JUDITH FEBRUARY: Good news and painful memories in the middle of COVID-19

OPINION

South Africa is firmly in the grip of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a perfect storm.

The real impact on the economy of stringent lockdown is still reverberating and so despite extremely worrying infection rates, a hard lockdown is simply not viable. And so we tinker around the edges trying to appeal to a country not generally well-disposed to rules, to obey COVID-19 restrictions.

Add to that supply challenges with the J&J vaccines and the situation seems almost impossible. Thus far, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) has been efficient and acted with admirable independence. As one sees EconomicFreedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema rant outside the SAHPRA offices "demanding" that it approve the Sputnik and Sinovac vaccines. On Youth Day Malema spouted: "SAHPRA must approve Sputnik and Chinese vaccine [Sinovac] to add onto what we have now. If we die, let’s die, because we are going to die anyway."

This is more verbal thuggery from the EFF with the usual tired threat of intimidation against the SAHPRA CEO.
During a pandemic in particular, words matter. Malema’s words are not only dangerous but they are also dangerously "anti-science".

The SAHPRA should not bow to this sort of ignorance and pressure, specifically not at a time such as this. Its legitimacy is crucial to the way in which we deal with this pandemic and also for its handling of regulatory matters in the future. Besides, South Africans are not about to take up the vaccine offer if the efficacy and safety of these vaccines have not been scientifically proven.

It is into this very challenging health and political crisis that Mmamaloko Kubayi-Ngubane has been thrust. It is not an easy portfolio to pick up so one doesn’t envy her. Strange that Joe Phaahla, the deputy minister of health, is a medical doctor, yet was overlooked to handle matters in Zweli Mkhize’s stead.

Mkhize has now "stepped aside" after allegations that he benefitted from a R150 million contract to communications company, Digital Vibes.

There are all sorts of allegations swirling around about the way Mkhize and his family have benefitted from the contract and those are now the subject of an Special Investigations Unit probe.

It is tragic that Mkhize has been found wanting in this way - if even a sliver of what we read is true. He has been a capable and reassuring presence during the pandemic.

It is so that the revolution eats its children.

Just before President Cyril Ramaphosa flew to the G7 summit in Cornwall, two big announcements landed; Ramaphosa announced a 100MW cap for embedded generation, a hundredfold increase from 1MW. This happened despite the reticence of Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, whose commitment to coal is well-known. In the same week, government announced that it was selling a 51% stake in SAA.

This is a chunk of good news. We have been suffering rolling blackouts for the past weeks and it is a sign of our resilience and also how resigned we are that the outrage is almost minimal. Yet, every time the lights go out, a part of the economy dies with it. One cannot expect economic growth when there is no power. State capture has consequences and we would do well to remind ourselves of that each time former President Zuma appears in court and proclaims there is a conspiracy against him.

So, it is good news that Ramaphosa seems to have gone above Mantashe’s head and issued the announcement.

It is time Ramaphosa expends his political power. His choices are between that or simply becoming completely captive and beholden to the ANC’s internal politics.

On SAA, well, no country needs an airline. What has happened to SAA is another tragic example of the hollowing out of institutions and the real life consequences that has for employees and the sap on the public purse as bail out after bail out occurred. But, there has been secrecy around the deal and who is benefitting from it. Media reports mention the names of some close to the ANC.

That would probably be unsurprising given the levels of cronyism and nepotism in our society. The details of the bid ought to have been made public, or an explanation of the process announced. It is trite but sunlight is the best disinfectant and sooner or later what government may be trying to hide, will be revealed. That’s what happens in a democracy with a free press.

Speaking of accountability, Brian Shivambu has paid back R4.55 million given his benefits from the VBS banking scandal. The R4.55-million is a sliver of the R16.1-million which VBS investigators, advocate Terry Motau and Werksmans, found Shivambu had received “gratuitously”.

Of course, his brother, the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu attacked the media when the story first broke. It turns out investigative journalist Pauli Van Wyk was right, after all. Mkhize too, has stated that he will pay back the benefit from the Digital Vibes contract.

This is simply put not good enough. Corruption is a crime and the victims are all of us but in the VBS scandal, they are the poorest of the poor. The ‘new accountability’ cannot simply be about paying back the money and moving on. Prosecutions are needed. Has the time come for a special court which deals with tender corruption and related incidents of state capture? It would seem so. It might be the best use of our limited resources at this point.

So, it’s been another typical South African fortnight – a mixture of good and bad, believable and unbelievable (Let us make no mention of the decuplets fake news story).

Last weekend, we also remembered veteran actress, Shaleen Surtie-Richards who passed away at aged, 66. Surtie-Richards was one of the finest talents South Africa has produced. She was part of the South African landscape. From Fiela se kind, Egoli, Hallo and Koebaai and a range of other performances, she told our stories and was distinctly of this place. It is an indictment on the system that she died struggling to make ends meet. Surtie-Richard was granted a provincial funeral and flags in the province flew at half-mast. A fitting tribute but as a few artists boldly said at her memorial service, in the presence of Sports, Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa, the system let her down. She died unable to afford hospital treatment. Mthethwa needed to hear that.

As Basil Appollis, June van Merch and Royston Stoffels paid moving tribute to their friend, it was a stark reminder not only that we live in a country which under-values the arts. The political class has betrayed the promise in exchange for shiny objects and crass materialism. In that world, the actor’s craft its ability to shine a light on society and help us to understand who we are, is extraneous.

The memorial, mostly in Afrikaans, showed too the power of language and its ability to bend and shape itself to the times and to all contexts. The notion of limiting language to a particular race is far too narrow for the supple, beautiful and expressive language Afrikaans is. It is not only the language of the former oppressor but also something to be reclaimed and reimagined again and again. Surtie-Richards certainly did that during her illustrious career. We salute her as a talented thespian, a joy-bringer and one who defied neat stereotypes.

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

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