Covid 19: Opposition to the Centre of Government and what it would take for it to hold


In unprecedented times history is paradoxically a resource. It is in the past that we find examples of how exceptional events were handled. The Coronavirus is a truly global event requiring a national response. The last time South Africa had to deal with anything like that was the hosting of the Soccer World Cup. Are there lessons to be learned from 2010?

It is not always fair to compare how the government, the private sector and society hosted a successful World Cup event for the first time on the continent and in South Africa in 2010, with the current response(s) to the coronavirus crisis. South Africa chose to compete with other nations to host the event. Between when the first submission to FIFA outlining our intent to host World Cup and the time the whistle blew for the opening match between South Africa and Mexico on 11 June 2010, a period of around ten years had elapsed. A period of close to four years had been spent preparing our bid before the announcement of Germany as the 2006 hosts. Who in South Africa can forget Mr. Dempsey? Old Dempsey “That past sell by date spoiler” media referred to him. Another period was spent preparing the second bid before the final award was made on 15 may 2004 in favour of South Africa to host the event.

No-one invited the Coronavirus, however. And yet we feel that the comparison of how the government manages the crisis – what governance and management structures are being employed, what institutions are being established – is justified. Both provide valuable lessons on what needs to be controlled, what must change and what needs to be eliminated/replaced relating to how government in particular and society, in general, should be doing things. Both responses demand the establishment of a centralised system, body, agency or entity to plan, coordinate operations and ensure that the desired country outcomes are realised. This circumstance demands for Cyril to invoke the mantra of Cyrus the Great of Persia – “Diversity in counsel Unity in Command”

The main contract to host the F.W.C (FIFA World Cup) was with SAFA. The fact remains that the country agreement which offered critical guarantees made the hosting possible. FIFA policies about non-governmental interference aside, the event would not have happened without the concurrence of a centrally coordinated compact between national, provincial and local government. The L.O.C (local organisation committee) composition and purpose illustrated a working operational partnership between the state (represented by no less than three ministers), Business and Organised Football. Government by extension coordinated operational issues through the L.O.C and host city forums which are made up largely of a partnership among the host cities, the stadium management companies and Business. The Central Government remained responsible for the desired outcomes which had more to do than with just football. There were also economic, social, physical infrastructure, spatial, etc, outcomes to be achieved. There were returns on investments to be realised too, safety and medical facilities were required, there were new road networks, new transportation models (Rea Vaya and others). There was an extensive marketing plan featuring Zakumi (the iconic 2010 mascot) and catchy slogans in all eleven national languages, such as ‘’feel it…it’s here’’ built a spirit of national pride and unity. A perfect illustration of Diversity in Counsel and Unity in Command.

The sad reality is that a few main capital infrastructure benefits remain. By design the organisational approaches, the institutions and operational tools that held the compact together were to host a time-bound event and not to catalyse and drive lasting change.
The same should not be said for the Covid-19 arrangements. The virus is not an event and will be here a little longer than Zakumi. The responses and the need for central coordination must ensure compliance with basic non-pharmaceutical behaviours, such as washing hands. Diversity in counsel – unity in command however, must also achieve more complex behaviours, including seeing professional shifts in government officials in all spheres, amongst educators, industrialists, economists, unionists, environmentalists, scientists, and lawmakers.

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed legal and political challenges to the authority of the President and the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCC). These challenges are misplaced, based on a national consciousness that fails to realise that the virus has merely highlighted a longstanding governance crisis. The economic and political crisis that built up over the last decade surely demanded the establishment of a system that would foster an ethos of diversity in counsel and unity in command reflected in a national central command centre with the same amount of zeal as has been shown with the epidemic? In fact, South Africa produced such a plan in 2012, the National Development Plan (NDP), but failed to set up a central command capability to coordinate its operationalisation across government departments, provinces, municipalities and state owned entities. A command centre that would be trusted to foster agreements with labour, business and community based organisations. A command centre run by the President and fully supported by all parties represented in the National Assembly. If there was a reason to change legislation and policies to fill the gaps and omissions that may be standing in the way of achieving this, then, let this be the first step towards resetting government, now and beyond Covid-19.

A quick audit of previous attempts towards establishing centralised centres of authority to deal not just with disasters but intractable issues relating to poverty, inequality and unemployment should help determine what it will take for the Centre to hold, now and post the pandemic. The common feature over the years has been the establishment of a responsibility in the Presidency to coordinate planning, budgeting, collaboration, performance monitoring, and evaluation of government interventions. This functionary would establish forums, normally chaired/championed by a Cabinet Minister, support inter- ministerial or special cabinet committees. They would be charged with the responsibility of supporting the President in the establishment of Intergovernmental coordination platforms involving provinces, municipalities and State Owned Entities (SOEs). History will show experiences from Ministers Naidoo, Manuel and lately Mthembu. These have not been sufficient to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved. There has been limited/no capacity to offer sanctions where performance monitoring and evaluation indicators have highlighted challenges in departments, provinces, municipalities and/or SOEs.

After 1982 the National Party developed such capacity in the office of the State President under PW Botha. Later on it was this Presidential power-base that allowed FW de Klerk to proceed with political reforms, even in the absence of overwhelming support in his party. It was precisely this institutional leverage that the NP did not want the ANC to inherit, so that much of this capacity was dismantled in the years before 1994. Mandela inherited a very weak centre. This suited many in the ANC for whom power should lie with the party and not with government. It was Thabo Mbeki that upset the balance who sought to build an apparatus to use at the centre of government with knowledge and capacity to coordinate government activities. His vision of the developmental state was received as a threat by Luthuli House and the revolt that took place at Polokwane must be understood in this context.

Zuma’s Presidency did not simply reassert the authority of Luthuli House over government, it also weakened the ability of the government to coordinate and plan from the centre. In so doing it empowered provincial, regional and local politicians sometimes against the central government leading to endless diversity in counsel that undermined unity in command.

Usually this took the form of non-compliance with national regulations, like, for example, National Treasury’s fiscal regulations. Sometimes it took on a political form, where provinces and regions became the power bases of local political barons, using state resources to develop their fiefdoms.

Blanket terms like corruption usually obscure these political fault lines behind a moralising discourse. Yet governing contemporary South Africa requires that we understand these dynamics. Policies that simply assume the authority of the central government are bound to crash against provincial and local walls. This remains true even if the technocratic capacity of the centre is strengthened. We are already seeing this manifest in how we trace the epidemic and work out accurately the rate of infection. Reportedly, local hospitals and provincial politicians are trying to vet information before it reaches the Command Council. Outside the Western Cape, therefore, there is a question mark about current statistics.

A proposal that a permanent Development Planning, Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Command Centre be established, requires serious consideration. That the President be the head of such a centre and the management responsibility be allocated to the Deputy President, and not to a Minister in the presidency. It has been difficult to maintain a “first among equals” arrangement in the various Cabinets. The Minister without portfolio, Jay Naidoo used to say: “ to request colleagues to volunteer their toes to be stepped on”. Most of the appropriations to fund priorities to meet the RDP outcomes came through departments. Most of the departments would have their own, parochial and narrow interests that they would consider ahead of the RDP/Special Presidential projects. The Alexandra Renewal Project is a very good example. A budget of R7bn was announced by President Mbeki in 2001. The budget was to be funded through a range of national and provincial allocations over 7 years. None of these commitments were realized. The City and Gauteng Province carried most of the burden. A solution to ensure that commitments are carried through, can be enhanced by the authority of the Deputy President, as the leader of government business, supported by stronger and deliberate appropriations, division of revenue provisions and other intergovernmental fiscal and operational relations frameworks.

A strong central coordination structure will be even more urgent as we move into a differentiated application of lockdown levels across the country and possibly within provinces; this is as we move from level 4 to level 3. Differentiation often leads to misinterpretations, miscommunications, competition for scarce resources, silos and mis- reporting and misinformation. The centre needs to be able to hold and provide leadership to adjudicate over competing interests. Gauteng is the epicentre but also the hub of the economy, Cape Town can easily be isolated from the rest of the province while it may be impossible to isolate Ekurhuleni in Gauteng. How to deal with the iLembe District in the context of the broader interests in KZN? How to balance the opening of schools with the need to provide basic services? How to measure the readiness of public and private schools without impinging on constitutional rights?

Designing and building a planning and response capacity in this context thus requires some careful balancing. We propose the following:

  1. The command council includes only key national ministers. It should be expanded to include Premiers from affected Provinces and Mayors and Municipal Managers in key municipalities.
  2. There should be a default rule that the command council recommends to the President. It should be the Presidents sole prerogative to make the final decision, Such decisions may be promulgated by various relevant Ministries through regulations.
  3. The role of the command council will be to develop a national plan on the basis of the latest epidemiological modelling.
  4. Beyond Covid 19, the command council must distinguish between strategic plans and operational/implementation plans, devolving operational/implementation planning to the district level. If the strategic plan needs to be based on good science, operational plans need to be reasonable, based on an assessment of what is actually do-able.
  5. It should be the responsibility of districts to build appropriate coalitions of delivery partners, including government departments and agencies and also NGOs and private companies.
  6. Local planning should be supported by senior national officials acting in an advisory role, rather than an executive one.
  7. Civil society and the media are often more effective guarantors of accountability than formal structures. Let them have access to all decision- making forums and places of delivery. Let national plans be subjected to scrutiny in the public domain. Let local operational plans also be subject to ongoing monitoring in the media and by civil society.
  8. What incentives can be put in place to ‘nudge’ cooperation and coordination? Social psychologists increasingly recognise the importance of ‘recognition’. Should we not celebrate successful operations by giving attention to the individuals, departments and companies that produced a good result?

Like Cyrus the great of Persia who won battles, Cyril can lead the battle against the coronavirus applying the tools of diversity in counsel and unity in command.

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