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Failing to pull together: South Africa’s troubled response to COVID-19

Wim Naudé (RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany; IZA Institute of Labor Economics, Bonn, Germany; MSM, Maastricht, The Netherlands and African Studies Centre, University of Leiden, Leiden, The Netherlands)
Martin Cameron (Trade Research Advisory (Pty) Ltd., Pretoria, South Africa)

Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy

ISSN: 1750-6166

Article publication date: 4 January 2021

Issue publication date: 23 June 2021




This paper aims to provide a country case study of South Africa’s response during the first six months following its first COVID-19 case. The focus is on the government’s (mis-)management of its non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) (or “lockdown”) to stem the pandemic and the organized business sector’s resistance against the lockdown.


This paper makes use of a literature review and provides descriptive statistics and quantitative analysis of COVID-19 and the lockdown stringency in South Africa, based on data from Google Mobility Trends, Oxford University’s Stringency Index, Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker and Our World in Data.


This paper finds that both the government and the business sector’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been problematic. These key actors have been failing to “pull together,” leaving South Africa’s citizens in-between corrupt and incompetent officials on the one hand, and lockdown skeptics on the other. This paper argues that to break through this impasse, the country should change direction by agreeing on a smart or “Goldilocks” lockdown, based on data, testing, decentralization, demographics and appropriate economic support measures, including export support. Such a Goldilocks lockdown is argued, based on available evidence from the emerging scientific literature, to be able to save lives, improve trust in government, limit economic damages and moreover improve the country’s long-term recovery prospects.

Research limitations/implications

The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis and moreover was still unfolding at the time of writing. This has two implications. First, precise data on the economic impact and certain epidemiological parameters was not (yet) available. Second, the causes of the mismanagement by the government are not clear yet, within such a short time frame. More research and better data may be able in future to allow conclusions to be drawn whether the problems that were besetting the country’s management of COVID-19 are unique or perhaps part of a more general problem across developing countries.

Practical implications

The paper provides clear practical implications for both government and organized business. The South African Government should not altogether end its lockdown measures, but follow a smart and flexible lockdown. The organized business sector should abandon its calls for ending the lockdown while the country is still among the most affected countries in the world, and no vaccine is available.

Social implications

There should be better collaboration between government, business and civil society to manage a smart lockdown. Government should re-establish lost trust because of the mismanagement of the lockdown during the first six months of the pandemic.


The outline of the smart lockdown that is proposed for the country combines NPIs with the promotion of exports, as a policy intervention to help aggregate demand to recover. The paper provides advice on how to resolve an impasse created by mismanagement of COVID-19, which could be valuable for decision-making during a crisis, particularly in developing countries.



Authors are grateful to Anna Visvizi and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. The usual disclaimer applies.


Naudé, W. and Cameron, M. (2021), "Failing to pull together: South Africa’s troubled response to COVID-19", Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 219-235.



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