from Johannesburg, South Africa – Louis van der Merwe

Louis van der Merwe PhD (Dev. & Mngt.). Professional; Strategy process consultant and executive educator, Scenario-based Strategy, systemic approach to successful large scale organisational transformation including Eskom (SA) in the 80s, Shell Oil (Houston), Royal/Dutch Shell Europe Oil Products (SEOP) and others. More recently he developed a diagnostic for gauging City Government Resilience. He is converting this research into a handbook for practitioners.

2 April. We are now seeing the first infections in the townships of Alexandra (Gauteng Provence) and Khayelitsha (Cape Province). I am holding my breath expecting reports of exponential infections from these initial diagnoses. President Ramaphosa continues to lead from the front, with his approval ratings rising, has initiated widespread testing. This campaign aims to engage 10,000 field workers and will make a huge difference to building a feedback loop with which to diagnose hotspots which can then be more intensely and effectively isolated.

Self-isolation moves forward in a typically South African manner. There seems to be widespread compliance from knowledge workers who routinely work from their home offices  in virtual mode. These privileged few hardly feel the pressures of social distancing as long as they do not have to leave the isolation and safety of their homes to stock up on meds or groceries. In township it’s a different matter, providing serious challenges to citizens of crowded township such as Diepkloof, Thembisa and other large settlements. These structures of apartheid reflect societal inequality which has persisted notwithstanding 25 years of democracy. The massive migration into urban areas creates further population pressures on accommodation and services.

The authorities have also responded in an uneven manner with brute force meted out in townships and at the same time a gentler approach to the middle-class, predominantly white, suburbs. Reports of sjamboks being used to coerce folks in townships to stay home as well as other heavy-handed measures reminiscent of the apartheid era are now reaching the ombud. The ineptness of politicians are now visible for all to see. Ministers of Police (Cele) who has in the past invoked violent policing and Transport (Mbalula) who has tried unsuccessfully to compel minibus taxis to reduce crowding are but two examples. Why cigarettes and alcohol were banned is not clear other than an effort to stem social contact in shebeens and interrupt the flow of funds from smuggling of tobacco products. Taverns and township shebeens have to close at 18:00. These trading hours seem to be strictly enforced, with fines for non-compliance.

In our home office we have recently connected to a local fibre optic service provider and have since received much better connectivity and rapid recovery after interruptions. A real person shows up to assist with diagnosing the cause(s) of disruption versus the non-response of call centres and their pre-recorded telephone messages. Our vibre-optic service provider has had to expand their bandwidth twice to accommodate the increase in demand from people working from home and streaming entertainment. This signals a commercial adjustment to changes in demand. These adjustments to the “new normal” will most probably continue into the post COVID-19 era. Home-schooling which has been a fringe activity will probably also go mainstream as the digital support expands and quality education offerings become available. There is a growing awareness and acceptance that life post COVID-19 will be different.

29 March. I am finding it difficult to appreciate that it is already Sunday today. It does not feel like it. Life is gradually settling into a routine. Typically I rise at 05:30 to have breakfast and then routinely go to my home office where I can engage with work as usual. We have recently let our home office of thiry years to a friend as a cottage. He had lost his accommodation and was in urgent need of an alternative.This new arrangement required us moving the office to another part of our establishment which we used to use for training workshops. A useful if disruptive exercise as one has to sort through accumulated records and clear out redundant stuff.

Speaking of routines I recently received a useful posting on how prisoners in goals survive over long periods of time through following strictly, a daily routine. According to this posting from somebody who had been incarcerated by the apartheid regime and who has had contact with people such as Nelson Mandela, disciplined routines are the key to dealing with long-term isolation and confinement. In the face of the current social self-isolation, this advice seemed to make sense. Rising at the same time every day, dressing as if one is going to work, eating with enjoyment and exercising etc. at the same time every day. She advises that this provides a basis for maintaining self-worth and dignity within a confined prison situation. Nelson Mandela had a habit of making his bed every day even when he was in a luxury hotel, a habit that had been ingrained during 25 years of imprisonment. This single piece of evidence convinced me of the usefulness of this advice. Besides, the source of the posting was credible and regularly posted useful postings in the WhatsApp group I was part of. As life in self-isolation in our family starts to settle into a routine called “the new normal” naturally, I am considering defining this routine for myself to see if it assists in dealing with the isolation and confinement. As I learn a new behaviour, I assume that many are learning to find the positive effects of the new normal. Telecommuting, remote learning and many other current necessities may persist beyond this emergency time.

The streets of the urban area are deserted as urban dwellers adhere to the social distancing and self-isolate. In this socio-economically and racially separated country, it is difficult to establish what the state of affairs is in townships. Minibus taxis in Durban are refusing to comply with the distancing legislation which limits the number of passengers they may carry by withdrawing their services altogether. More substantial bus services which carry 50 passengers at a time are taking over their service from them. Anecdotal stories, emerging from townships about the impossibility of social-distancing in crowded conditions foretell a dire future. People in places like Diepsloot north of Johannesburg, a large settlement of close to one million people are ignoring the call to self-distance. The reported infection levels in SA are low in comparison to Italy and now New York. Without testing for COVID 19, at scale, it remains impossible to tell if and where infection hotspots are developing within these settlements or anywhere in SA for that matter. Government is now scrambling to provide tests. The situation in Zimbabwe as a whole seems even direr than local squatter camps. Commentators in the media, who are desperate, have resorted to abandoning any hope for the Zimbabwe situation. Amidst the growing appreciation of the economic consequences, many small businesses in SA have put workforce on extended leave on full pay. Super-wealthy families such as the Oppenheimer and Rupert families have donated one billion Rand each to supporting smaller businesses. The Minister of Small Business Development attempted to insert a race-based condition for access to these funds. Rupert, quickly put that thought to rest by stating that the funds were “for all South Africans” based on merit. Amidst the usual obfuscation and attempted lies by the Minister and her bureaucrats, she withdrew the race-based conditions. Another example of learning and adapting to the new normal.  

26 March 2020 continued. Supply-chains hold up, sort of. Pictures of empty shelves where they exist have gone viral amidst panic buying of essential supplies in holiday resorts such as Ballito near Durban and probably others. However, in Midrand, between Pretoria and Johannesburg buying has been heavy and now out of stock in categories such as Vitamin C and other vitamins, and facemasks in major outlets such as DisChem. Supermarkets remain fully stocked, and shelves have no empty spaces. The ludicrous behaviour around fighting for toilet paper in the USA absent. Pressure is building to stock up before the lockdown at midnight tonight on Thursday 26th March. The local Pick n Pay has empty shelves in popular items such as chicken. However other meats are fully stocked. Shops are regulating how many people enter so that social distancing can be adhered to in the shop. Social media is playing a decisive role in building awareness and distributing official decisions. Consumers of social media are learning how to discriminate between fake and genuine fact-based news and information. A steady flow of gallows humour on social media reflects a South African way of dealing with an impending disaster. The full array of military equipment is on display along highways and in major towns and cities as a show of force and a warning to anybody contemplating a breach of the lockdown measures. SADF roadblocks with powers to test for the CORONA virus and quarantine until test results become available (in six days) serves as another threat to stay home and indoors. Reading between the lines of official statements there is clearly an awareness amongst top echelons of government that they have to have a plan B. The scenarist in me says that the “State of Disaster” which is the level of alert we are currently at can be followed by a “State of Emergency” while remaining within the constitution. A State of Emergency provides more power to act on folks resisting the lockdown including curfews, commandeering resources, key points etc. Plan B may be to declare a State of Emergency soon in order to assert the needed pressure for compliance for successful lockdown to flatten the SARSCov-2 infection curve. The next level of escalation may be to suspend the constitution and declare “Marshall Law” which is usually only invoked during wartime. President Ramaphosa’s popularity is steadily rising as he leads based on international best practice, evidence, science, and the excellent medically based advice of the Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda north of here has set an example for an African state bootstrapping itself to greater economic growth sustaining 8% per annum. Some say Rwanda is becoming the Singapore of Africa. He has a 96% approval rating which has provided him with a relatively free hand to improve the lives of his citizens in a blend of market-based policies and autocratic decision-making. Rwanda could be named a constitutional democracy with and African Character, an African version of China’s “one country two systems”. A similar approach could break the ideological bind between centralist socialism/communism and market-based economics the SA politicians are currently in.

26 March 2020. President Ramaphosa acting presidential. President Ramaphosa, supported by the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkize, with state of the art advice on how to flatten the infection curve to avoid overwhelming the health system, has declared a total lockdown for 21 days. To date he is dominating the communications to the general public. Sustaining this level of communication will probably be as critical as containing the spread of the virus. His measures take into consideration the vast socio-economic inequality. Water points are being installed in squatter camps. Testing is being intensified. The ANC Alliance has done very little since 1994 to address the inequality in society.  His announcement on public TV was calming, comprehensive, matter-of-fact and evidence-based. A detailed written communication followed almost immediately afterwards. He appealed to solidarity several times in his address, deviating from the identity politics and inward focus of a majority party. He marked the contribution of R1bn each from the Oppenheimer and Rupert families to support small and medium businesses during the crisis.  He also started the process of reinforcing the rule of law and accountability which the ANC Alliance had ignored and eroded since the advent of democracy in 1994. With this, the public discourse is starting to turn to an appreciation of the fact that past president Zuma and many of his cronies were now out of the national leadership. Zuma’s interest in personal enrichment in preference to national interest had been responsible for industrial-scale plundering of the fiscus and State-Owned-Enterprises during his term of office. Corruption had severely damaged the capability of the state. Key positions such as, amongst others, the head of the National Broadcaster (SABC), the National Prosecuting Authority(NPA) were no longer in charge at this crucial juncture on our history. He is marshalling state organs to support broad-based teamwork and increasing effectiveness of the lockdown. Some of the drastic measures announced were followed by a cryptic ministerial suffix “For now…” implying that they may be in place for some time if not permanently. My personal bell-weather for compliance and enforcing the rule of law: Minibus-taxis and metered taxi drivers complying with capping their passengers to half of maximum carrying capability to enable some social distancing.

A list of Call centres and Hotlines, circulated widely, captures the comprehensive approach adopted by government as well as the complexity which we face.

The list: Heading: COVID-19 PANDEMIC followed by: National Institute of Communicable Diseases 080009999, South African Police Service 0860010111, Department of Home Affairs 0800601190, Gender-based Violence command centre 0800428428, National Crisis Line 0861322322, Department of Water Affairs 0800200200, Reporting undue price increases 0800141880, Department of Tourism 0860868747, Support for SMMEs 08606637867, Presidential Hotline 17737, WhatsApp 0600123456.  

25 March. Grist for scenario thinking and development of narrative(s). Full lockdown scheduled to commence at midnight on Thursday 26 March 2020. In addition to the scenario research used for decision-making in an educational setting, a broader set of scenarios would be useful to raise the level of decision across governments and commercial organisations. At executive levels in most organisations, their planning time horizon was too short at 3-5 years. It should be in the 15 to 25 year according to Elliott Jaques who has studied the requisite time horizon where executive decisions are seen to be right or wrong. He calls this point “the time span of discretion”  He found this to be a constant across a sample of more than 60,000 executives internationally. He cites this as one of the few scientific facts in the so-called management sciences. It therefore makes sense to develop COVID 19 scenarios on a 15 to 25 year time horizon if their users are to avoid surprises.

Branching points and research questions in narratives could be;

  • With a heavy load of HIV AIDS as well as Tuberculosis (TB) in the population, what might be the infection levels? Some success elsewhere using antiretrovirals augured well for their use in combatting the virus
  • Was there a tipping point where the bottlenecks in medical diagnostic and treatment facilities spill over into social unrest with demonstrations and setting these facilities alight as a protest
  • The decline in demand for commodities from China, the reduced tax base in SA as the economy shrinks creates a perfect storm which places salaries of public servants and payment of social grants under pressure. This reduction in patronage, in turn, erodes the ANC hegemony and source of patronage which could account for the unusual voter loyalty to a corrupt government. As defaults occur ANC alliance credibility erodes and democratic dynamics spread beyond the internal dynamics of the ANC Alliance, and accountability grows
  • The “we are staying” Facebook phenomenon demonstrates a widespread reaching out across the social divide by more than a million folks who have decided that they would not emigrate. Having reflected on what they would then act on within SA they embark on what might be labelled random acts of kindness and social projects for the benefit of those around them resulting in growing trust and goodwill between the various socio-economic cleavages in SoA society.
  • In addition to short term scenario-thinking including the more obvious dynamics already mentioned above, were there scenarios downstream from the impact of the virus?

Looking back in history what we could learn from the 1918 so-called “Spanish influenza” aka Spanish Flu. The Spanish Flu pandemic seems associated with the dramatic economic decline resulting in the great depression starting in 1929 approximately ten years later. The impact of the depression created a vulnerability amongst the poor and jobless to populist politicking and an attraction to socialism which in turn enabled fascist leadership in countries such as Italy and Germany. These dynamics, amongst others, played an essential role in setting conditions for the Second World War. In Germany, it led to the scapegoating of minorities, specifically Jews and also Roma and Homosexuals. The result was the Holocaust and its industrial-scale human extermination. Were there lessons to be drawn from these dynamics for building scenarios for SoA over the next twenty to twenty-five years? The seeds of this scenario can already be found in the politicks of the so-called Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First (BFLF) political parties.

24 March 2020. A culture of protest and resistance. We have learnt from the delays in Italy, days matter in arresting the exponential growth in new infection numbers. At the same time scenes in South Africa King Chaka swimming pool of thousands of children frolicking in beachfront pools with abandon, chanting “Corona, Corona” has gone viral. Where are their parents in this one may ask? Perhaps an early indication of the lack of resilience of family structures and poor parenting practice or single-parent families where the parent has to retain their job to put food on the table for their families, with parenting left to a Gogo (granny). In this context, both the children and their grannies are at risk of infection.

24 March 2020. Covid 19 under-reported in SoA. Business partner Themba (not his real name) had been travelling extensively to Russia, India, China and other destinations for developing the fast-growing consulting business NTIYISO where I am Expert Partner. NTIYISO meaning “Truth”in xiTsonga had grown to more than 160 Consultants and associates since its establishment in 2005. NTIYISO Partner Themba was showing many of the symptoms of the COVID 19 virus infection. He had fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle and joint pain, Headache and Chills and was in search of a test and diagnosis. He also needed to differentiate between regular flu symptoms and the dreaded COVID 19 virus.

His frustration with delays and costs with trying to obtain a diagnosis probably reflect the blockages experienced by many others. He spent a full two days or more sent from pillar to post before finally getting all the needed referrals and dealing with other red tape protocols for being tested. Pathology laboratories were directing patients to ”go home until symptoms appear.” When he called me to ventilate about his desperation, he was almost hysterical with frustration and disillusioned with government publicly declaring that the country was ready and yet he could not get a simple test done. All of these delays were legitimately part of ensuring patient safety. He was indeed tested three days later and continues to await the results of those tests. A six-day cycle to date from initiating tests to obtaining results. He confirmed that these delays in and of themselves would result in under-reporting cases. Whether this is representative of the broader population is another question. In a climate where politicians claimed “that the country was ready for the COVID 19 virus,”  their claims ring false. My sister Elisabeth who manages a Municipal clinic and is a veteran of more than thirty years in the frontline of community health in the City of Tshwane, formerly Pretoria, refers to help-lines and call centres to deal with this emergency. However, when she has tested these numbers, there has been met with a “no-reply” response or unanswered.

23 March 2020. Decision-making in a school system II-Developing Scenarios. Without a well-researched position on how the pandemic might unfold in SoA in the immediate and medium-term future, the board and this decision-making process remained trapped in a reactive mode. I recommended that now was the time to develop short terms scenarios for the different paths the Corona Virus would follow in Southern Africa (SoA). With inequalities persisting in SoA there may be different pathways that the virus might initially follow in the various socio-economic groupings in SoA. Porous borders required that the SoA region should be treated as an interconnected whole for scenario development.  Scenarios developing in the Northern hemisphere would be of limited use in SoA because of the relatively complex socio-economic nature of SoA. I added key concerns that should be understood about the local pandemic and expressed in scenario thinking are;

  • What would the length of the cycle be from initial infection to the exponential rise and decline to where China now found itself with zero infection for two consecutive days. A position on this would inform the potential length of time the school might have to continue its distance learning approach.
  • What would be the economic impact and specifically the impact on jobs
  • How would informal settlements and crowded townships cope
  • The resilience of family structure and parental leadership of minors in the various ethnic groupings in SoA

21 March 2020. Decision-making in a school system I-Risk management list don’t work. This past Monday the School Board of Directors met to take a decision on closing the school in terms of the directive by President Ramaphosa and also how to engage distance learning using the digital capability in the school. Most of the learning in the preschool, preparatory and college was assisted by Chromebooks laptops and google classroom software.  I had built capacity for scenario-based strategy over two years with the person responsible strategy within the school’s strategy function. However, after the initial enthusiasm and some effort to include scenarios into the strategy document, the method had fallen into disuse. I saw no evidence of scenario thinking amongst the executives. Besides, the Chairman of the Board and others in the executive seemed to believe that scenarios were non-essential to strategy-making. In the meantime, a detailed Risk Register was developed. It contained extensive lists and categories of all the possible risks to the school, colour-coded to indicate the level of risk. This document which was regularly applauded seemed to have displaced scenario work. The various portfolio holders on the board had to connect their portfolio to the relevant risk in the risk register. My first assumption was that there was a fiduciary requirement for such a risk register.  Secondly, I assumed that the risk register would be unable to assist the school Board as well as executives in anticipating risk. In preparation for the past Monday board meeting, I compared the most recent risk register in November 2019 with the edition submitted in the board pack. No mention of a virus attack in the November edition. However prominently featured in the current version as the top priority was, you guessed it, VIRUS Attack! It had been back-fitted.

20 March 2020. Action in a crisis situation. Our first action ensured that our last will and testaments were in place and available for both Marie and myself. Rachel is the focus of our lives and must be cared for should one of us or both pass during this crisis. This first action step was an unusually easy conversation. It consisted of a few agreements about the next steps concluded matter-of-factly. A sense of relief followed, knowing that our family matters were in order, thus taken care of as best as one could in these circumstances. In the event of Marie and I, both passing Rachel would be cared for by her godmother Siobhan and spouse Barrister, David Lydon living in Birmingham, UK. I was surprised at how easy this conversation had been. I even felt a sense of acceptance of passing on to whatever followed my earthly life. I had come to believe that life on earth was an investment in a spiritual journey to the after-life. With only three of seven siblings surviving, we had often experienced death and dying in my family of origin. I had also had two near-death experiences and felt comforted that I knew something about the process.

19 March 2020. Response to vulnerability. We as family realised that we were vulnerable to the virus. I was in the target zone for fatalities from the effects of the COVID 19 illness, being “elderly”. Any scenarios for another twenty-year career tranche would have to be subject to the impact of the unfolding pandemic on our family. I have found it a useful exercise to confront your demise and set a specific timeline to it as a basis for planning and prioritising. At 26 years of age, I had two near-death experiences due to the unfortunate choice of a medical practitioner. At the time, once I recovered sufficiently, I decided that I had fifteen to twenty years to live and complete whatever I wished to do in the rest of my life. That period turned out to be the basis of my professional life to date. I learnt a valuable lesson from my deceased brother Martin, who was born with, amongst others, a congenital heart condition. The closer he got to death, the more he would formulate plans.

17 March 2020. Family coping with potential demise. I come from a large Catholic family, where I am second born of seven siblings. My mother with Irish roots to County Cork, Ireland, passed at age 96 and my father an eleventh generation South African passed at 92.  If I survive to the mean age of my parents, I have twenty years of active life ahead consulting, mentoring and writing as long as my competencies remain in demand. This past Wednesday I would have addressed the top twelve Cape Town City, Executive Directors as so-called “Thought Leader” on critical thinking including Scenario-based Strategy, Systems Thinking and Strategic Conversation as part of a leadership development process courtesy Price-Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). The postponement of this appointment to May this year is part of social distancing as a defence against the COVID 19 Viral attack. Demand for my professional knowledge and skills seemed to be picking up, with my writing planned digital marketing aimed at enhancing this existing demand. This assignment was the result of a connection to my corporate reputation in South Africa from the 80s. I am confident that as my writing became known, more referrals would surface in SA and deliver requests for useful work.