Elections in a time of Covid – India’s cautionary tale

Will South Africa’s October polls be Covid safe?

South Africa’s sixth local government elections (LGE) will occur on 27 October 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic and an impending third wave remain a clear and present danger. Because of this, the governing African National Congress (ANC) and opposition parties, including the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and United Democratic Movement (UDM), have made several calls to postpone the LGE. The Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC) commissioner, Sy Mamabolo, said, “we cannot preclude the possibility of a postponement in the context of the uncertainty”.

People queue to undergo a Covid-19 PCR test at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital on the outskirts of Siliguri in India, on 13 May 2021. India’s healthcare systems have been stretched to the limit. Photo: Diptendu Dutta/AFP

Nevertheless, a lot remains at stake in how we ensure that the country’s municipal elections are not only free and credible but, more importantly, safe. To this effect, the IEC has appointed former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke to “evaluate the impact of COVID-19 conditions conducive to free and fair elections” and publish a report in July on the likelihood of these conditions being fulfilled. This appointment is allowed for by Section 14(4) of the Electoral Commission Act (51 of 1996).

The scope of former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke’s report is to consider views on a range of issues from several stakeholders, including the administration of the IEC; political parties; health authorities and experts; disaster management authorities and relevant government structures, and; other stakeholders functioning in the constitution and electoral democracy environment.

As the former Deputy Chief Justice is aware, navigating this period will need a general will that cuts beyond political lines and narrow calculations and immediate commitment to the legitimacy and integrity of the country’s democracy and the wellbeing of its citizens. However, many legitimate considerations must find expression in the former Deputy Chief Justice’s report, which is of utmost importance in the short time.

Between a rock and a hard place

Within a democratic political culture, citizen participation is a crucial mechanism for strengthening good governance. In South Africa, as the closest sphere of government to the people, local government is where service delivery issues are mediated. Elections allow citizens to express their views on important issues and effectively give their representatives the mandate to serve for the next five years.

The pandemic has negatively impacted municipalities by straining cashflows, due to revenue collection shortfalls and depleting cash reserves. By effect, it has also reversed some essential gains made in respect of service delivery. On the other hand, the National State of Disaster resulted in the suspension of civic engagement and participation to limit the spread of the virus by minimising interactions between people in line with health protocols. For example, for South Africans, it meant that consultative integrated planning processes, meetings, exercising the right to demonstrate through protest and assemble in political gatherings such as rallies, were curtailed. Despite this, there might be more harm done than good from holding elections in late October. Several risks are worth considering. Moreover, some lessons can be learned from India’s approach to holding elections in these uncertain COVID-19 times.

India’s COVID-19 reckoning

At the World Economic Forum in January 2021, India’s Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, confidently announced that the country had saved itself from “a big disaster”. Following his speech, India’s government began to ease COVID-19 restrictions. With the government’s support, the world’s largest religious Hindu festival, Kumbh Mela, saw an estimated 9 million people congregate on the Ganges River without proper social distancing measures or mask-wearing in place. Likewise, leading up to India’s local elections, large political rallies were held without proper COVID-19 protocols. Healthcare experts warned against allowing the festival and other large gatherings to go ahead. These events fuelled what would be a catastrophic set of events, with a disastrous impact on the country. The surge of infections would also cost the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party a win in West Bengal, a critical state with nearly 100 million people. After the devastation that unfolded, PM Modi’s words have come back to haunt him.

The extent of impact and status of vaccinations

Leading up to the infection spike, India was administering vaccines, but supply began to decline, causing a vaccine shortage in some of the most populous states. The decline in vaccine supply was partly due to a fire at a facility in January, coupled with massive demand. Home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India (SII), the country manufactures Covishield (a version of AstraZeneca).  At the start of February, the SII entered into a long-term supply agreement with the global vaccine equity scheme known as COVAX. Once the second wave hit, the government imposed a ban on vaccine exports. The SII was set to deliver its 170th million dose in May 2021 but is currently only at 65 million doses. Shortfall numbers are based on delays related to shipments from the SII only. There is currently no timetable to resolve SII-related delays.

Similar to India, South Africa’s healthcare system has been stretched to the limit during the first and second waves. There was evident strain with the lack of facilities, overcrowding, and oxygen and medical personnel shortages throughout the pandemic’s trajectory. This is a consequence of governance failure to make adequate investments into proper primary level public healthcare. Equally important is the formulation of policies to devise long-term solutions to control conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, so as to avoid economic interventions to curb the spread and severity of the COVID-19 virus. Two weeks ago, it was reported that the B.1.617 variant identified in India shares the same mutation found in B.1.351 (identified in South Africa), but is possibly 20% more transmissible. Experts are concerned that it may be relatively resistant to the antibody induced by the COVID-19 vaccines. South Africa is experiencing a spike in positive cases, and predictions indicate that the country could witness a peak in infections between July and October. This, coupled with the slow rate of vaccinations, could make holding physical local elections challenging.



Summary of key lessons from India’s election:

  • Preemptive warnings were issued by India’s electoral commission and scientific advisors, which asserted that large public gatherings coupled with a new variant of concern (identified in early March) could cause a second wave of infections. Political parties ignored these warnings as large rallies took place without strict COVID-19 public health protocols.
  • Election training venues for government staff did not follow proper COVID-19 health protocols, resulting in crowded venues without any social distancing. To aggravate the situation, some staff were called to the venues despite being in the high-risk COVID group due to their age and comorbidities.
  • Ensure that hospitals have a sufficient supply of medical oxygen to mitigate large hospital admissions and prevent the unnecessary loss of life.
  • Despite India being a vaccine manufacturer, over-reliance on local manufacturing led to a vaccine supply squeeze. The government should consider a diverse vaccine supply procurement strategy to mitigate against shortages of vaccine supplies.

Best practices from elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic

Countries that held elections during the height of the pandemic were forced to adapt and innovate their electoral processes. Elections are inherently social gatherings that encourage communities to participate and engage with their chosen officials and fellow voters. Key innovations installed for elections across the African continent and other parts of the world include:

  • Instead of in-person meetings, the Malawi government undertook a series of virtual engagements with key stakeholders in preparation for the election.
  • Using social media to distribute COVID-19-sensitive voter education material in Malawi, the United States and Serbia.
  • Temperature checks and sanitising done before casting votes in South Korea; those with a fever could vote in separate areas.
  • Disinfecting frequently used surfaces and ensuring venues are ventilated was key in Poland and the Dominican Republic.
  • During the French election, voters were encouraged to use personal stationery items to avoid touching shared materials.
  • Voting hours were staggered in Singapore within two-hour slots, while some countries increased the number of polling stations and extended voting hours.

Recommendations for South Africa’s upcoming Local Government Elections

Below are some recommendations that the former Deputy Chief Justice’s report and other crucial role players should consider so as to avoid an India-type situation in South Africa:


The IEC has publicised a list of guidelines to ensure voter safety for elections during COVID-19. They include minimum protocols such as the wearing of masks, sanitising, and social distancing. As a litmus test, the IEC successfully conducted by-elections in November and December last year and on 21 April and 19 May this year under alert level one of the restrictions. Over two weeks ago, the last cycle comprised 40 bi-elections across 25 municipalities in six provinces, including the Free State, Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga. This was perhaps the only opportunity to test the state of readiness regarding electoral protocols and processes and the maintenance of COVID-19 safety measures. Although there were no reported incidences of non-compliance that cast doubt on the process, it is worth mentioning how delivering nationwide elections will be a challenge, given the different scales regarding geographic scope and volume.

  • The IEC should increase the opportunity for special votes by giving more predetermined dates before the elections. These are typically granted to sections of the population that cannot vote on election day, such as the elderly, healthcare workers, law enforcement and electoral officials. The scaling up of this process, and the inclusion of people with comorbidities, will help minimise the number of people who physically go to voting stations, thereby mitigating the risks.
  • For these Covid specific circumstances, the efficiency and capacity of the IEC must be improved through adequate funding for the institution and better training of electoral officials; this must extend even beyond this period.
  • As an opportunity, it would be worthwhile to start the conversation around institutionalising hybrid approaches, to voting that make use of e-voting, the mailing of ballots via post, and other approaches that are orientated towards mitigating the impact of the risks of the future on elections.

Political parties and the use of alternative platforms for campaigning

  • Active engagements with relevant organs of state and political parties to address compliance and adherence to protocols.
  • Limit the scale of political rallies and the mobilisation of large crowds and door-to-door activities by parties to prevent possibilities for super-spreading.
  • As an alternative, the use of social media platforms is a viable platform. For example, parties can opt to use Facebook Live, YouTube and WhatsApp, or even traditional mediums like radio to broadcast manifestos and communicate with their electorate.
  • Leveraging technology can help to prevent voters from feeling like they are unable to participate in the election run-up.
  • Similarly, as in the past, the engagements between the leaders of political parties represented in the national and provincial political party liaison committees and the IEC should be strengthened, occur more regularly, and continue to monitor the situation in the next few weeks.

Actions required from health authorities and citizens

  • There should be a sufficient level of information sharing by the Ministry of Health on the latest epidemiological data trends and rate of vaccinations in good faith. Continuing with and improving this process will ensure that people are not merely in a state of fear and panic, but are given the sense of agency to make informed decisions.
  • The most significant capacity constraints in the health service must be declared and hopefully resolved. Moreover, the vaccination process must be sped up and citizen buy-in improved, which would create enabling conditions for the elections to occur with less risk.
  • Responsible citizen behaviour will be crucial for the success of the elections. The onus is on the citizens to value their democratic right and adhere to the rules.

If the critical concerns against holding elections continue and Moseneke expresses his reservations, delaying the elections is a possibility that must be explored. The only legitimate way to delay the elections would be to change chapter 7, clause 59 of the South African Constitution, as agreed upon by a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. If all or most of these realities are not factored in, and the safety requirements are not met, South Africa might have its reckoning, like India.


Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University

Monique Bennett holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand. Her interest in the field of data science and statistics was sparked by her quantitative methodology course during her studies. Her research focuses on development theory, governance, and the environment within the African context. She has written for news outlets such as the Daily Maverick and supports her research team by providing data-driven evidence for their research/op-eds. She has worked as a research assistant for In On Africa and as a public relations manager for the student organisation, Wits Inala Forum. 

Stuart is a Junior Researcher in the Governance Delivery and Impact programme at Good Governance Africa. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Security and Strategic Studies from the University of Pretoria. His dissertation explored the linkages between marginalisation and insecurity, looking at the securitisation of service delivery protests in South Africa. Before joining Good Governance Africa, He was a Junior Research Fellow with the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town. Before that, he worked as a research consultant at the Institute of Security Studies with the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme and as a Junior Lecturer for the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

How do we reverse the Resource Curse?


Scholar Richard Auty first coined the phrase ‘resource curse’ in 1993 to illustrate the confounding nature of the relationship between natural resource abundance and under-development. Intuitively we expect that natural resources would provide the bedrock for development. To the contrary, empirical evidence suggests a strong correlation between natural resource wealth and poor development outcomes, at least since the early 1970s. For instance, where resource dependency – the proportion of a country’s resource exports as a proportion of total imports – is high, the curse abounds: Corruption; widespread poverty; a lack of human development; undermined media freedom; premature de-industrialisation; civil war and authoritarian rule are among some of the key manifestations.

Analytically, it is of course impossible that resources in themselves – by some kind of geographic predestination – are responsible for under-development. What determines catastrophic outcomes is how resource rents are acquired and distributed in any given political economy context. In other words, institutions matter. Institutions are the social systems – beliefs, norms, culture and values – that motivate regular human behaviour. If institutional constraints on the exercise of elite power are strong, resource wealth can be harnessed for the benefit of citizens. Norway, with long experience in managing its petroleum resources in a way that promotes sustainable economic growth and Norwegian welfare, is the oft-used example. In the absence of such constraints, however, elites tend to appropriate resource wealth to cement the bargain at the heart of their ruling coalition. This is why oil wealth tends to correlate with authoritarian rule, which has its own set of anti-development dynamics.

Intuitively we expect that natural resources would provide the bedrock for development. To the contrary, empirical evidence suggests a strong correlation between natural resource wealth and poor development outcomes, at least since the early 1970s.

Consider Angola, for instance, Africa’s second largest oil-producer. For 38 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos acquired oil rents and distributed them to his inner circle at the expense of the country’s development, even after the end of the civil war in 2002 when opportunities for development were ripe.

Luanda residents queue with their cars at a gas station in Luanda, Angola. Angola’s fuel shortages, the last wave of which was in 2019, are a bitter irony for one of Africa’s leading oil producers. Photo: Ampe Rogerio/AFP

Or consider Zimbabwe, one of the most mineral-wealthy geologies on the planet. While the majority of citizens now live in desperation and squalor, elites extract mineral resources to fund their lifestyles and mete out repression against any hint of rebellion. The military forms joint ventures with external companies, for instance, which sell the products, while they control resource extraction activities at home. In South Africa, the state-capture era saw former President Zuma’s allies using state-owned enterprises to channel cash to Gupta-owned companies or abusing state influence to persuade existing operators to sell their mines to Gupta-connected entities.

In short, the political calculus of elites in weakly institutionalised resource-wealthy states is that repression is less costly than reform. And the stronger the ruling coalition becomes, the more difficult it becomes for citizens to engage in effective collective action.

Consider Zimbabwe, one of the most mineral-wealthy geologies on the planet. While the majority of citizens now live in desperation and squalor, elites extract mineral resources to fund their lifestyles and mete out repression against any hint of rebellion.

Evidently, then, reversing the resource curse is a complex matter. It is good and well to argue that better governance is required to overcome institutional weaknesses. At Good Governance Africa, we exist because we believe in the power of better governance to achieve improved development outcomes. Convincing citizens to act collectively to demand those reforms is difficult work, however. Persuading elites that reform in the direction of stronger institutional constraints is in their best long-run interests is even more difficult.

The good news, however, is that none of this is impossible. Citizens across the world should have an interest in how resources are extracted. Why? Because when you purchase an Apple smartphone, or a solar panel to power your inverter, you should care about where the mined ingredients of those devices come from. Is the cobalt in your electric vehicle ethically sourced? How sure are you that it’s not funding militia activity or warlordism?

When you purchase an Apple smartphone, or a solar panel to power your inverter, you should care about where the mined ingredients of those devices come from. Is the cobalt in your electric vehicle ethically sourced?

The world will require a significant volume of minerals and metals over the next few decades as we make the global transition towards a low-carbon economy. Electric vehicles, smart devices and renewable energy require cobalt, lithium, magnesium, chrome, copper, gold, iron ore and many others. Increasingly, these minerals and metals will only be available in sufficient quantities in institutionally fragile countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, Guinea, Angola, Mozambique and so forth.

The purpose of this blog campaign is to draw attention to the ‘resource curse’ and explore its specific anatomies in different contexts. Most importantly, it analyses how the curse can be reversed to catalyse broad-based development. What role can and should the private sector play? What can civil society plausibly do to stand up to corrupt and powerful elites? What can more conscience-driven global consumerism achieve?

First off, we will be hosting an epic webinar titled “Mining in Fragile Jurisdictions” with six of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject.

Thereafter, we will be hosting blog posts from invited thought leaders, along with a number of podcasts and short videos.

As always, we want to hear from you and look forward to engaging with you.


Dr Ross Harvey also sat down with Newzroom Afrika where he addressed the impact of mining in fragile community contexts. This interview follows a webinar Good Governance Africa hosted titled “Mining in Fragile Jurisdictions”, in which we explored how mining can become a catalyst for broad-based development instead of a source of misery and underdevelopment. For more insights on the topic, please see our campaign Reversing the Resource Curse 
Watch his interview below


Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

Zimbabwe’s autocratic legitimation and the citizen struggle in safeguarding the constitution

Zimbabwe’s constitution is clear regarding citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as the need to create strong institutions to guard against corruption. However, 40 years after the attainment of independence, citizen efforts at safeguarding the constitution remain a challenge.

Today, Zimbabwe again finds itself at a tipping point amidst a deepening political and economic crisis.  However, this is not the first time the regime has been faced by a crisis of this nature. There have been several occasions since independence where the country has seemed to be on the brink of economic or political collapse. It is therefore useful to ask why, despite so many ‘near-tipping points’ over the past two decades, Zimbabwe has essentially not tipped over? What has sustained autocracy?

40 years after the attainment of independence, citizen efforts at safeguarding the constitution remain a challenge.

Robert Mugabe’s administration set the precedent of amending the constitution whenever it was considered an obstruction to the unbridled exercise of executive power.

Autocratic legitimation in Zimbabwe has been achieved from various angles. Firstly, the anti-colonialism liberation struggle narrative has been a major component of autocratic legitimation. This liberation war narrative, which usually fails to acknowledge instances of gross human rights violations carried out by liberation movements against their enemies, has largely been used to accord primacy to the military (Joint Operations Command) and the liberation struggle aristocrats. It has also been used to erode civilian authority, reducing citizens’ right to demand accountability to ‘a third party, suspect regime change agenda’. This liberation war pact is one of the factors that has disabled SADC, comprised of other states whose governing parties were formed as liberation movements, from taking decisive action against Zimbabwe in spite of a clear record of human rights abuses.

Today, Zimbabwe again finds itself at a tipping point amidst a deepening political and economic crisis.

Duskalkis and Gerschewski, whose work has focused on understanding autocratic rule, argue that ‘autocratic governments make claims about why they are entitled to rule. Some autocracies are more talkative than others, but all regimes say something about why they deserve power.’ This has been the case advanced by Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF party. Born of the liberation movement and in spite of post-independence malfeasance that has crippled the nation in delivering on sustainable development priorities, it still advances a right-to-rule agenda. It does this by monopolising the definition of what it means to be a patriot and how Zimbabwe’s sovereignty should be asserted.

Secondly, autocratic legitimation in Zimbabwe has been achieved through the direct undermining or failure to uphold the rule of law by government. However, it has also at times been achieved by simply eroding any substantive content of the law. As  academic Alex Magaisa writes, ‘even the worst dictatorships can claim to be compliant’, and rule of law must not be confused with democracy or good law. A legal system should also make substantive efforts to advance social justice and promote good governance.

This liberation war pact is one of the factors that has disabled SADC, comprised of other states whose governing parties were formed as liberation movements, from taking decisive action against Zimbabwe in spite of a clear record of human rights abuses.

The highly contested 2013 constitution was a citizen undertaking towards these substantive aspects of law that sought, among other issues, to curtail executive power. However, the November 2017 coup-ordained Emmerson Mnangagwa administration has only reversed the substantive gains intended by this constitution, and gone on to deepen autocratic control under the guise of Covid-19 regulation.

The autocratic hold of the Mnangagwa administration is not the result of a weak citizenry. The dangers of speaking out in Zimbabwe are well documented. The abductions, arrests and inhumane treatment of MDC Alliance MP Joanna Mamombe, Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume among others all bear testimony to the dangers of speaking out. Nonetheless,  Zimbabwe’s citizens have engaged in valiant acts to safeguard their constitution throughout the country’s post-independence history.

Some autocracies are more talkative than others, but all regimes say something about why they deserve power.

In 2000,  citizens called for a repeal of the Lancaster House constitution, culminating in a  constitutional referendum. Thirteen years later, citizens participated in the COPAC facilitated constitution making process that led, in the year 2013, to the present constitution. The citizens’ ardent calls for the then President Mugabe’s ouster in November 2017 was reflective of this quest for a return to constitutionalism.

However, the political elite preyed upon this through Operation Restore Legacy, a coup that was deceptively packaged as an urgent need to restore political order and deliver on the long elusive economic stability.  Three years on, the November 2017 guard is engaged in a well calculated mission to entirely wipe out whatever remnants there may still be of citizen space for participation, and demanding leadership accountability.

Zimbabwe’s citizens have engaged in valiant acts to safeguard their constitution throughout the country’s post-independence history.

Thirdly, autocratic legitimation has been achieved through coercion and politicisation of the police and judiciary. The Presidential prerogative to appoint judges has enabled the appointment of partisan individuals who operate not in service to the citizens but to their appointing master. The recent outcry by judges against Justice Luke Malaba’s interference in their passing of judgements confirms this capture of the judiciary. Further to this, the latest development in the President’s reversal of the salary and benefits suspension conditions  on  Justice Ndewere’s case confirms that the judiciary has departed from its constitutional mandate. The Supreme court judgement that has served in the decimation of the leading opposition MDC Alliance party in ZANU-PF’s quest to create a de facto one-party state is another case in point.

Capturing the judiciary has also allowed for rampant corruption and created what North et al have termed a ‘limited access order’ where leaders “grant political elites privileged control over parts of the economy, each getting some share of the rents”. Political elites involved in recent scandals include the President’s own son Collins Mnangagwa and former Minister of Health Obadiah Moyo – both implicated in the Covidgate scandal, as well as Henrietta Rushwaya, recently arrested for attempting to smuggle 6kgs of gold to Dubai, to name a few.

Thirdly, autocratic legitimation has been achieved through coercion and politicisation of the police and judiciary.

In some of these cases, the police and the courts have ensured selective application of the law, preforming what has come to be termed a ‘catch and release’ approach of these elites while detaining the whistle blowers.

The decimation of these institutions to partisan entities leaves citizens with nowhere to seek redress in the context of violence and corruption with impunity. The violence, marked by arbitrary arrests, often accompanied by degrading inhuman treatment, abductions, forced disappearances’ and extra judicial killings, are all measures designed to curtail citizen agency. In the absence of a total repeal of the current system, there is not yet an end in sight. As Nick Cheeseman observes, ‘the more coercion they use, the less willing they are to step down and face possible prosecution for the abuses they committed in office.’


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


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Sikhululekile Mashingaidze currently serves as Senior Researcher in the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa. Being engaged as a part-time enumerator for Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years ushered her into and nurtured her passion for the governance field. She has worked with Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution(CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively. This has, over the years, enriched her grassroots and national level governance projects’ implementation and management experience. Her academic research interests are in the field of genocide studies with a commitment to deepen her understanding of girls and women’s experiences, their agency in reconstituting everyday life and their inclusion in peace-building and transitional justice processes.

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.
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