Policy Brief 37: South Africa Needs a New Democratic Governance Model to overcome the multiple crises caused by Covid-19.

South Africa’s governance model is broken.  Failure to change SAs governance model will lead to the country being unable to overcome the health, social and economic crises caused by Covid-19. This is likely to plunge into protracted economic stagnation, breakdown of the social order and potentially violent unrest.

Covid-19 is the biggest crisis of our generation. It is unprecedented in South African history. Before Covid-19 struck, the country’s governance system was already failing. With wide-spread fears that South Africa’s political, economic, and societal systems appeared ill-prepared to successfully combat the virus, which has snowballed the: health, economic, and social crises into one.

This means the challenge for South Africa as it tackles this unparalleled crisis, is that the country will have to, at one go, overcome all the obstacles which up to now stubbornly undermine government attempts to raise economic growth levels, boost development, deliver quality public services and bring social peace.

The appalling health of the South African: state, economy, politics, and society prior to Covid-19, due to official corruption, mismanagement, and indifference, is now making implementation strategies to overcome the disastrous financial, health and social impact of the virus difficult. A new democratic governance model is urgently needed to remedy this reality.

What is Governance

Governance can be described as “how governments and other social organisations interact, how they relate to citizens, and how decisions are taken” (Graham, Bruce and Plumptre 2003). Governance is about how societies and organisations make decisions, which have a say, and how accountability is exercised (Graham, Bruce and Plumptre 2003).

The governance system which determines the process, “the agreements, procedures, conventions or policies that define who gets power, how decisions are taken and how accountability is rendered” are therefore crucial (Graham, Bruce and Plumptre 2003). These governance systems include the mode of political systems, the type of institutions, constitutions, laws, and the public, political or ‘civic’ cultures (Almond and Verba 1963; Simon 1957; Mann 1984; Migdal 1988; Olson 1993; Rothstein 2011).

The key players in governance within countries are the government, the political, public, and private institutions, civil society, markets, the media, cultures, and citizens (Almond and Verba 1963; Simon 1957; Mann 1984; Migdal 1988; Olson 1993; Rothstein 2011). The nature of governance in a society will heavily depend on the nature of the embedded governance system – whether a country is governed by an authoritarian, one or dominant party, or a democratic regime.

Governance includes the economic aspects, the decision-making processes that affect a country’s economic activities. And its relationships with other economies. It speaks to the process of decision-making to formulate policy; and administrative (UNDP 1997), which affects policy implementation; the social, which affects the nature of relationships between citizens; and the environment, which affects the interactions of government, business, civil society, and citizens to the environment.

Governance will also heavily depend on the formal governance rules of a society. The constitution, and socially accepted rules of public behavior, values, and norms. And whether such formal governance rules are adhered to, or whether informal rules are telling of real governance system, which are often different to  formal constitutions, laws, and rules.

Democratic Governance

Democratic governance is more demanding, much broader, and more inclusive. For , the democratic quality of governance is the issue. For starters, “how” governments and other social organisations interact, how they relate to citizens, and how decisions are taken” (Graham, Bruce and Plumptre 2003), must be on a democratic basis. Furthermore, decisions within organisations, institutions and society must be made on a democratic basis.

Citizens must participate meaningfully in public decisions, there must be democratic accountability, and the governance system – the mode of political systems, constitutions, laws, institutions, and the public, political or ‘civic’ cultures (Almond and Verba 1963; Simon 1957; Mann 1984; Migdal 1988; Olson 1993; Rothstein 2011), must be based on democracy. Furthermore, democratic governance will be underpinned by a democratic governance culture.

Democratic governance therefore would also include “the existence of effective mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences” (UNDP 1997).

These include participation, where men, women and youth should have equal voice in decision-making. Such participation would rest on the freedoms of association, speech, and social equality. Democratic governance includes equity in governance, where men and women will have equal opportunities.

The rule of law must be applied fairly and enforced impartially. It also includes transparency, saying citizens need a free flow of information which is accessible, understandable and monitorable (UNDP 1997). Decision-makers in government, private sector and civil society must be accountable to the public and stakeholders (UNDP 1997).

Consensus seeking in the best interests of the society is a key part of democratic governance (UNDP 1997). State, public, and democratic institutions, and their services, administrations and procedures should be efficient, producing results that meet needs while making the best use of resources (UNDP 1997).

There is argument to include, what Helen Clark, the United Nations Development Programme Administrator, calls “active governance”, within the democratic governance definition, which “anticipates and responds to the needs of its citizen and evolving development challenges, with deliberate, targeted, and pro-active planning and delivery” (Clark 2000).

Clark has also made an argument for fair governance (Clark 2000), arguing “fair, reliable and accountable” governing systems and institutions, is necessary to build trust between governments and citizens, so crucial for sustainable development, which should be part of the definition of democratic governance.

Accountability is crucial to democratic governance: elected and public representatives should be held responsible for their decisions, policies, and actions (World Bank 1994). Transparency, openness, and access to information are essential to democratic governance, as they reinforce accountability (World Bank 1994).

10 pillars that should be the foundations of a new post-COVID-19 democratic governance model for SA.

Evidence-based policy must be a key pillar of the management strategy model of the country. This will make government policy more logical, credible, and palatable to wider constituencies. Over the past few years, government policymaking has often appeared to be based on ideology, wishful thinking or corruption.

Merit must be principle of government operations. The talents of all South Africans, no matter their colour, ethnicity, or political affiliation, must be used to rebuild the economy. Merit-based appointments to government positions and to structures that oversee COVID-19 economic restructuring are crucial. Crony, cadre and pork-barrel appointments to government structures have wrought destruction since 1994, undermining public service delivery, wasting scarce public funds, and destroying government’s credibility. Government contracts must be awarded based on merit, fairness, and value for money.

Common sense must drive government decisions, actions, and policies. Many government policies, decisions and actions over the past years have made little rational sense. This must change.

There must be greater accountability from elected and public representatives. There must be consequences for wrongdoing, and people must be held accountable. The culture of impunity must come to an end. Accountability strengthens the credibility of government, and importantly, motivates citizens to willingly comply with government directives. If citizens perceive a lack of accountability among elected and public representatives, they will readily defy government injunctions.

There needs to be partnerships between the public, the private sector, civil society, and communities to reconstruct the post-COVID-19 economy. The private sector and civil society are not the enemies of government, as many African National Congress (ANC) leaders may misguidedly believe. It is also a fallacy to think, as many ANC leaders do, that the state can do it tackle COVID-19 alone. The state simply lacks the capacity, resources, and ideas to execute economic policies on its own. Partnerships not only bring goodwill, but they also bring skills, resources and wider buy-in for policies, decisions and delivery.

The capacity, resources and talents of the public sector, private sector and civil society will have to be combined to tackle COVID-19. To deal with the lack of public sector capacity, the private sector and civil society could each be assigned to deliver specific services, which the state is either incapable of doing or is doing ineffectively. In the health sector, for example, there must be a sharing of resources, based on a partnership between the public and private health sectors, in a public-private partnership model of delivery.

Similarly, as part of the partnership approach, civil society groups could help co-deliver public and basic services in communities – from tackling gangsterism, combating gender-based violence and fostering community-building programs to keep crime down and supporting the vulnerable.

Government must govern honestly. Without honesty, there cannot be trust, the glue for effective partnerships, citizen compliance and willingness to behave in a public-spirited manner. This includes government communicating honestly to citizens, beyond the traditional faceless press statements, doublespeak, and gobbledygook, and is crucial to rallying citizens behind government initiatives.

Entrepreneurship must be at the heart of post-COVID-19 economy reconstruction. Entrepreneurs create new industries, new jobs, and new wealth. They increase the size of economies. They fuel economic growth. They inspire a virtual cycle of others trying their hand at starting new businesses, new developments, and new initiatives too. In SA, entrepreneurship will have to be promoted across society – within the state, the private sector, civil society, and communities.

Corruption must be tackled with greater seriousness. No successful post-COVID-19 reconstruction is remotely possible without the government being seen to be tackling corruption. Especially that of politically connected untouchable ANC cadres, political capitalists and tenderpreneurs, who get government tenders solely because of their connectedness to the ANC and government leadership. Corruption that is not dealt with destroys trust and the credibility of government and encourages corruption across society.

The rule of law is fundamental. It must apply to everyone equally. The rule of law cannot only be applied to ordinary citizens. The politically connected cannot be exempted from the law, as has been the case since the end of apartheid. Neither should there be untouchables who appear to be above the law such as minibus taxi drivers and bosses, gangsters and building hijackers.

The poor, vulnerable and marginalised must always be cared for: without this, any post-COVID-19 reconstruction will be undermined, as their anger will explode into protests, violence, and social disorder. A new governance model is a crucial, necessity to mobilise all SA’s resources, talent and ideas to sustainably, quickly and with the least social disruption tackle the multiple health, financial and social crises unleashed by COVID-19.


 South Africa is faced with extraordinary crises, unleashed by Covid-19, which demands extraordinarily high levels of democratic governance.Covid-19 has unleashed a shock to South Africa’s political, economic, societal and cultural systems. Our democratic system of governance will be tested.

Unless we change course now, and adopt a higher quality democratic governance model, we will have no country left, either for ourselves, our children, and the generations to come.


Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, Sydney (1963) The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963

Helen Clark (2000) The Importance of Governance for Sustainable Development. Singapore Lecture Series. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, March 13;

Francis Fukuyama (2013) “Commentary: What is Governance”. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, 23 (3) July, pp. 347-368

John Graham, Bruce Amos, Bruce and Tim Plumptre (2003). “Principles for Good Governance in the 21st Century”. Policy Brief No. 15, Institute on Governance, Ottawa;

Merilee S. Grindle (2004) “Good Enough Governance: Poverty Reduction and Reform in Developing Countries”. Governance 17 (4): 525–548;

Simon Herbert (1957) Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organization. New York: Free Press;

Daniel Kaufmann and Aart Kraay (2009) Governance Matters VIII: Aggregate and Individual Governance Indicators, 1996–2008. Washington, DC: World Bank Institute;

Michael Mann (1984) “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results”. European Journal of Sociology 25 (2): 185–213;

Joel S. Migdal (1988) Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press;

Mancur Olson (1993). Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development. American Political Science Review 87 (9): 567–576;

Bo Rothstein (2011) The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press;

UNDP (1997) Governance and Sustainable Human Development. New York: UNDP;

Max Weber (1978). Economy and Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press;

Max Weber (1946) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press;

James Q Wilson (1989) Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books;

Woodrow Wilson (1887) “The Study of Administration”, Political Science Quarterly, 2(2): 197–222;

World Bank (1994) Governance: The World Bank’s Experience. World Bank Publications, New York.


William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

Comments are closed.