant. That non-essential workers are paid 80 percent of their current wages. That all those in the informal sector, freelance, gig and workers in the informal sector are provided with incomes that allow them to sustain themselves. We are committed to ensuring that people have enough for food and shelter in this period of economic slowdown. This support will be back dated.
From today it will be illegal to evict anybody renting a property, to dismiss anyone due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all mortgage repayments, electricity and water bills will be suspended for those who will be restricted from going to work. From today all contributions to medical aid schemes will be frozen. From today all internet access will be provided free, and there will be a freeze on all data costs
From today all those with cold or flu symptoms are asked to stay at home and alongside anyone else in their household, to self-isolate for 14 days. From today we are ordering all pharmacies and clinics to start rolling out a programme of free flu vaccinations.
We will now implement systems to secure the adequate the supply of food to all residential areas and will establish food banks. We will call on the churches in the middle class suburbs to help provision those townships and informal settlements that are close to them. These food banks will be secured by the police and assisted by those from community-based structures.
There are contingency plans for the densely populated parts of our countries, like our cities, to be placed under quarantine. We will be setting up structures that will sit permanently whilst we are waging war against the COVID-19 virus and this will happen among recognised social partners and by extending those partnerships to others who can help. These people will be considered essential workers and exempted from self-isolation travel restrictions.
This is the time of the volunteer. We will require our citizens and indeed all residents of South Africa to stand tall with us, to work with us and pull us back into line where and when our state structures and other mandated structures are not working in a humane, civil and appropriate manner.
Community action networks have come together to assist here at home. In the UK there are 7500 networks and more growing everyday – providing nurturing support in this time of need. In South Africa we estimate that we have 100 or so new networks established. Together with the Gift of the Givers, Red Cross and the wider church movement, we must make sure the most vulnerable in the informal settlements and townships do not go uncared for.
We will assist wherever we can but our government cannot do this alone. We have to focus national government structures to sustain and build up our critical infrastructure to ensure that the essential things in life are now bolstered to meet the immense challenges in the days ahead of us. But rest assured, provincial and local government have been ordered to assist with the process of neighborhood and community mobilisations. The ward committee structures now have to show what they can do in this, our hour of need.
These are just some of the core measures that we will be taking. All of it will be communicated via radio and TV in our official languages in simple and accessible terms.
Personally, I now commit to daily press conferences. I will be flanked by our respective chief Scientific and Medical advisors. The press will be welcome to ask questions. And yes, we are reversing our instruction to all medical and scientific staff inside the state not to speak to the press.
Finally, this a not a matter of ideology. Our ways of organising society have shown that we are not prepared for such big shocks to our society. We know that more are coming down the road, whether it be health, the climate crisis or the economy. We are simply doing what humanity and civilization requires us to do. We are all in this together, there can be no debate about this matter. in line with this, as of 30 minutes ago I have put in place strict measures to stop capital flight, that is the sending of large sums of money overseas by any company or high net individual.
Open to questions.
NB: This mock statement is based on my time in the UK where I have recently returned, my avid reading, particularly whilst I have been in self-isolation back home in South Africa, my numerous zoom meetings with civil society activists, health professionals and academics, and township based activists, where key information has been shared, debated and discussed. Very soon one of the initiatives I am involved in will be releasing a concise call to action to civil society, government and business. Watch this space