/2021: South Africa’s last chance saloon

2021: South Africa’s last chance saloon

This is a pivotal year for South Africa. Much will depend on decisions in four areas — vaccines, booze ban, lockdown and national executive decision-making — all important on their own, but also crucial interconnections of governance, policy, politics and, in no small measure, BS.

As the new year essentially continues where 2020 left off, the Covid-19 lockdown, which on Wednesday hits Day 293, has seen the securocrats just able to carry the day. 

It is still bans, curfews and permits. Livelihoods, not so much.

The silence on economic and social relief measures was resounding in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Monday of the new permutation of the lockdown. That silence was widely noted, and Cosatu called for more action.

“The government needs to realise that the Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health tragedy, but also an economic one and therefore must be fought on both fronts. Lives and livelihoods must be saved in equal measure,” said Cosatu in a statement that also pointed out that the complete absence of economic and social relief measures for lockdown-affected workers and businesses was “callous”.

The R350 Covid-19 unemployment grant ends in January. The additional child care grant and pension top-ups ended months ago, as has the Unemployment Insurance Fund Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme, or the UIF Ters.

It’s no secret South Africa’s coffers are running on empty — debt repayments are the fastest-rising Budget item, was Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2020 mantra. An estimated 2.2 million jobs have already been lost, affecting more than 10 million people as one worker, on average, supports five people.

The National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, or NIDS-CRAM, in its September 2020 reports highlighted a “drastic” increase in both — and South Africa’s economy is expected to contract 8.1%. 

That’s the reality that underlies 2021, no matter the spin, pretty phrases and narratives, or controlled optics.

How this reality further unfolds in 2021 can be measured by action in four areas — vaccine policy, acquisition and dispersal; the booze ban; lockdown restrictions; and how the national executive actually makes decisions in South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

A plan exists now, but money may still be an issue although it’s understood the February Budget will at least pencil in the R1.8-billion or so needed for the Covax facility vaccines. The focus must now fall on how exactly private medical aid cross-subsidisation of those in the public health system would work. The details would be crucial to track the money through the system.

But already money is causing ructions. Concerns are rising of looting along the lines of the personal protective equipment (PPE) tender corruption that benefited the politically connected and, as tax boss Edward Kieswetter is on public record as saying, those who managed to turn their existing companies like car washes and bakeries into .

Central to this is the government plans to outsource storage and distribution of vaccines, according to the plan presented to Parliament’s health committee on 7 January 2021, a week after Mkhize’s televised Friday evening Zoom briefing.

In the wake of the PPE corruption scandal, the government has opened PPE contracts to public scrutiny — it’s available on the , but provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng have also released their own data.

The question, however, is if officialdom has learnt the lessons to ensure the Covid-19 vaccination programme remains above claims of malfeasance, while implementation rolls out speedily and effectively.

Booze ban

It’s easy. Banned, and if found at a roadblock confiscated, with the transporter of such State of Disaster contraband maybe arrested, but definitely fined.

But going dry by force does not change the underlying dynamics that alcohol abuse, as any healthcare worker can testify, leads to horrific violence between people, accidents, death and terrifying injury.

The horrific impact of alcohol abuse has been well known for many, many years. The South African Medical Research Council established alcohol abuse cost the economy an estimated 10% to 12% of the 2009 gross domestic product (GDP). In 2015 an average of 74 to 282 adults died every day because of alcohol, according to the Medical Research Council.

In 2016, then trade and industry minister Rob Davies launched the Liquor Amendment Bill that aimed to restrict booze advertising, raise prices, raise the legal drinking age to 21, to limit trading hours and to ensure no pubs, bars or shebeens operated within 100m of a school or a place of worship.

Nothing ever came of this legislative initiative. 

The reality is that if the law had been changed, alongside a strong public health/education campaign, South Africa could have been much, much further down the road in fundamentally changing the dynamics giving rise to high levels of alcohol abuse. The empty Christmas trauma wards of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital — tweeted photos of which received presidential approval — would be a step closer to a reality that signifies fundamental changes in social conduct and values, rather than being an artificial emptiness resulting from prohibition.

Russia, in the space of less than a decade, cut alcohol consumption and related deaths and injuries by upping taxes and thus increasing prices, which were also hiked by raising the alcohol floor price — the higher the alcohol content the higher the minimum price — alongside limiting and regulating alcohol sales hours. According to various reports, life expectancy went up, health improved and the country recorded a notable drop, particularly among teenagers, in crime and violence. 

So it can be done. Healthcare workers will thank everyone, long past the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this requires clear and speedy policy development and implementation and hard and consistent work, not Cabinet (or is it the National Coronavirus Command Council?) teetotallers pushing their personal agendas.

Lockdown levels and risk-adjusted strategy

The long and short of it here is that the government’s is blown to bits. It has been, pretty much from the start. Released in April 2020, one round of public comments was allowed over about four days, and never again.

It’s policymaking on the hoof. 

This illustrates governance malleability — possibly on the back of the securocrats mobilising in the National Coronavirus Command Council that receives input from NatJoints, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure of police, soldiers and spooks that is not publicly accountable and is not established in law or regulations.

South Africa finds itself in a Level 4 minus-minus or maybe Level 3 plus lockdown with a dash of Level 2. And the current so-called Advanced Level 3 version is a different permutation of what had been called “Adjusted Level 3” of 1 June to 18 August 2020, and is even different to the first take of advanced Level 3 introduced from 29 December 2020, given the land border closures and slightly earlier end to the curfew at 5am, rather than 6am.

According to the government’s risk-adjusted strategy, Level 4 has the booze ban, curfew and all gatherings except funerals prohibited, while Level 3 allows places of accommodation to be opened. Only Level 2 finally allows interprovincial and leisure travel (currently allowed), while still prohibiting all gatherings.

This mix and match approach to lockdown detracts from people taking it seriously. So does the government narrative around the reasons for the lockdown.  

The hard lockdown from 27 March 2020, initially for 21 days to 16 April, but extended by two weeks, was to prepare the health system to withstand the Covid-19 storm. Field hospitals sprang up, even if on many occasions without the required high-flow oxygen or healthcare workers. The army talked much about turning its bases into lasting legacies of the fight against Covid-19.

But like tracking the coronavirus, the hard work of shoring up the health system was not done. 

Although healthcare workers are exhausted after months of unrelenting work, the nurses and doctors who completed their community service year in December 2020 were not deployed, except in the Western Cape. What’s even more nonsensical is that nurses had received government bursaries and in return had signed contracts to work back their study support.

In Gauteng, nurses who had just completed their community service were ready, willing and able to work, but instead were served termination notices. On Tuesday, the Denosa Student Movement staged a sit-in in protest.

“It’s lack of proactivity and lack of leadership,” Denosa Student Movement chairperson Nathaniel Mabelebele told Daily Maverick on Tuesday. He was confident Gauteng needed only a prod to find the money to fully employ the nurses, as this had emerged as the trend in recent years. Ditto KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo where nurses had actually left to find work elsewhere over what Mabelebele described as official “stubbornness”.

With the National Health Insurance a key government policy priority — reiterated also in the governing ANC’s January 8 Statement earlier in January 2021 — serious questions about official ineptitude must be raised if healthcare workers can’t be promptly and properly employed and deployed in a pandemic for which government’s self-set, much-repeated motto is saving lives and livelihoods.

National Coronavirus Command Council

In at least two of Ramaphosa’s earlier addresses to the nation, he spoke of how the “National Coronavirus Command Council decided”. It’s a bit more convoluted now — “Based on the recommendations of the National Coronavirus Command Council, Cabinet has decided…” 

That’s because in May 2020 advocates Nazeer Cassim SC and Erin-Dianne Richards questioned how the National Coronavirus Command Council derived decision-making powers.

The Constitution in section 85 rests executive decision-making in the president, who exercises this executive decision-making authority together with members of the Cabinet.

But a set of parliamentary replies in June 2020 has highlighted the blurring of lines as effectively the . All Cabinet ministers were drafted to the National Coronavirus Command Council because their participation in the Covid-19 national response was crucial, said Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu in his parliamentary reply.

But if the whole Cabinet, the constitutional decision-maker, is in the National Coronavirus Command Council, is there really a need for his command council? Or is having a “command council” a nostalgic fancy back to the ANC’s liberation days? 

While Cabinet ministers are accountable to Parliament — publicly — as each portfolio has a parliamentary committee, the National Coronavirus Command Council is not. Yet the council through its recommendations has a key role in governing South Africa (as has the NatJoints — police, soldiers and spooks) and is not established in law or regulation. It’s on public record that NatJoints monitors the Covid-19 lockdown, reports back and makes recommendations alongside the forum of South African Directors-General .

While Ramaphosa does the verbal somersaults to ensure at least tick-box compliance with the constitutional imperative that Cabinet is the executive decision-maker, senior public servants are less circumspect.

On several occasions, most recently as on , the Government Communication and Information System talked of “National Coronavirus Command Council media briefing on Covid-19 regulations”. 

Not the Cabinet, not even Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who’s in charge of the State of Disaster declared and renewed monthly since 15 March 2020. No, it’s the National Coronavirus Command Council.

That attitude appears widespread among even senior officials. On Monday, Basic Education Director-General Mathanzima Mweli told a televised media briefing on the marking the 2020 matric exams that his department “reports to the National Coronavirus Command Council every week”. He’s by no means alone.

The dominance of the National Coronavirus Command Council has opened the door to the promotion of personal agendas and ideological persuasions of individuals, rather than what the Cabinet does, according to the Constitution, including implementing laws, developing and implementing national policy and coordinating the functions of state departments and administrations.

On a side note, describing the presidential Covid-19 addresses to the nation is neither cute nor folksy, but part of the deflection of government accountability and transparency.

The one-way communication by which the Presidency can control the optics does not brook questions, and thus not accountability or transparency. Like many others, communications consultant Mabine Seabe quite correctly points out in a family meeting, .

On Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced his department would no longer solemnise marriages, issue smart IDs to anyone except matriculants, and not issue passports except for categories of persons who are permitted to travel, as he put it during the televised lockdown briefing. 

Aside from the queues at social grant offices or labour courts without the will or wherewithal to ensure physical distancing and mask wearing, the Home Affairs announcement is an indication of an already weak public administration unravelling further.

Government’s crisis management energy of the initial Covid-19 pandemic weeks is spent. Structures established at the start of the pandemic pandemonium, like the National Coronavirus Command Council, have become fossilised into the routine of governance, blurring the lines of what is constitutional governance and what is not.

It’s not too late, but hard decisions must be taken. Now. This year will be pivotal for South Africa. DM

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