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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Mr President, we are tired of talk and no action

opinion

"My fellow South Africans…."

South Africans have come to dread these words.

On Thursday evening President Ramaphosa addressed a country weary of the coronavirus, but also weary of the unending stories of economic hardship this pandemic has brought with it.

The hardship is almost incalculable – millions have lost their jobs since the hard lockdown was implemented in March and greater numbers of South Africans go to bed hungry every night.

In March there was a feeling of social solidarity as the country closed down for all but the bare necessities of living life. Then the President appealed to the better angels of our nature and he himself seemed in control and was taking decisions based on the science. We applauded the decisive leadership he took then.

But it was almost inevitable that South Africa’s institutional fragility and weak leadership would be laid bare.

In the midst of the pandemic, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams deemed fit to lunch with friends. Incidentally, one of those friends was Mduduzi Manana, a former ANC MP who had resigned in 2018 following allegations of assault. Ndabeni-Abrahams was suspended for 2 months and is now back in her position.

Many other ministers have not covered themselves in glory and Ramaphosa himself appears less sure-footed than in March. The risk-adjusted strategy, or what has also been referred to as the ‘enhanced risk-adjusted strategy’ seems to be somewhat confused.

It is as if those whom the ANC relies on for votes now hold the most sway; churches, for instance, were allowed to reopen even as we were told to continue staying home and not to visit family.

The soap opera that is Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula’s ongoing interaction with the taxi industry is, in true soap opera style, an endless back and forth. As citizens we watch even as it is almost inevitable that government will cave in to the industry again and again. Taxis now operate at 100% capacity with the rule in place that windows must be opened and passengers must wear masks. It leaves one wondering who comes up with this sort of regulation? Taxis operate with impunity and has anyone been fined or arrested for travelling with all windows closed or lifting an unmasked passenger? Drivers openly flout the rules and drive without wearing masks, after all.

We live in a country where the rules do not matter if, like the taxi industry, you can bring the country to its knees with strike action - or as the phrase goes, ‘make the country ungovernable’.

Also, the majority of South Africans do not have an alternative to hopping into a taxi to get to work. And so a pandemic also shows up all that has been neglected in 26 years of ANC government. There is no evidence of a decent, safe public transport system and daily the poor of our country run the gauntlet in rickety, unsafe taxis.

The same would apply to the teacher unions who last week caused government to do another ‘flip-flop’ on whether schools should reopen or not. The science clearly supports schools reopening safely. In the minority of schools where PPE has not been received, that could easily have been solved. Instead, we face another month of children on the streets, unsupervised and losing classroom time. The reality is that for children in townships, school is a safer bet than the streets.

Also, there seems to be little basis for closing schools when the pandemic will continue to rage in a month’s time.

It is kowtowing to Sadtu, the teachers’ union, which supports the ANC. It’s that crude, really.

The capitulation to the loudest voices is clear and it undermines the government’s response to the pandemic and simply makes ordinary citizens lose faith in these presidential pronouncements.

Ramaphosa’s announcement came during the same week that restaurateurs staged the #Jobssavelives protests across the country. Restaurants are bleeding jobs as the alcohol ban and curfew take their toll. The evidence makes it clear that reinstating the alcohol ban has ensured that trauma units across the country are not overwhelmed with alcohol-related incidents. This has removed the extra burden on health services dealing with COVID-19 cases.

Yet, the balance between livelihoods and lives must be more finely calibrated and there must be room to assist this sector in a more structured manner and to lift some of the alcohol ban, whether it is online or in sit-down establishments. Of course it does not mean that patrons will flock to restaurants, but why turn a deaf ear to this sector and make it harder for them than it already is?

So, taxi operators and teacher unions held sway in the end even as police teargassed protesting chefs and waiters in Cape Town. Such is the contradiction of South African life. Chefs were hardly brandishing butchers’ knives, after all. But in this country of the selective application of laws, they were an easy target for Bheki Cele’s easily stoked police service.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of lockdown, apart from job losses and police brutality, has been the corruption associated with COVID-19 tenders.

As Ramaphosa rightly said last week, “But what concerns me, and what concerns all South Africans, are those instances where funds are stolen, where they are misused, where goods are overpriced, where food parcels are diverted from needy households – where there is corruption and mismanagement of public funds.”

Corruption concerns us all. In his address Ramaphosa announced that he had signed a proclamation “authorising the Special Investigating Unit – the SIU – to investigate any unlawful or improper conduct in the procurement of any goods, works and services during or related to the national state of disaster in any state institution.”

Cynical South Africans almost fell silent. What more is left to say after all? We lived through the looting of the Jacob Zuma presidency, Eskom itself is finding it difficult to turn its operations around so grave is the legacy of state capture. Every single one of the perpetrators walk free, enjoying the spoils of their looting. The National Director of Public Prosecutions, Advocate Shamila Batohi, only ever speaks tales of woe regarding a lack of time and resources. Of course her task is Herculean, but by now the public has the right to expect a prosecution or two surely?

So the President’s words dropped like the proverbial lead balloon. Only the most optimistic amongst us would believe that consequences follow actions in South Africa.

Ramaphosa also made this announcement only days after the husband of his spokesperson, Khusela Diko, was embroiled in a R125 million tender scandal involving the Gauteng Health Department and the supply of PPE. It seems as if the tender was (opportunistically) cancelled and Diko denies any wrongdoing on her part or that of her husband.

Yet, the ANC in Gauteng is meeting to discuss these alleged irregularities.

President Ramaphosa would do well to suspend Diko until the allegations are cleared up, assuming they can be. He has the direct power to do so and in so doing, not ignoring what is in front of him.
That should not be difficult to do.

Ramaphosa’s words on tackling corruption rang a little hollow last week and more so given the allegations against Diko’s husband.

South Africans are simply tired of talk on everything from the economy, to better services for the poor and acting on corruption.

The mood of the country is restless and frustrated as our social fabric strains under the weight of a lack of accountability and wavering leadership.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february