JUDITH FEBRUARY: A vaccine mandate is the only thing that makes sense

OPINION

It’s been another strange two weeks in South Africa. Load shedding is clearly here to stay and we live through the vagaries of "water shedding".

The television news provided regular updates of the 54-hour water cuts in Johannesburg. In one of the clips, a street vendor explained how the advanced notice had helped him stock up on water but he was unsure how he would cope for more than a day. His face was etched with the fatigue.

How many more ways are there to visit hardship upon those already battling on the margins of this unequal society, one wondered.

In the Eastern Cape, drought continues unabated with little leadership to be found in the crisis. While our president and government seem to be on auto-pilot, COVID-19 cases have been increasing. Media reports warn of the looming fourth wave and a new variant has been discovered.

The reality is that the fourth wave was always coming - along with a fifth and sixth wave. The only question was when. As Aspen’s Stavros Nicolaou also said, the variants were likely to run through the Greek alphabet. Again, credit must go to South African scientists doing the hard work involved in genome sequencing and tracing new variants.

There are virtually no more tools in government’s toolbox apart from administering as many vaccines as possible in the next weeks (and perhaps a short-term interprovincial travel ban). Lockdowns are no longer practical and the economy simply cannot sustain them. No doubt, the health minister and the president know that.

The sensible thing to do would be to impose a vaccine mandate to deal with vaccine hesitancy in the country and to offer booster jabs to the vaccinated as soon as is medically possible. This becomes not only a health question but a political question and we have seen that President Cyril Ramaphosa has little appetite for tackling unpopular issues and his indecision is now well-documented. Unfortunately too, the president himself was seen addressing large unmasked crowds during local government election campaigning, thus undermining any potential restrictions government may place on South Africans.

COVID-19 is a challenge but then so is basic governance. We have watched political parties slug it out in their attempts at forming coalitions in the many hung municipalities across the country. All manner of unsavoury characters have crawled out of the woodwork to play kingmaker and the African National Congress (ANC) has suffered a true rout.

Most coalition talks were disconnected from the street vendor and those like him who battle it out at the margins of this society. The central focus has been the mayoral chain and access to power, resources and tenders. Our politics is venal to its core.

Ramaphosa himself appears like a deer in the headlights, trying to play the role of the great appeaser, even in the midst of the kind of thuggery we witnessed this week as ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters members stormed an eThekwini municipality meeting. The outcome that has seen Mxolisi Kaunda of the ANC elected mayor leaves much to be desired. No calm and measured German "traffic light" coalitions for South Africa, unfortunately.

DISTURBING REPORTS

Possibly the most egregious outcome was in the Kannaland municipality. There, the Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa (ICOSA) put forward the name of Jeffrey Donson - a child rapist - and Werner Meshoa, as deputy mayor. Meshoa has been convicted of fraud. ICOSA was set to form a coalition with the ANC. At the time of writing the ANC was "reviewing" its decision, yet only after a public outcry.

It speaks to the dearth of values in public life that such individuals could come anywhere near to power. How strange that the ANC discovered so late that its coalition partners were dubious. Or, was it a case of not bothering to check? We are in for a bumpy ride over the next years, especially in the country’s metros.

Disturbing reports have also been circulating about possible sabotage at Eskom for a while now. The presidential newsletter alluded to this in the previous edition. Last week, Eskom CEO Andre De Ruyter called what happened at Lethabo power station in the Free State "deliberate acts of sabotage". De Ruyter said that the actions made it hard to predict load-shedding.

Of course, the reasons for Eskom’s multiple failures are complex and have their roots in state capture. There are, however, those within the system who are threatened by De Ruyter’s appointment and the attempts to uncover corruption. This is directly linked to Ramaphosa and the battle for political power ahead of the 2022 ANC elective conference. In so many ways we are collectively held hostage by the ANC’s dysfunction and corruption.

The question is, as is often the case in South Africa, now that we know there is sabotage, what will be done about it? The answer is, as is just so often the case too, not much.

It bears repeating that we lived through an insurrection in July. Well, that’s what Ramaphosa called it. If that was an incorrect naming of what happened, then he ought to retract that statement - he made on live television. Words matter and the words of a president matter even more. He also said, "we know who they are". So, if we know who they are, why have all our resources not been trained on finding these individuals and arresting them?

Recently, National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi made a submission to the Zondo Commission on state capture. In the affidavit, she made important points about the need for the National Prosecuting Authority to be independent in law, finance and operations. She made a similar presentation to Parliament recently. Then she pointed to the lack of funding and Covid-19 as reasons for the NPA not meeting its targets. She also said, ‘“Crime is off the charts (sic). We have to do things differently … We have to start prioritising for impact even in the lower courts.”

Doing things differently included digitising court records.

NPA conviction rates fell below targets set for 2020. While we all understand the difficulties Batohi faces, the budget cuts, the lack of skill within the NPA and that, like Eskom, parts of it remain captured by dark forces, Batohi has been a disappointment.

Citizens do not expect things to shift radically overnight. What we do expect is at least one high profile prosecution, some movement to punish those who looted the state (or, were involved in the insurrection, or who are sabotaging Eskom, or (fill in the blank, the list is endless).

There seems to too many "we should be doing better" comments. Might it be that what seems from the outside to be a scattergun approach to prosecutions, is failing. Could the NPA focus on one or two really high profile matters (apart from the endless Zuma one) and do what it can to secure a speedy conviction? That might go a long way to restoring credibility in the system and sending a message to those implicated in state capture.

In South Africa too often the foot soldiers pay the price while those who are politically connected continue to live large.

And therein lies the rub. For as long as the NPA is unable to prosecute effectively and for as long as the Hawks remain devoid of enthusiasm to investigate matters and as long as we retain an incapable, blustering minister of Police, those who sabotage Eskom, plan insurrections will continue brazenly.

Retired Constitutional court justice Edwin Cameron received the Order of the Baobab in gold last week. He is a deserving recipient, a man who served our country with distinction on the bench. His is the finest of legal minds. In a television interview with the delightful and clever Cathy Mohlahlana on the interview process for the new Chief Justice, Cameron raised concerns about the Judicial Service Commission, its conduct and leadership and berated Ramaphosa for not dealing swiftly with the vacancy for Chief Justice.

He is right about that and what he called the JSC’s often "lamentable" processes and the several other vacancies on the apex court.

WE NEED RENEWED CITIZEN ACTIVISM

Cameron rightly cautioned against being too tactful when it comes to speaking about what ails our country. We need to speak the truth boldly and not parse our words, he said.

Our country is at a dangerous inflection point and to fix it we will need renewed citizen activism and political imagination. We all shoulder the blame for believing perhaps too much in the politicians and not doing the civic work of democracy with enough rigour wherever we find ourselves.

Our institutions are displaying inevitable weakness after a decade of state capture and the JSC is no exception. The interviews of the four respected candidates; Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga, Judge Mandisa Maya, Justice Dunston Mlambo and Justice Raymond Zondo should not be allowed to descend into a circus. It needs a process which is pre-determined and one which will strengthen the rule of law not weaken it.

This remains a test for the JSC and then, ultimately, it is a test of the President’s ability to take a decision and live with the consequences.

Finally, could there be any more graphic sign of ANC dysfunction than ANC employees picketing outside Luthuli House for their salaries to be paid? More notable however was the fact that Pule Mabe, Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini joined the protest. As Pule Mabe spoke to reporters, behind him a crowd waved posters with headlines screaming anti-Ramaphosa sentiment. Dlamini herself held a poster with the words, "We demand salary increament" (sic). It seemed entirely appropriate for a woman who is such a symbol of mediocrity to hold aloft a poster with a glaring spelling error.

One would almost mistake the picket as an anti-Ramaphosa protest if one were being cynical because what do Mabe, Mokonyane and Dlamini have in common?

The knives are out for Ramaphosa as he continues to try to hold this party together. It’s a hopeless and thankless task.

The ANC is better off splitting than trying to hold its untenable contradictions. The time has come or it will continue cannabalising itself at our expense.

But, more than that, the time has come for us to heed Justice Cameron’s wise words and reclaim our public spaces to speak out against injustice, poor governance and the lack of truth and values in public life.
It’s our democracy if we can keep it- to mangle Benjamin Franklin’s words.