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Appoint a war Cabinet now to tackle Covid-19 crises

- William Gumede

SA should fire the current Cabinet and set up a national “emergency” one with the best talents in the country prevent it from plunging down the cliff.

This is the biggest crisis of our generation, and the way we deal with it will determine whether the economy will continue to spin into freefall, political instability surges and social order breaks down. Unless we change the Cabinet leadership course now, we will have no country left, either for ourselves, our children and the generations to come.

A “war”, “emergency” or rather Covid-19 Cabinet would be an executive committee to specifically manage the combined financial, social and health crises unleashed by Covid-19. Its main objective would be to bring together all South Africa’s skills, resources and institutions behind the single purpose of overcoming the economy, social and health impact of Covid-19.

Typically, such “war” Cabinets are small in size, maximum eight people for nimble decision-making. It cannot be as unwieldingly large as the current Cabinet, rank one of the largest Cabinets when compared to those of our better performing peer country competitors.

Such a “war” Cabinet would be dissolved once the Covid-19 storm subsides. The extraordinary crises that Covid-19 unleashed, means that current institutions will have to be adapted, and quickly so, to deal with the changing needs of society, economy and government.

This current Cabinet in its structure, the people and the laborious way it conducts its business is simply not equipped to tackle this massive crisis. It should be abandoned, if at least temporary until the crisis is passed.  Some of the current ministers, if they are to be retained, presumably for political reasons, rather than competence, should be limited to overseeing the administrative running of their departments.

The Covid-19 crisis is unprecedented in South African history. The often repeated saying by government leaders that we have defeated apartheid and therefore we will defeat Covid-19, is not just being silly, it is underestimating the crisis and it leads to the current frightening complacency at the highest levels of government.

The Covid-19 financial, social and health crises can only be defeated with a clear plan, the best people to manage it and mobilizing all the country’s resources.

A “war” Cabinet should include the best professionals, industry leaders and figures from opposition parties with proven expertise, capabilities and acumen. They should not only consist of members of the ANC, but be drawn from opposition parties and those without any particular party affiliation.

The current Cabinet is not fit for purpose to deal with the crisis South Africa finds itself in. With the current Cabinet in charge of managing this once-in-century crisis, South Africa is likely to fail miserably. Now more than ever, expertise, new ideas and fresh energy is needed to guide South Africa.

The leadership of the public administration which steers public service delivery during “peace” time lacks the capacity, ideas and talent to lead the Covid-19 delivery effort. In “peace” times the public service has failed spectacularly to do the most basic functions; to expect the public service to deliver in Covid-19 times is a fallacy.

Mike Mlengana summed up the appalling state of the public service, when resigned a few weeks ago as Director General of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. Mlengana could have been speaking for the entire public sector when said that he quitted because his department was characterised by “large-scale and widespread inefficiencies at all levels”, and that “current structures and human capital are not geared for effective implementation”, and that there is an “absolute lack of delivery knowledge and work ethic”.

The capacity, resources and talents of the public sector, private sector and civil society will have to be combined to tackle Covid-19. It is certainly delusional for the government leaders to still carry on as if this inefficient public sector can on its own navigate the country successfully through this terrifying Covid-19 crisis.

A new “war” Cabinet would not only oversee the government’s Covid-19 response, but also coordinate the project management of the joint efforts of the public sector, private sector and civil society. To deal with the lack of public sector capacity, the private sector and civil society could each be assigned to delivery specific services, which is the state is either incapable of doing or doing ineffectively.

South Africa is faced with extraordinary crises, demanding extraordinary measures, one of these is to bring the best talents to head the structures that oversee the recovery effort, and pooling all the country’s institutions, talents and resources, behind the single purpose of overcoming the multiple Covid-19 crises.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). The article was first published in the Sunday Times.