C-19: Africa’s “wicked problem”: An Africa in Fact pandemic blog series

How African governments go about the challenges of dealing with the pandemic will shape the future of the continent for many years. In this Africa in Fact series of blogs, six of our correspondents across the continent will report over the next twelve weeks on aspects of their governments’ policies and actions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the corona virus a pandemic on 11 March, and most governments, including many African governments, have adopted a range of measures to contain it. Most countries have opted for a lockdown, with citizens required to stay at home and observe social distancing when not at home. The Asian Development Bank estimated that the drop in economic activity will cost between $5.8 tn and $8.8 tn, equal to between 6.4% and 9.7% of global economic output (BBC, 15 May 2020).

The Asian Development Bank estimated that the drop in economic activity will cost between $5.8 tn and $8.8 tn, equal to between 6.4% and 9.7% of global economic output (BBC, 15 May 2020).

In their lack of preparedness, governments and elites around the world show that they have failed to learn the lesson of the crisis of 2008, commented Nobel-prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz on 15 April in Foreign Policy: they had been happy to create a new international financial system that was “good at absorbing small shocks, but was systemically fragile”. They had not, he suggested, planned for systems that were resilient to large shocks.

Other prominent global thinkers also briefly outlined their views on the core issues relating to the pandemic. Most were concerned that businesses and governments would resort to economic nationalism, and that the crisis will usher in growing inequality both within and between nations with many attendant issues, such as food security and energy security. Global trends toward digitalisation and work automation will also likely speed up – further widening the technological gap between the developed and developing countries. Many businesses (mostly small companies) and jobs will be lost.

While the pandemic is the first crisis to “engulf” both developed and developing economies, according to Harvard’s Carmel M Reinhart, it will likely have very different effects on them. The poor living conditions of most of Africa’s inhabitants will make it difficult to contain and mitigate the pandemic, while some governments’ “neglect of marginalised segments of society” has left many people vulnerable to the disruption of such a large-scale shock, according to Eddie Ndopu, a UN Secretary-General’s Advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals (weforumorg, 1 April 2020).

In mid-April, the ILO said the pandemic would destroy 195 million jobs globally and “drastically cut the income of another 1.25 billion, most of whom are already poor”. The pandemic is a “magnifying glass” on inequality both in and between countries, according to columnist Andreas Kluth (Bloomberg, 13 April 2020). In the US, the wealthy can self-isolate while workers must continue working, thus facing a greater risk of infection. The virus moves faster through poor neighbourhoods, and disproportionally kills black people.

Yet these social differences are even more extreme in a “shantytown in India or South Africa”, Kluth points out. For many people in developing countries, social distancing is impossible. Moreover, as Richard Cash and Vikram Patel argue in 2 May 2020 article in The Lancet, lockdown conditions are also not practicable, and hunger is an immediate threat to the two billion people who work in informal economies around the globe. As a result, inappropriate policies aimed at addressing the pandemic might result in more social uprisings, especially in developing countries.

Estimates of the immediate, public health effects of the coronavirus on Africa vary widely. A mid-April report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa predicated some 1,2 billion infections and 3.3. million deaths in Africa from the virus over the next year. However, the WHO estimates that about a quarter of a billion Africans will be infected, and that the continent will suffer about 190,000 deaths from the virus. It must be said that the reports are not strictly comparable, as they are based on different sets of data.

The WHO estimates that about a quarter of a billion Africans will be infected, and that the continent will suffer about 190,000 deaths from the virus.

The WHO study argues, for instance, that Africa’s youthful population will contribute to lower transmission rates. It is believed that the Covid-19 virus is more infectious and fatal for older people, for men, and for the obese. If so, lifestyle factors, such as the continent’s relatively low proportion of obese people, may help, as Karen McVeigh suggests, writing in The Guardian on 15 May 2020. But in reality, both studies are based on limited assumptions. “Prediction”, as the scientists insist, is a matter of probabilities.

“[A] disproportionate share of the world’s poor risk massive upheaval as health, political, and economic systems struggle to manage the pandemic,” according to Kaysie Brown and Megan Roberts, two senior officers of the UN Foundation (‘Tackling COVID-19’, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 March 2020). Of all the continents, Africa is likely to be most seriously affected on every level.

No fewer than 33 African countries are among the least developed in the world. According to a 2016 RAND Corporation report, 22 out of the 25 countries most vulnerable to infection outbreaks are in Africa (Kaan Devecioglu 2 April 2020, Andolu Agency). “The welfare of a billion people depends on how governments balance saving lives from the virus while minimising economic damage in a continent where more than 400m people live on the equivalent of less than $1.90 a day,” according to The Economist on 26 March 2020.

In this series of blogs, six Africa in Fact correspondents across the continent will use the “wicked problem” lens to report on their governments’ policies and actions. In outline, a “wicked problem” has “multiple stakeholders involved in complex and unpredictable interactions”, according to Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014). More specifically, “wicked problems” may have no definitive description, nor any one “correct” solution, and it can even be difficult to know when and if they have been solved. Our blog series will look at the following six broad themes, each of which represents part of the C-19 “wicked problem”:

  • Leadership Style;
  • Rule of Law;
  • Work and Jobs;
  • Public Health Measures;
  • Social Support Measures; and
  • Planning The Future We Want.

Each of these areas represents a choice out of many options. But each theme selects an area of life, at least, that is clearly crucial to Africa’s future. How, in fact, have African governments been dealing with this unprecedented crisis in these areas?

Certainly the Covid-19 pandemic represents “something new under the sun”, according to Columbia University’s Adam Tooze. No crisis in the modern world has been so extensive, multi-facetted, or fraught with large but unpredictable consequences. Governments around the world, and African governments in particular, face immense pressures and challenges.

No crisis in the modern world has been so extensive, multi-facetted, or fraught with large but unpredictable consequences.

Yet as noted, in policy studies, such situations can be described as “wicked problems” and they can be addressed. They involve multiple stakeholders in complex and unpredictable interactions. That is, every complex problem has constituent parts in various relationships with each other. Together, they make up the overall shape, or structure, of the problem. A systemic analysis of a “wicked problem” will start, then, by looking closely at the stakeholders involved, as well as their relationships and their perspectives. The approach is outlined in the following steps:



  1. Who and what are the elements of the problem situation?
  1. How do their processes contribute to the situation?
  1. What sort of relationships exist between them? (friendly, antagonistic e.g.)
  1. What patterns emerge from these relationships?
  1. Which relationships are key to the situation?



  1. Which stakeholder roles are key to solving the situation?
  1. What are the key stakes involved?
  1. What are the stakeholders’ perspectives on the situation?
  1. How do their perspectives shape their actions and expectations?



  1. Which key relationships are privileged and marginalised?
  1. Which key perspectives are privileged and marginalised?
  1. What ethical, political and pragmatic considerations are important?[1]


This approach does not, and cannot aim at a particular “solution” that is specified beforehand. The angle we take on the problem will influence our decisions in each of these areas.

In the context of Africa’s response to the C-19 crisis, stakeholders might be governments, scientists, citizens, and medical supplies companies, for example. Or they might be governments, workers, businesses and legal advisers. Similarly, the relationships between stakeholders will be shaped by the angle we take. Pharmaceutical companies might have a cooperative or an antagonistic relationship with government, depending on context.

And finally, even how we evaluate the overall situation – that is, what we regard as a “solution” – will also be partly determined by the angle we take. Is the main purpose to protect public health? Or is it to protect the economy? Or to ensure that the country is closed to outside influence? And how might policymakers be influenced to protect health and economic dynamism simultaneously?

“Wicked problems” may appear intractable, but they have been effectively studied and addressed just because they are an increasingly influential factor in modern societies. Very different answers to these questions are playing out in different governments’ responses to the crisis today. And as with other “wicked problems”, we believe that a clearly outlined systemic approach to the major themes of Africa’s C-19 crisis can provide a helpful backdrop to evaluating and strengthening the response of African governments to the pandemic.


We are pleased to have a stellar group of writers working with us on this series. They are:

Vanessa Offiong – Abuja, Nigeria

Amindeh Atabong – Yaounde, Cameroon

Tamrat Georgis – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Mark Kapchanga – Nairobi, Kenya

Sarah Nyengerai – Harare, Zimbabwe

Owen Gagare – Harare, Zimbabwe

Paula Fray – Johannesburg, South Africa


To find out more about each of them, check out their biographies elsewhere in this Africa in Fact microsite. Each of the countries they work from is having a very different experience of this C-19 crisis. We look forward to hearing from them over the next twelve weeks as they build up a truly pan-African picture of the pandemic and what our governments are doing, or could better be doing, to mitigate it.


We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.


[1] Adapted from Williams and Van ‘t Hof, Wicked Solutions, 2014, pp 18-22.


Richard Jurgens is editor of Africa in Fact. He spent ten years in exile with the ANC, in Africa and Europe. Since 1994 he has worked as a journalist, editor, translator and writer, with experience in South Africa and Europe in mainstream media, corporate communications and alternative media. An author with several books to his name, he has a BA (Hons) in philosophy and is currently pursuing a Master’s in public policy studies at the Wits School of Governance.

A long and potholed road

Sustainable stock exchanges

Markets around the world are adopting the environmental, social and good governance agenda, but “integrated reporting” faces problems in Africa

By Richard Jurgens

In August 2012, police fired on a crowd of striking miners in Marikana, in South Africa’s platinum mining belt, killing 34. The miners were demanding higher wages from their employer, Lonmin, a London-listed firm. Poverty, unemployment and a lack of basic amenities added to their militancy and sense of grievance. Shockingly reminiscent of apartheid-era crowd shootings, the incident made headline news around the world. The South African government came under scrutiny, while Lonmin was accused of bad corporate citizenship. A later commission of inquiry concluded that the company had failed to provide adequate protection for its workers during the strike and that it had not delivered housing for its workers despite previous commitments. The “Marikana massacre”, as it has become known, brought the question of companies’ responsibility for the broader context of their operations sharply into focus. A February 2015 study by Credit Suisse, a huge Swiss bank, lists it as a glaring example of “owner responsibility” for company caused disasters, along with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, both in 2010, among others.

At the time of the incident, the idea and practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR) were well established in South Africa. During the 1980s influential business figures in the country had introduced programmes to tackle urban development and education projects. They also lobbied against the “harshest elements of the apartheid state’s policies”, according to a study by Ralph Hamann of the University of Cape Town. In 1994 with the advent of democracy, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) adopted a code of corporate governance developed by Mervyn E. King, a retired Supreme Court judge. The code established guidelines for responsible investment and sustainable business practices for directors and company boards. A 2002 version of the King code included a section on sustainability. A further revision in 2009 integrated sustainability into business reporting. The latest version, due in early 2016, seeks to incorporate smaller businesses and not-for-profits, according to the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa, a Johannesburg- based NGO that promotes professional directorship.

The King code reflected ideas about CSR that had first gained currency in the 1950s with the emergence of studies in America on the social responsibilities of businesses. Some prominent figures, including the influential economist Milton Friedman, opposed it, claiming that businesses’ only role was to make money for their shareholders. But the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, in which millions of gallons of oil were spilt into an Alaskan bay after a tanker grounded, gave CSR new prominence. Responding to the Exxon slick, a group of American shareholders formed the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (Ceres). A few years later, Ceres and the Tellus Institute, based in Boston, Massachusetts, established the Global Reporting Initiative to promote business environmental reporting. Its scope was then broadened to include social, economic and governance issues. “Businesses are expected to report not just on profit but on their impact on the wider economy, society and the environment,” according to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, based in London.

The result, in a term coined by CSR authority John Pilkington, has been a growing convergence on so-called “triple bottom-line reporting”, which integrates a company’s performance related figures under three headings: social, environmental and financial (sometimes referred to as “people, planet and profit”). In recent years, business acceptance of integrated reporting has grown rapidly. According to a 2013 study by consulting firm KPMG, 71% of 9,100 companies surveyed in 41 countries were reporting on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in their businesses in 2013, up from 64% of companies surveyed two years before. A 2014 report by consultancy Black Sun and the International Integrated Reporting Council, a coalition of regulators, investors, companies and NGOs, found that 92% of companies that had adopted integrated reporting said it had improved their understanding of value creation. In 2010 the JSE became the world’s first stock exchange to make ESG reporting mandatory for its listed companies.

Only the year before, the UN had established a Sustainable Stock Exchanges (SSE) programme to foster greater corporate transparency. It required stock exchanges, investors, regulators and companies to adopt best practices on ESG issues. In 2012, the UN initiated an exchange programme to get bourses around the world to learn from each other’s sustainability experience. The JSE was among the first five members, with one other African bourse, the Egyptian Stock Exchange, as well as BM&FBovespa in Brazil, Borsa Istanbul in Turkey and Nasdaq in the US. The JSE continued to play a leadership role in advancing the sustainability agenda when it co-chaired the World Federation of Stock Exchanges’ sustainability working group, which was started in 2014. The Nigerian and Kenyan bourses have also joined the SSE. Four African countries were among the first SSE members to distribute a communiqué informing domestic and international investors of the sustainability measures in place at these exchanges.

Yet while the JSE has been at the forefront of CSR initiatives on the continent, much work remains to be done. “CSR in sub-Saharan Africa is still in its infancy,” according to a 2009 study by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development with funding by the British High Commission in South Africa. In 2014 the London-based Association of Chartered Certified Accountants found that the JSE was “the only exchange [in sub-Saharan Africa] with any form of ESG reporting requirement”. Several barriers are still preventing the adoption of CSR practices throughout the continent, according to the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector arm. These include “knowledge gaps, dominant investment practices that are hard to change…poorly applied regulations at both company and/ or investor levels and the incorrect perception of [sustainable investment] as only ‘ethical’ investment”. A critical obstacle to ESG reporting worldwide, and especially in Africa, is whether it offers business benefits to the companies that adopt it.

The SSE encourages stock exchanges to adopt voluntary initiatives and education programmes to help companies incorporate sustainability without imposing burdens of time and cost that would prevent them from doing so. “Some critics believe that sustainability reporting is a costly process that is impractical for companies in developing countries,” says Anthony Miller, a SSE coordinator. “But real-life experience from Brazil to Egypt to India to Vietnam, is proving that this is not the case. Where exchanges are introducing innovative voluntary initiatives, companies are responding with practical low-cost approaches that result in more and better ESG information for the market.” The main task for African bourses is to change the mindset of businesses, said Martyn Davies in 2010, then of the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg. “CSR should not be about charity,” he says. “CSR should create competitive communities who benefit from their natural resources.” So what went wrong in Marikana?

Lonmin was not the only actor implicated: the commission of inquiry questioned the actions of politicians and senior police officers. Other factors were to blame, too. While critical of Lonmin, Marikana residents were also scathing about the local council, according to the same report. They saw it as corrupt and unable to deliver essential services. Union officials were also implicated. “There seems to be no doubt that a turf war between two miners’ unions played a key role in setting up the context for the massacre,” said the Ethics Institute of South Africa in an undated comment on its website. Union leaders had “taken a very narrow view of [their] responsibilities”, the independent organisation said. The King code ought to be applied to other institutional role-players, including the unions, the comment noted. Meanwhile, Lonmin was facing financial constraints. “[Its] first-half profits had decreased nearly 90% compared to the same period the year before. Production and platinum prices were down, while the company’s net debt had increased by 20% since the year before [the massacre],” according to a November 2013 report by Global Research, a Canadian independent research and media association.

In addition, the company risked violating its bank loan covenants that depended on delivering good results. A November 2013 study by Ross Harvey for the South African Institute of International Affairs has also highlighted the role of the migrant labour system in the Marikana platinum belt. Mining houses, including Lonmin, attempted to ameliorate the situation by paying workers “living out” allowances rather than accommodating them in the hostels that were an apartheid legacy. But the Marikana mineworkers then found themselves maintaining a second household—a factor that contributed to their wage demands. Corporate social investment, he concludes, was not adequate to dealing with “the legacy effects of migrant labour”. If Marikana serves as an example, the effective implementation of CSR depends significantly on the context in which it is applied. Businesses may be held accountable to strict measures of their wider impact while other interested parties, including government, labour and the police are not. This raises the question of the effectiveness of CSR reporting requirements in Africa, even where they are in place.


Richard Jurgens is editor of Africa in Fact. He spent ten years in exile with the ANC, in Africa and Europe. Since 1994 he has worked as a journalist, editor, translator and writer, with experience in South Africa and Europe in mainstream media, corporate communications and alternative media. An author with several books to his name, he has a BA (Hons) in philosophy and is currently pursuing a Master’s in public policy studies at the Wits School of Governance.
error: Content is protected !!