Faced with the biggest challenge of any post-apartheid South African leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa has also been given a rare opportunity to push through the painful reforms the economy needs.
The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the
country losing the last investment-grade rating on its debt have silenced his critics, both within his party and the opposition. It’s also allowed him to project the statesmanship for which he was famed when he negotiated the end of white-minority rule more than a quarter of a century ago.
After two years of criticism for a slow response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and delays in implementing key policy reforms, Ramaphosa’s swift reaction to the pandemic has been praised. South Africa beat worse-hit countries in Europe and North America in closing schools and then imposing a lockdown. The president has come across as compassionate and decisive in a series of national addresses and has demonstrated an ability to work with both labour unions and business.
“The president has stepped up to the plate here in an extraordinary way,” said Martin Kingston, vice president of Business Unity South Africa, the country’s biggest corporate lobby group. “Crisis creates a furnace in which we are forging extraordinary partnerships.”
In seemingly taking to heart Winston Churchill’s saying “never let a good crisis go to waste,” the government has already used the cover of the economic fallout of the virus to tackle one of its biggest problems. On March 18, it said it would renege on a costly agreement to raise pay for most of the country’s 1.3 million civil servants by more than inflation and would instead leave their wages unchanged.