It does all seem unreal.

When a world leader and head of a major country has to look his people in the eye and tell them that many of them will lose loved ones, when billions of people are united in a fear of something few understand and even fewer have personally witnessed the effects of, when a country and its economy risk grinding to a sudden halt, reality has indeed become unreal and frightening.

Last evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a special appearance on television to address South Africans on the additional drastic measures his government is taking in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 21-day lockdown reinforces the message he gave on 15 March when he said that South Africa was ‘facing a grave emergency’.

On that occasion, he added – and this is critical – that if we ‘act together’, immediately and decisively, ‘we will overcome it’.

On this, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is in full agreement with the president.

Vital and urgent

The range of measures he announced then, and last night, all form part of a vital and urgent effort. Time is not on our side, and immediate, decisive action is critical.

Acting together, as Mr Ramaphosa said, is the key.

But the Covid-19 threat has manifold and grave implications – not just for the health and physical wellbeing of South Africans, but also for their livelihoods, and their ability to withstand the considerable social and economic stresses the coronavirus outbreak is exerting and will continue to exert for months to come.

In the light of the scale of this crisis – the ‘grave emergency’ of Mr Ramphosa’s phrasing – the IRR is placing its full research and analytical capacity at the disposal of the urgent search for policy solutions and proposals to guide South Africa through a time of near-unparalleled crisis.

Fundamental reforms

Central to these are the fundamental reforms the absence of which has placed the South African economy and society as a whole in a much weaker position.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt by many South Africans and will affect many aspects of South African life. While the immediate medical response to this pandemic is our primary concern, the broader consequences in the socio-economic sphere must also receive urgent and solution-orientated attention. It is in this latter arena that the IRR will seek to play a leading role.

Drawing on its unequalled research and policy expertise built up over more than 90 years, the IRR will be devoting its attention over the coming days to crafting executable policy proposals in six key areas:

  1. Healthcare access and stability;
  2. Income security;
  3. Social stability;
  4. Financial stability;
  5. Economic stability; and
  6. Balancing state power and civil liberties.

Policy interventions and sensible thinking about solutions in these areas will be vital in mitigating the vast socio-economic consequences South Africans are likely to endure for the duration of the current circumstances created by COVID-19. In line with the approach of the IRR, a longer-term view on a post-crisis period must also be considered.

Positive contribution

The IRR will seek to produce a range of reports and proposals under each heading as a means of offering practicable solutions to the complex crisis we now face. All our proposals will be considered in terms of their practicality, necessity, logistics, costing, and consequences, and the details published in reports we believe stand to make a positive contribution to the collective effort President Ramaphosa described as being vital to South Africa’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

The president was correct when he told the nation on 15 March: ‘We have never been defeated by anything when we were united; united, we are strong, but divided we are weak and can be defeated.’

In this spirit, the IRR is determined to contribute by crafting effective solutions to the difficulties the country now faces. We are convinced that collaborative and constructive measures can succeed in matching President Ramaphosa’s challenge to the country that ‘it is up to us to determine how long [the epidemic] will last, how damaging it will be, and how long it will take our economy and our country to recover’.

In this time of crisis, I am reminded of a fondly remembered story I read in my childhood, and a detail which, today, provides an unexpected, unlooked-for, yet welcome inspiration when the world seems to be turning upside down.

Telling exchange

Amidst the intensive research of recent days, discussing pressing issues with experts and mapping out the complexities of what the Covid-19 pandemic might mean for South Africa, a telling exchange from that story of my childhood came to my mind, and seemed to encapsulate perfectly what many South Africans are feeling at the moment.

It comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings and it speaks to me now more strongly than it ever has.

In the quest to destroy evil against great odds, Frodo Baggins, the hobbit, utters the words so many people have asked in times of difficulty.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

But it is the far-seeing Gandalf who looks beyond the terror and uncertainty of the moment, and whose words offer a priceless lesson to us, too.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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Hermann Pretorius
Hermann studied law and opera before entering politics and think tankery – an obvious career path. In furtherance of the logicality of his career trajectory, he worked for the election campaign of a liberal, formerly growing opposition party in 2019. In an attempt to deal with his PTSD from this latter experience, he took up a position as an analyst at the IRR, where he is currently the IRR’s Deputy Head of Policy Research. A Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal still awaiting his letter of acceptance to the Patriarchy™, Hermann tries to make the best of, you know, things.


  1. I am shocked at your statement. “On this, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is in full agreement with the president” I thought some of you there had some brains. You are a disappointment IRR.
    I have posted the following: The information regarding the numbers that have died so far are where exactly? So then How can this be called a crises and take away our liberties.
    alk about complete madness & hysteria. LOCKDOWN 21 Days.

    Our individual and civil rights are being taken away unilaterally.

    The Government’s most recent interventions to close pubs and restaurants after 6 PM was already outright violation of these individual rights. The problem is we allowed this, we should have been up in arms. We allowed the Government to test the water.

    Now they impose a lockdown based on what , Press hysteria. lunacy from individuals demanding that Government take action, it is driven by a herd mentality and group think.

    Many will fume at my argument. But people will die, I hear you scream. I fully accept that allowing for freedom will result in more death; this is the price that must be paid for liberty and justice. However minimising the death toll cannot be the ultimate and overriding aim of public policy.

    On average 11 000 South Africans die from flu. Where was the lockdown then. No one has died from Corona as yet, yes no doubt some will. I have empathy of the people that will be affected, however sanity and reason should prevail.

    Despite the thousands of lives that are lost each year, every citizen accepts that freedom must prevail over the draconian measures that would be necessary to stop those deaths. Evidently, reducing the death toll of disease is not the overriding value of anyone, indeed it cannot be.

    I ask this the question therefore. At what mortality rate does a virus warrant the measures that we have seen imposed from Thursday ? Is it 0.2 per cent, 0.3 per cent, 0.4 per cent . . . and if so what makes a certain rate special? Why is, say, above 0.5 per cent the magic number that suddenly allows for the abolition of liberty? Where do you draw the line? We have as yet no mortality in any event, so how can this be a justification.

    Make no mistake, life is not of infinite value, and everyone implicitly accepts that.

    A number of deranged individuals are currently saying that if the measures announced save just one life they’ll be worth it. This is complete nonsense, and the fact they weren’t calling for a lockdown last winter flu season surely demonstrates this fact.

    But to resort to such draconian measures is insanity. It is not based on logic and is an emotional response to a potential crisis which is not as yet a crisis. It is a perceived crisis based on conjecture and supposition.

    We are now allowing government to take away our liberty at their whim.

    • John!

      I would like to react to some of your points.

      On the “individual and civil rights” being taken away: This is done in terms of pre-existing legislation, that was written in accordance with the constitution. As our constitution was at least partially written by the outgoing apartheid government (the masters of using state of emergencies for undermining civil and individual liberties), they knew full well that such legislation must only allow for limited periods of such action. The point is, this is legally guaranteed to be temporary. The point at which we need to be very careful and hold the powers that be to account, is in possible legislation (and changes to the constitution, God forbid) after the whole virus saga has passed, in preparing for future pandemics and in an attempt to address the economic downturn that will follow. (We should watch the SACP faction of the ANC especially closely)

      As to the virus itself: all indications are that the mortality rate is at least 10 times that of the normal flu. That is already serious, but that is not the full story. In addition to mortality, one needs to consider the morbidity of the disease: the severity of the symptoms experienced by those infected, to put it in somewhat layman’s terms. This disease seems to require hospitalization of about 20% of those infected, and of those a significant portion requires ICU care. This is unheard of in the history of modern medicine, and if left unchecked, would result not only in the death of those infected by the disease, but also of those who need hospitalization and ICU care for unrelated health reasons. This could make the effective mortality of this virus much higher, and will not leave the economy unscathed by any means.

      Although I have already addressed the question of mortality, you ask where one draws the line. That is indeed a good question, but do not mistake it for an argument: It might not be clear where the line is drawn, but it has to be drawn somewhere.

      As to this being a “perceived crisis”: tell that to the medical staff currently getting practically no sleep in Italy, in New York, and in parts for France. You do not flood a modern western health care system with a persception. Doctors only hospitalize when necessary in normal circumstances, which is all the more true in times of crisis.

      I understand this is a huge blow to the economy. The same is true in every single country on earth at the moment. But please don’t make the mistake that this is being done at a whim.


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