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Why our political leadership has fallen short in a time of crisis

- Associate Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s moment of truth arrived when he donned a military uniform minus rank, closely followed by his fumble to put on a face mask.

Both are symbolic of his naive belief that well-meaning gestures suffice.

When a crisis [or disaster] violently disrupts a society's way of life, who reacts first? And how? Do our leaders approach crises differently from their counterparts elsewhere?

A crisis is a sudden and unexpected event that threatens an established way of life.

Crises tend to disrupt people's understanding of the world around them and therefore test the resilience of a group or society and often expose the shortcomings of its leaders and public institutions.

In a crisis situation, a leader provides stability, reassurance, confidence and a sense of control. However, no leadership style is appropriate for all situations.

In fact, not much research is available on how leaders effectively respond to a crisis, and so we cannot easily identify the "ideal type" leader to manage a crisis, whether a "transactional" or "transformative" leader.

What we do know is that crises make and break political careers, unsettle bureaucracies and shape organisational destinies. Crises fix the spotlight on those who govern.

An analyst once noted that leaders may talk about national unity and the need for consensus in the face of a shared predicament, but this reflects only part of their reasoning.

Their other calculus, less visible to the public, concerns contested issues: dilemmas of responsibility and accountability, of avoiding blame and claiming credit.

Crisis leadership involves five critical tasks: sense making, decision-making, meaning making, terminating and learning.

How well do our national leaders perform these tasks?

Task one: Sense-making

This involves "consensus building" among key decision-makers; also known as constructing a "definition of the situation".

Leaders must understand the threat and decide what the crisis is about.

But there are several barriers to crisis recognition, including lack of reliable information, cognitive biases, limited understanding, pressures of time.

The South African government under President Ramaphosa was quick on the uptake.

It rapidly "defined the situation", with the aid of expert advice and the recognition that government does not have the full ability to interpret incoming messages about the unfolding crisis.

Think of the timeline.

Covid-19 started to spread from Wuhan in late December last year and went global in January this year. On 5 March, the first case was reported in South Africa.

The World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on 11 March.

President Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster on 17 March and announced a 21-day lockdown, which started on 26 March, and extended it on 9 April. This is evidence of a leader who understands the threat and his ability to take action.

Task Two: Decision-making

Crises leave governments and public agencies with pressing issues to be addressed. Available scarce resources will have to be prioritised.

Time to think and respond is limited.

Crises force governments and leaders to confront issues they do not face on a daily basis, such as deployment of the military, the use of lethal force or the restriction of civil liberties.

An effective response also requires inter-agency and intergovernmental coordination. The question of who is in charge typically arouses great passion.

Group dynamics become important.

Crisis teams work well when its members communicate and share, can rely on skilled decision-making support and multi-discipline analysts, display trust and are clear on who leads and who advises.

Here the country runs into problems.

Government created a decision-making body to manage the crisis - the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), co-chaired by the president and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

It seemingly works closely with the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) - an elaborate structure under the leadership of Dlamini-Zuma and the National Joint Intelligence and Operational Structure (NatJoints), under the leadership of Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) advises government, presumably via Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, a key member of the NCCC.

So too does the chair of the 50-strong ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, Professor Salim Abdool Karim.

The president also consults advisory councils and other individuals and structures. Apparently the recently-announced re-established National Security Council is not in play.

It is not difficult to conclude that the more elaborate the decision-making structures, and vague the core team's composition and mandate, the higher the chance for miscommunication, misalignment and contestation.

Evidence of messy decision-making is emerging and civil society is testing the constitutionality of aspects of this complex decision-making architecture.

Task Three: Meaning-making

A crisis generates a strong demand from citizens to know what is going on and to determine what they can do to protect their interests. Authorities cannot always provide correct information right away.

They struggle with the amount of raw data (reports, rumours, pictures) that quickly amass when something extraordinary happens. Turning them into a coherent picture of the situation is a major challenge by itself.

Getting it out to the public in the form of accurate, clear and actionable information requires a major communication effort.  If they do not, or cannot, their decisions will not be understood or respected.

Here, the record is mixed. 

President Ramaphosa's occasional (but not quite regular) high-level addresses to the nation is a necessary part of crisis decision-making. What follows is of concern.


Members of his Cabinet, who double up as members of the NCCC, regularly brief the nation on government's approach to the crisis.

Communication strategies are awkward, Cabinet members are combative and personal and one contradicted the president on a key issue.

Press briefings are not regularised and communication sometimes fail to inspire. Weak communication strategies result in a nation increasingly doubting and disrespecting the message.

Task Four: Terminating

Governments cannot stay in crisis mode forever. A sense of normalcy will have to return sooner or later. At the strategic level, it requires rendering account for what has happened and gaining acceptance for this account.

Political accountability is a key institutional practice in the crisis-termination game.

The burden of proof in accountability discussions lies with leaders: they need to show who is responsible for the occurrence or escalation of a crisis.

Does our political system allow for accountability?

The complexity of the crisis decision-making structure as discussed above raises questions. Political leaders are held accountable via our political system.

This allows for the executive to be held accountable by the legislature (Parliament) and judiciary (Constitutional Court).

Arguably, the president and Cabinet (and National Security Council) would be the ideal structure for managing the crisis - AND be held to account for its decisions and choices.

The NCCC and NatJoints (and ProvJoints) are not accountable to the public via the legislature and judiciary, creating concerns about the possibility of avoiding responsibility for critical decisions that might damage more than mitigate.

Task Five: Learning

A final strategic leadership task in crisis management is political and organisational lesson drawing. The crisis experience offers a reservoir of potential lessons for contingency planning and training for future crises.

But can governments and leaders learn from crisis experience and apply this as a standard of the decision-making process?

The evidence is unclear. President Ramaphosa and his team of reformers seemingly want to make use of the crisis to explore the opportunity of deep structural reform – addressing the state of the state and economy.

The jury is out on whether opposing factions in the ruling party will allow him to drive this narrative - in a sense, the battle for "Radial Economic Transformation" has yet to conclude.

Similar to political scientist Jared Diamond, we can apply a final test to the nation's leaders:

  • Have you built a national consensus on the nature of our crisis?
  • Do you take individual and collective responsibility to solve the problem, or do you blame others?
  • Do you reach out to other nations for help?
  • Are you able to undertake honest self-appraisal?
  • In your behaviour, do you reflect the core values of our identity and character?

In reflecting on these penetrating questions, I postulate that despite best intentions, the ruling ANC has not been able to unite the young and restless post-apartheid nation around an inclusive vision of how to address its major challenges: poverty and inequality, and resultant social deprivations; the corrosive influence of money and power; and the inability - demonstrated at Nasrec - to undertake honest self-appraisal.

Consequently our leaders’ management of the externally-induced Covid-19 crisis falls short of our expectations.

United team work is required – meaning well-defined, coordinated and accountable roles for state and non-state actors alike.

Without this, politicians might turn to the politics of promoting the self, in the process overriding the constitutional niceties left us by a well-meaning Codesa team of reformers.

This approach might inspire and create the space for disruptive forces to go for a political power grab and with it, a return to State Capture, version 2.0 - with the R500 billion relief package as the first prize.

This article first appeared on News24.