Covid-19: A catalyst for structural reform?

While the impact of Covid-19 has been primarily a healthcare and humanitarian crisis, the disastrous effect it has had, and will continue to have, on economies, markets, businesses and personal finances, is now clear. This impact was amplified in South Africa by downgrades by both Moody’s and Fitch, the ongoing power cuts by Eskom and the looting seen in July 2021.

But the pandemic also presents an opportunity, and indeed an imperative, for our country to focus more acutely on building for the future.

That building undoubtedly begins with a renewed commitment to implementing a number of vital structural reforms and changes in the months and years after the pandemic has been dealt with. These structural changes are nothing new, but renewed impetus on working with each other, instead of against one another, is essential in achieving them, and could be possible after Covid-19.

Addressing policy oversights

For one, our country urgently needs meaningful labour market reform by finding a better balance between the needs of the labour market and those of business. There also needs to be a concerted drive towards greater policy clarity, particularly when it comes to national health insurance, land reform, energy solutions and black economic empowerment.

These are structural-reform requirements that the government has long been aware of, and for which numerous plans and strategies have already been developed. The hope, however, is that in the aftermath of Covid -19 the value of a unified approach to implementing them can finally be realised.

Building digital business penetration

Another glaring development opportunity that the virus and its accompanying lockdown responses has revealed is the potential for online businesses to thrive. The innovation that has been shown by those in areas like education, entertainment and retail makes a very compelling case for the continued development of these into predominantly online business sectors.

The outbreak has demonstrated that South Africa has the ability to come together and take decisive action

And if such focus is accompanied by a commitment to providing the support to small, medium and microenterprises that has so long been promised, digital could easily become the new mainstream economy in this country, or at least a very significant component of it. This is being complemented by moves to reduce data costs, enabling more South Africans to participate in digital businesses.

Rebuilding the manufacturing sector

Finally, the impact of Covid-19 has served as a stark reminder of the important need for South Africa to continue to grow its manufacturing sector. It has also shown the risk of overreliance on China and the impact this has on the supply of goods globally. With the correct policies in place, there is an opportunity for South Africa to become a competitive global manufacturing alternative to China. This can be achieved by capitalising on our unique geographical location, skills, knowledge and underutilised labour force. This is especially important at a time when South Africa has recorded its highest unemployment rate, which can reach close to 12 million people unemployed, depending on the definition looked at.

Of course, the implementation of these post-Covid-19 structural reforms – and capitalising on the opportunities that are created as a result – will also have a significant positive domino effect on our markets, and hopefully restore South Africa’s appeal as a viable international investment destination.

While nobody could ever view Covid-19 and its consequences as positive, the outbreak has demonstrated that South Africa has the ability to come together and take decisive action. The hope is that in years to come we can all look back on this horrific situation and see that the silver lining to all of it was that it catalysed our leaders, businesses and people to work together and realise a shared vision of a better, more prosperous and economically strong future.