Fighting Covid-19: The rise of the premiers

NEWS ANALYSIS

If President Cyril Ramaphosa is the lead actor in South Africa’s Covid-19 disaster epic, it’s his ministers, tasked with drafting and enforcing national lockdown regulations, who are the supporting cast. But in the background, providing the human face and holding the scene together are South Africa’s provincial premiers. 

Provincial hospitals will bear the brunt of the public health crisis of the coronavirus spread. Public schools, overseen by provincial departments, will have to deal with the fallout of a critical loss of teaching time and, in the worst-case scenario, the cancellation of the school year.

Provincial social development and welfare departments will have the unenviable task of handling a food-shortage disaster that will affect the poor and working class if the lockdown limiting movement and the running of the economy continue indefinitely.

Provincial governments are the ones at the forefront of this  Covid-19 fight. The weight of the task ahead sits on the shoulders of provincial leaders.

That’s why it’s no surprise that, according to sources, Ramaphosa is getting some pushback in the presidential co-ordinating council handling the national response to the pandemic.

Premiers in South Africa’s most economically developed provinces (which also happen to be the worst hit by Covid-19 cases) are said to be offering their own solutions, specific to their province, in tackling the crisis, while being guided by the national strategy.

The premiers of the three worst-affected provinces, Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, have not wasted any time in showing they’re capable of leading and being the public face of the pandemic response in their provinces.

From Gauteng Premier David Makhura’s online press conferences and on-the-ground style of leadership and Western Cape Premier Alan Winde’s Facebook question and answer sessions and prompt release of provincial infection statistics to KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala’s exercise tips to keep the mind and body healthy, premiers have been sure to be seen at the forefront of informing the public and boosting morale.

Political analyst and lecturer at the University of Cape Town Sanusha Naidu said the roles and importance of provincial government are coming to the fore during the pandemic in a manner that has not yet been seen in South Africa’s history.

“Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic of this nature and this proportion to see this kind of leadership to emerge in South Africa in the relationship that premiers have with the national, and the national with provincial governments,” Naidu said.

Provincial leaders have gone out of their way to drop the suit jacket and tie and roll up the sleeves in coordinating their provincial response.

They’re embracing technology — live-streaming press briefings and releasing videos on social media — thereby bypassing the traditional media filter and speaking directly to residents.

“They’ve all been very visible. They haven’t been hiding behind their offices. You’ve seen a visibly shaken Alan Winde when the first deaths in the Western Cape were announced. You see David Makhura on the ground being very visible. Even Sihle Zikalala being very visible, especially with the spike in cases there in KZN. And they’re getting the support from their MECs. So it does show that we can do,” Naidu said.

Naidu added that the Covid-19 pandemic will put the ongoing debate on the need and number of provinces on hold for now. The ANC has for some time now been suggesting that the number of provinces be cut.

Naidu said provinces and premiers are showing themselves to be the link between the national government in Tshwane, and local government in every city, town and village in the country.

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