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What Ramaphosa’s COVID-19 decisions say about South Africa’s democracy

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. GCIS

Early this year, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa put forward the idea of a “social compact” as a means to consult and build consensus for reviving the country’s ailing economy. He used the same principle to build broad consensus around the national state of disaster he declared in March to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has been under lockdown since 27 March.

Ramaphosa emphasised inclusive decision-making informed by scientific evidence. Such an approach would serve to depoliticise and rationalise decision-making. That’d create more national coherence and allow for benevolent “post-democratic” decision-making.

This approach enjoyed a great deal of public support in the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, and presented Ramaphosa in statesman-like terms. But, since the downscaling of the restrictions began, and lobbying by different sectors included in the process intensified, that consensus no longer exists.

Initially, decision-making was simple, and was dominated by government. But it gradually became more complex as the implications of disaster management became clearer.

More diversity makes consensus more difficult. Democratic openness makes it difficult to achieve long-term consensus positions. It also requires continuous consultation and information-sharing to sustain enough support for the decisions. That has become Ramapahosa’s main task to protect the legitimacy of the lockdown.

At an early stage the role played by state intelligence and security agencies became public. At the end of March, transport minister Fikile Mbalula mentioned that the State Security Agency processed most of the lockdown regulations for approval by the National Command Council, the main government body charged with managing the crisis.

In May the role of the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure was explained. Its responsibilities were to conduct the daily monitoring of the lockdown dynamics and to draft plans to be approved by the National Command Council.

Read more: Who has been hit hardest by South Africa's lockdown? We found some answers

Reliable intelligence for the police and even health institutions is an indispensable requirement for managing such a disaster situation. It serves as a second source of information alongside the line-function departments.

Most important is the paradigmatic nature of the information. That determines intelligence agencies’ influence on decision-making. For example, do they and government view the situation through the lens of crime prevention or the need for human security and safety?

Responsiveness to pressure

Government decision-making is the product of value choices. Uncertainty exists about what determines the decisions. For example, does it have to do with public health or economic imperatives; crime prevention, law-enforcement, or public safety and civil responsibility considerations?

Decisions are not necessarily about stark binary choices. They’re more often than not about combining different imperatives.

Decision-making reached a critical stage when the risk level of the disaster regulations had to be reviewed to reopen large parts of the economy, and to allow for some schooling.

Firstly, the diversity of inputs into the decision-making process increased. Pressure from business increased and public opinion became more prominent. But it also got more fragmented. This was particularly true when it came to restrictions on alcohol and tobacco and a curfew. Interest groups expected to be consulted or threatened legal action.

Secondly, more attention was given to the government’s internal dynamics, and the personalities of Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the minister responsible for managing the disaster regulations. Speculation about a power struggle between them for control over government’s decision-making received a lot of attention.

A close analysis of Ramaphosa’s presidential speeches indicates an increase in responsiveness to pressure. Most apparent is the pressure from the business and financial sector. The example set by other states in how they approached a lowering of lockdown restrictions was acknowledged by Ramaphosa as a factor he also takes into account.

He conceded in his third speech that some of the regulations were contradictory and not sensible. He also apologised for mistakes made by the political leaders. Critical public opinion clearly showed its effect.

Read more: COVID-19 recovery is a chance to improve the African food system

Government insisted that its actions were informed by scientific advice. But some of the health scientists advising it publicly challenged it. This indicates how decision-making changed over time. The scientists’ perceived marginalisation led them to claim that the new regulations were “unscientific”.

But changes in the government’s decision-making requirements changed from public health care science to scientific modelling of the pandemic’s future scenarios. Other “competing” scientific inputs also became part of the decision calculations. This included economic forecasting provided by the presidential Economic Advisory Council as well as forecasting by economists and market analysts in public debates.

Litigation and public opinion

Litigation is a growing feature of the pandemic landscape. It has challenged the constitutionality of the National Command Council, some of the regulations, police and military brutality, the criteria for financial assistance to small businesses and related matters.

The relevance of litigation for decision-making should be noted. Examples of its impact are that Ramaphosa now refrains from referring to the Command Council in public. Parliament has become more active, while he emphasises his broad consultation approach.

A notable feature is how some national ministers are struggling with decision-making and public communication. Regulations within their domains are often delayed, amended or withdrawn. This happened in the reopening of schools. After the tobacco debacle, Ramaphosa stopped making pronouncements about specific regulations, and appears to be much better organised.

What is the message for the South African public?

Public opinion and democracy

Decision-making now takes into account many of the societal pressures. At the same time the government has to find a compromise between competing interests. The important point is that the various strains of public opinion have had a direct impact on decision-making.

This is expected of well-established democracies. For South Africa to allow so much public influence in decisive matters under difficult conditions is an important plus factor.

In essence, the more complex and diverse the decision process has become in South Africa, the more the public debate challenges aspects of it, the more evidence shows that the way the government takes its decisions does not point to a democratic regression, but rather adherence to a democratic sentiment. This is not accounted for by those who warn of a totalitarian apocalypse in the country.

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