Solly Moeng | Battling a two-headed monster

Soon after the coronavirus arrived on South African shores, earlier this year, and government imposed a Level 5 lockdown towards the end of March, South Africa, like much of the world, found itself face-to-face with an enemy no one had seen creeping in.

We trustingly accepted that what we were told by government was the right way to go about protecting ourselves and others from the new virus.

In those early days, we were too shocked and scared of the virus – not of government – to interrogate the new government directives. In fact, many of us were simply glad to leave all that to our leaders, trusting that they knew better and could only have our best interests at heart.

Over the past two months, however, the conundrum we faced has become a two-headed monster. We now battle an economic attack as well as a medical one.

The spread of the virus has not stopped and, at the same time, our economy - which was already on its knees at the onset of the pandemic - has weakened further right before our eyes, as our hands remain manacled behind our back.

A triple junk sovereign credit rating has also not helped.

In more recent weeks, reports have grown of closures by small and medium enterprises, with a jobs bloodbath whose real extent is yet to be calculated. The livelihoods of many poor and middle-class South Africans of all races are being destroyed before their eyes.

We no longer have a choice. Government must come up with a convincing, two-pronged plan that will help us continue the fight against the coronavirus while also saving our economy. There can be no room in such a plan for personal likes and dislikes. The discussion we should be having cannot be focused on pushing back against only one head of this two-headed monster.

There is a sobering incongruence between some of the lockdown regulations and the need to push back against the coronavirus. Restricting the kind of clothes provided, for example, has a negative economic impact, and its positive impact on restricting the spread of the virus is questionable. It would have made more sense if the time spent by individuals in clothing shops were restricted, rather than government dictating what garments citizens can buy.

The pandemic has also presented a golden opportunity to sell Brand South Africa to its own citizens and strengthen social cohesion. Instead, we've seen divisions highlighted and polarising accusations made over the allocation of relief according to race or political affiliation. But we are in this together, and those businesses that have suffered the most – irrespective of who they are – are also the employers of many. Emotions are running high at a time when so much could have been done to show the world, and ourselves, that when the going gets tough, South Africans have it in them to rally together for the benefit of all.

Where citizen trust is depleted, it leads to lawlessness and decreased compliance with crucial regulations. Government ministers should therefore be mindful of how they use their power, and not squander this trust. They should also be realistic about the limits of security agencies. They cannot stop all incidents of the proliferating black market, in which alcohol and tobacco products are sold and transported in secret.

It is not because people are inherently criminals that they are resorting to the black market to earn income they need or to access goods and services they desperately want or need. It is because they simply no longer believe in, or see the sense of, a continued lockdown. They no longer trust that they must comply.

And they are focusing on beating the head of the monster that they presently find most threatening. A lack of trust in leadership has made them forget that the enemy is the coronavirus.

When government fails to use the opportunities it has to build on its reputation within and outside the country, goodwill is squandered. And that's a very slippery slope indeed.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.