Now more than ever, nations, communities and companies need decisive, empathetic, and ethical leadership. The pandemic has dramatically exposed the difference between effective and inadequate leaders, but it has also shown that solidarity can drive greater collaboration and lead us towards a more sustainable future.
How government leaders have fared
Although governments have faced emergencies and disasters, there is no ‘playbook’ for a crisis of this magnitude, and most are improvising with disaster management legislation as a point of reference. Many leaders have made errors, some more egregious than others. But what exactly constitutes good leadership during a pandemic?
Qualities like accountability, decisive adaptability, and putting people first have been highlighted, while management consultancy McKinsey has indicated that visible, caring leadership is most relevant during a crisis.1 Being able to empathise with traumatised citizens is also vital, as is being led by scientific best practice.
Attributes like decisive action and honest communication have been critical, with those leaders moving quickly and issuing clear directives most widely praised. This included South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose decisive response to the crisis was noted by the World Health Organization (WHO).2 The South African Government acted fast in declaring a state of national disaster on 15 March and implementing a hard lockdown on 27 March – a move that likely averted about 20 000 deaths. According to Ask Afrika, which ran a survey in June, the president enjoyed a 76% approval rating, with 64% believing he had taken the lead in managing the pandemic.3
Leaders who have demonstrated a lack of empathy and compassion have largely alienated their citizens. President Ramaphosa has been broadly empathetic (if not always on hand to address the nation), unlike Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who responded to a journalist’s question about the record number of deaths in one day by saying: “So what? What do you want me to do?”4 It has been noted that right-wing populists have fared worst when it comes to managing the current crisis, and women leaders have fared best; it has also been suggested that “female-like values” are most effective during a pandemic: “resilience, courage, flexibility, listening, empathy, collaboration, caring and recognition of collective contribution”.5
Being guided by science
President Ramaphosa’s government has largely followed a science-led approach to the pandemic, unlike President Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump. Bolsonaro, best known for his anti-environmental agenda, is also a science sceptic. His governors have had to diverge from his leadership path to maintain WHO protocols. Meanwhile, Trump has frequently ignored scientific best practice and vaccine expert Dr Rick Bright was reportedly fired from his job for opposing the use of a drug touted by the president as a potential treatment for the virus. Such responses have eroded public trust and shown citizenry that their leaders are not genuinely concerned about their wellbeing.
In South Africa, science has proved central to the fight against Covid-19 (along with countering the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and ‘fake news’). Professor Salim Abdool Karim, epidemiologist and chair of South Africa’s Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee, has said South Africans are fortunate to have politicians who want and value scientific input, in contrast to other countries but also to former President Thabo Mbeki’s government, whose policies on HIV/Aids are said to have led to more than 300 000 deaths in the country. An internationally recognised Aids researcher, Karim had previously been accused of “disloyalty” by government.
Despite some dissention within the Ministerial Advisory Committee, government has indicated a willingness to collaborate on public health challenges, including with other political parties. A coordinated, evidence-based response has accelerated the Covid-19 fight: Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize has deployed medical experts, including senior epidemiologists, to bolster provincial teams engaged in testing and contact tracing, personally travelling to the provinces to oversee rollout. He has been mooted as a potential presidential successor to President Ramaphosa due to his effective communication and hands-on approach. The WHO specifically commended South Africa’s community-based approach, with the deployment of community health workers to fight the disease.6
Good intentions, problems with delivery
South Africa has published numerous lockdown regulations during the pandemic, many of which have been widely criticised. In June, the Pretoria High Court declared regulations promulgated for levels three and four as unconstitutional and invalid, with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs permitted to appeal. Some irrational regulations, like being unable to buy open-toes shoes or cooked chicken, and being allowed to visit a casino but not family members, have had no basis in science.
Harsher regulations to prevent the spread of Covid-19 were promulgated in July, including the reinstatement of an alcohol ban, a curfew, and criminal charges for employers, school principals and others who fail to ensure that people wear masks. In July, the Medical Research Council estimated that banning alcohol sales for another two months would free up close to 13 000 ICU beds for Covid-19 patients.7 Although some regulations have undoubtedly helped to save lives, the heavy-handed and apparently haphazard nature of the law-making has gradually eroded the trust and goodwill of the population.
Police have brutally enforced lockdowns and curfews in several African countries, with South Africa being one of the countries censured by the United Nations Human Rights Office for its “toxic lockdown culture”.8 Although President Ramaphosa asked members of the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force deployed to enforce the lockdown to respond with compassion, there have been disturbing reports of the use of rubber bullets, whips, beatings and humiliation to enforce compliance. This has been particularly noticeable in inner-city areas, where raids against residents have been conducted without warrants. This brutality has undermined the president’s stance and underscored the fact that violence is still embedded within the organisational culture of the security services.
Another example of noble intentions and less than adequate delivery is government’s programme for the provision of water. By the end of April, government had delivered 17 000 water tanks to communities in need, at a cost of R306 million, with the Department of Water and Sanitation discussing with National Treasury a further R831 million to continue the intervention. However, many of these tanks were not set up due to a lack of bricks and cement. Some community organisations claimed that municipalities sidelined them, despite their ability to mobilise quickly, and they felt allegations of corruption caused government to lose credibility.9
Changing business leadership
An Ipsos poll conducted in early April revealed that citizens placed more trust in government (61%) than in business (52%) to manage the crisis.10 Business Leadership South Africa chief executive Busisiwe Mavuso has suggested policy-makers look at what will enable the economy to adapt faster and asserted that companies need to respond with ingenuity and innovation. This will require new leadership thinking.
McKinsey has identified four shifts in the way CEOs have been leading during the pandemic – shifts that provide clues to what leadership should look like in the future. The first is to think ‘bigger and faster’, changing operations and policies almost overnight to respond to emerging demands. Companies that have acted boldly and with speed – like repurposing their products for the pandemic or reskilling their workforce – have proved their value during the pandemic. The second shift has been about making structural changes that allow for a more efficient use of time and other resources. This might include allowing employees to continue to work from home, cutting back on travel time, or even reducing the physical footprint of the company itself.
The third shift is for CEOs to bring more of themselves into the workplace, showing their more vulnerable side to their employees. According to Paul Tufano, CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas, displaying empathy and connecting with staff is more likely to “forge a stronger, more cohesive and motivated workforce”. Those CEOs who have shown up and been held accountable during the pandemic have generated a lot of goodwill among employees – a positive benefit that should be carried into the future. Finally, CEOs should recalibrate what leadership looks like within their organisations and focus on qualities of character and other attributes as much as skills. The leadership pipeline might look different if there is greater focus on emotional intelligence and more human-centred values.
Moral leadership from civil society
Non-profit organisations (NPOs) and community leaders were at the forefront of precautionary messaging when Covid-19 reached South Africa, with many individuals putting up posters or going door to door to deliver pamphlets. They have broadly supported government’s messaging around halting the transmission of the virus – a far cry from the days when government and civil society were at odds and NPOs were delegitimised by government, with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) having to fight for access to medicines for HIV. In July, the TAC called for greater openness and activism during Covid-19, adding that much of the global response to Covid-19 has grown out of the work done in response to HIV.
At the same time, NPOs have played a crucial role in calling government to account where moral leadership appears to be lacking. Gift of the Givers warned that having councillors distribute food parcels was not working as food parcels were being sold or stolen. The crisis has sparked new collaboration among all sectors of society. Gill Bates, CEO of Charities Aid Foundation SA (CAFSA), commented: “We are seeing increasing levels of collaboration and partnerships between the state, corporate sector and civil society. The Covid-19 pandemic requires a multi-sectoral approach – no one sector can manage the crisis alone.” However, the pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges faced by civil society, most notably funding insecurity and a mismatch between needs and resources.
Community Action Networks step up
Not everyone has been convinced by government’s leadership. With government struggling to extend food aid to communities, particularly in rural areas, Community Action Networks have stepped up to contribute half of all the food aid rolled out during the early months of the pandemic, according to the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership. The Gugulethu Community Action Network developed longer-term plans to alleviate hunger, including maintaining new community kitchens and expanding community gardens.
The newly established C19 People’s Coalition, an emerging civil society collective, was set up to ensure that government’s response is rooted in social justice and democratic principles. Their agile response has been seen as more effective than government’s approach. Supported by more than 250 NPOs, movements, trade unions, informal sector workers, feminist groups, faith-based organisations, research centres, and public health networks, this is the largest coalition South Africa has seen since the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983. It has aimed to provide moral leadership in the face of “abuse of power, corruption, human rights abuses, humiliating treatment, and violent assaults perpetrated by security forces” – and is paving the way for greater advocacy in this regard in future. In July, it demanded that government intervene urgently when a group called the Mzansi Patriotic Front asked for the mass deportation of foreigners, irrespective of them having citizenship or not.
South Africans have been urged to become active citizens and play a role in sustaining social cohesion beyond the crisis, which highlights the potential of citizen leadership, thus catalysing transformative change in society. As government, business, civil society, and citizen leaders work together to manage the Covid-19 crisis, South Africans still have much to do in terms of addressing the worst inequalities in society. With both existing and newly impoverished people more at risk of contracting the virus and dying due to complications, decision-makers need to make use of data, policy advice, and financial resources to protect vulnerable populations, now and beyond the pandemic, as resilient communities are better able to weather crises. They need to do this in a collaborative, bold and empathetic way.
1 Nielsen, N., D’Auria, G. & Zolley, S. (1 May 2020). Tuning in, turning outward: Cultivating compassionate leadership in a crisis. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/tuning-in-turning-outward-cultivating-compassionate-leadership-in-a-crisis
2 Maromo, J. (1 April 2020). Coronavirus in SA: WHO boss praises South Africa’s response to Covid-19 pandemic. https://www.iol.co.za/ news/politics/coronavirus-in-sa-who-boss-praises-south-africas-response-to-covid-19-pandemic-45923836
3 News24.com. (14 July 2020). SA is more terrified than ever of Covid-19, but trusts Ramaphosa to lead the country. https://www.news24.com/citypress/news/sa-is-more-terrified-than-ever-of-covid-19-but-trusts-ramaphosa-to-lead-the-country-20200714
4 The Lancet. (9 May 2020). COVID-19 in Brazil: “So what?” https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31095-3/fulltext
5 Champoux-Paillé, L. & Croteau, A. (13 May 2020). Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic. https://theconversation.com/why-women-leaders-are-excelling-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-138098
6 Bipat, J. (27 April 2020). Covid-19: WHO praises South Africa’s ‘community-based approach’ to fighting the disease. https://southcoastherald.co.za/402882/covid-19-who-praises-south-africas-community-based-approach-to-fighting-the-disease/
7 Khan, T. (13 July 2020). Booze ban could free up thousands of beds for Covid-19 patients, says Medical Research Council. https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/health/2020-07-13-booze-ban-could-free-up-thousands-of-beds-for-covid-19-patients-says-mrc/
8 Karrim, A. (28 April 2020). Covid-19: UN Human Rights Office concerned by excessive force, death reports during SA lockdown. https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/un-human-rights-office-highlights-toxic-lockdown-culture-in-sa-20200428
9 Ellis, E. (12 May 2020). Let community leaders lead the Covid-19 response at grassroots.https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-12-let-community-leaders-lead-the-covid-19-response-at-grassroots/
10 Ipsos.com. (6 April 2020). Online South Africans have more confidence in government than in business when it comes to Covid-19. https://www.ipsos.com/en-za/online-south-africans-have-more-confidence-government-business-when-it-come-covid-19-0