South Africa, the most industrialised economy on the continent, has the highest number of coronavirus infections in Africa. As of now, there are more than 23,615 confirmed cases in the country. The Western Cape Province, popular with tourists, has reported the maximum number of cases. On March 15, 2020, when the number of infected persons was only 61, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national ‘state of disaster’. The government has since taken several measures to curb the spread of the virus, including the closing of borders and declaring a nation-wide lockdown. The pandemic has implications for South Africa’s economy, its armed forces, and the country’s leadership within Africa and also partnership with India.
Although South Africa is an upper-middle-income country, it is also one of the most unequal countries in the world with a consumption expenditure-based Gini coefficient of 63. The country is characterised with high wealth inequality, with top 10 per cent households owning 71 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This disparity makes the country particularly vulnerable in times of pandemic.
The South African Reserve Bank predicts that the economy may contract by six per cent in 2020 due to the pandemic. This may lead to greater inequality in the country with millions more going under the poverty line. Unfortunately, South Africa’s economy was already in recession prior to the lockdown. Credit rating agencies, Fitch and Moody’s recent downgrading of South Africa’s sovereign credit rating to ‘junk state’ has added to the troubles. In a bid to contain the economic fallout, the South African Government announced a $26 billion stimulus plan, worth about 10 per cent of GDP. However, a high debt, at 59.6 per cent of GDP, limits country’s ability to fund its proposed package independently, and it will need to rely on external debt from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This will increase South Africa’s debt to GDP ratio, further adding to the post-pandemic economic challenges.
Role of Defence Forces
South Africa has deployed over 75,000 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in enforcing a countrywide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The defence forces were tasked to protect quarantine sites, deliver essential supplies, help police restrict people’s movement and to curtail unrest.
However, questions were raised within the country doubting the capacity of the SANDF to implement some of these tasks. Over the years, the SANDF has been neglected by the government. Despite widening of its duties, the budgetary allocation has not increased. For the defence forces to perform their duties appropriately, it is important that adequate budgetary resources are made available for training and equipment. In recent years, the SANDF has been deployed for various activities such as the protection of borders and peacekeeping operations in African hotspots like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. They have been tasked to take on internal security duties including disaster relief and public policing. As the defence forces were deployed to implement the lockdown, a big concern was that they were not trained in public policing and this could result in the use of excessive force against the civilians.
Some such instances have indeed come to light. Social media in the country is full of accounts of the use of excessive force by the SANDF. The most talked-about incident is related to Collins Khoza, a resident of the densely populated Alexandra township, who was killed due to brutal enforcement of the lockdown by the security forces. For the older generation, this incident was a cruel reminder of the brutality perpetrated by the security forces in the apartheid-era. The South African High Court has recently ordered the suspension of the soldiers involved in the incident. However, displeasure over richer people (who reside in the relatively less dense suburbs) being spared of the harsh treatment by the security forces for deviating from the lockdown norms lingers on. Such incidents and the outcry against them within the local communities also suggest that the nation still has a long way to go to reconcile with its discriminatory and violent past.
On the external front, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for South Africa to showcase its regional leadership. South Africa has emerged as a key focal point for Africa-wide responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the current chair of the African Union (AU), President Ramaphosa has worked in tandem with Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He also leads the continental level engagement with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and various international financial institutions.
While attending to a demanding and critical situation domestically, Ramaphosa, as chairperson of the AU, has worked hard towards rallying and consolidating a continental response to COVID-19. He convened a teleconference of the continental organisation on March 26, 2020 to discuss Africa’s response to the pandemic. At the meeting, Ramaphosa noted that a continental coordinated response was more important than ever before in order to arrest the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through his efforts, the AU has managed to raise $25 billion for the COVID-19 Response Fund and an additional $36.5 million for the African CDC. To spearhead the continent’s response, he has appointed special envoys from all five regions of Africa to deal with the crisis.
He also organised a virtual meeting with business leaders from across the continent to come up with a strategy to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic on the AU member states. Ramaphosa has also been successful in drumming up support from the Group of 20 (G20) and major partners of the continent, including India.
India-South Africa Partnership
India and South Africa share a warm relationship that dates back several centuries and is anchored in a range of common interests and issues. In the past, India supported South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and raised the issue in several fora including the United Nations (UN), Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Commonwealth. With the emergence of a democratic South Africa, India was quick to sign a strategic partnership with the country in 1997. South Africa is home to the highest number of people of Indian origin in Africa. India and South Africa have worked together in several multilateral organisations and groups such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), G20, the BRICS (a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the IBSA (a grouping of India, Brazil and South Africa). They are also neighbours across the Indian Ocean and cooperate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
South African President Ramaphosa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi share an interesting chemistry that was quite evident when the former visited India as chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations in January 2019. During the current pandemic, the two leaders have been in touch. Prime Minister Modi has commended the South African President for his stellar role in coordinating a continent-wide response. India has sent medical supplies to South Africa to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. It has also dispatched the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to South Africa, in addition to 20 other African countries to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. India’s support during this crisis will further consolidate the friendly ties between the two countries.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has added to South Africa’s woes on the domestic front, nevertheless, the country has utilised the opportunity to consolidate its regional leadership and augment connections with major external partners like India.