Image: Marco Oriolesi (Unsplash)
Before the COVID-19 pandemic South Africa faced an already tense policy environment. After the Zuma administration, the international community was looking to the new government to establish a clearer and more stable policy environment. While South Africans were hoping that the misgivings of the previous government would be dealt with. President Cyril Ramaphosa needed to address economic transformation, wide-scale corruption, social cohesion and a growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to debt ratio among other issues. A detailed framework to deal with these concerns was outlined in the Presidents Strategic Plan 2020-2025. The plan lays out a directive which looks to decrease youth unemployment, improve policy co-ordination and implementation between departments, support continental economic integration with the overall focus being to build a stable resilient economy which can address poverty, inequality and unemployment.
In the current COVID-19 world this focus remains ever more important as the pandemic illustrated the extent to which poverty, inequality and unemployment are rooted in South Africa’s society. On 23rd March 2020 the President announced one of the most stringent forced lockdowns, limiting the movement of people as well as economic activity. Early data on the effect of the lockdown indicates that the poor are most hard-hit as employment levels fell most drastically among low-skilled and less-educated workers. The government has announced a three-phase plan to address the devastation caused by COVID-19. It consists of the creation of a R500-billion relief fund and the distribution of the fund to be utilised for social distress relief and supporting companies, as well as workers in the re-opening of the economy. The third phase of the plan is to resume economic activity, which includes approaching the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans, tax relief measures and initiating a phased approach to re-opening the economy.
What are the implications of these measures on the public policy space in South Africa? In an already constrained environment, policy making has little room for error. In the process of policy making and implementation there are several competing interests from the bureaucrats responsible for implementation to the intended targets of the specific policy. This conflict in policy will not change during a pandemic and will most likely be heightened as different stakeholders compete for limited resources. Policy making is often a drawn-out process that can take years before becoming actual policy. It involves various actors and is influenced by several factors, and in South Africa it entails rigorous debate at the national and provincial level. This luxury, however, is not afforded in a COVID-19 world. Decisions must be made relatively swiftly as infection rates fluctuate and the political and economic stability teeters on the brink of a breakdown. Ramaphosa must take a strong leadership role to ensure that public officials are able to do the task at hand. South Africa has been very good at developing policy and recognising the issues which need to be addressed. However, the leadership always seems to fail at the last hurdle, which is implementation. This is often undermined by inter-departmental as well intra-party politics and the ever-present corruption that has infiltrated the fabric of South Africa’s society. In recent weeks the deeply entrenched corruption has already unveiled itself through the misuse of the R500-billion fund. If the government is serious about alleviating poverty, reducing inequality and improving employment it needs to be clear about the strategic framework required to get there. Government needs be firm on who the recipients are of the intended policy while addressing the concerns of the people it represents as well as any future partners that can assist in achieving this vision.
Kaamillah Soeker has recently completed a Masters Degree at the Wits School of Governance in Public and Development Management. She is interested in Policy Analysis of South Africa and the African continent.