January 26 revealed stark contrasts for two nationalist leaders as their countries and the world enter the second of perhaps endless years of the coronavirus pandemic.
While there is a spoonful of truth in the bucket list of blame Ramaphosa delivered to the WEF, his jeremiad was part of a movable feast of blame shifting, accountability avoidance and the false narrative he and his health minister, Zweli Mkhize, provided. This is meant to explain the fact, and inoculate government from criticism, that up to this writing not a single South African has been vaccinated against Covid-19.
On the same day Ramaphosa zoomed into Davos, another nationalist leader was basking in the admiration of a world that generally disparages both his personality and his politics. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu was lauded in the Financial Times for “spearheading the world’s fastest vaccination drive”, which has resulted in this small country “vaccinating at 10 times the pace of the US”.
Of course, it is easy to recognise the calculation in this most calculating of politicians. He is about to go on trial for corruption, his government has collapsed, his party has split, and weary Israelis go to the polls again on March 23 for the 11th time since 1996, a world record all of its own.
Still, given the rough neighbourhood Israel inhabits, with implacable external threats from nuclear Iran to civil-war ravaged Syria, it is noteworthy that its prime minister, even for the most cynical reasons, took the vaccine issue personally and made it front and centre of his leadership. Results, especially in the virulent face of this pandemic, matter far more than motive.
What is beyond dispute, despite disreputable attempts by the government to deflect attention from this, is that not until January 2021 was there a single attempt by anyone in the government to engage meaningfully with any vaccine producer directly. And that was as a consequence of the searing and unanswerable criticism published by the Progressive Health Forum. It stated with crystalline clarity that “the stunning reality is that SA has neither secured vaccine supply nor a plan for mass inoculation for the foreseeable future”.
Of course, in the best traditions of his predecessor in the health ministry, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma, Zweli Mkhize simply removed in September two of the most credentialed signatories to that statement, Glenda Gray and Shabhir Madhi. Truth-telling comes at a cost even if the country pays for it.
Exactly the same happened to the Medicines Control Council (MCC) in 1997 when it refused to license Virodene, the quack cure for Aids championed by Dlamini-Zuma. She purged its chairperson, registrar and deputy registrar. And the body and its successor, the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority, have never fully recovered.
Part of the problem here is to be found in the acronym offered by the late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanathi, in his searing memoir When Breath Becomes Air. He wrote: “In medicine often there’s a Wicos problem — ‘who is the captain of the ship?’.” SA’s absentee and inattentive political leadership evinces many baleful examples of its own Wicos problem, and doubtless few are reassured that once again, as his country is facing the battle for lives and livelihoods, Ramaphosa has outsourced his leadership. In the case of vaccine procurement and rollout it is to deputy president DD Mabuza. That should help.
That is why attempts by the official opposition, the DA, to hold the government’s feet to the fire on this issue are so important. Not in terms of finger-pointing, though holding the executive answerable and to account is its constitutional duty. Rather it is to create certainty and clarity on the issue of vaccine procurement and rollout, in place of the verbal piffle and spin offered by the government to date.
Don’t hold your breath though. Given that the taxpayer stumps up more than half a billion rand annually to fund its MPs, and parliament is mandated to interrogate the executive, it would seem logical that the national legislature should as a compelling urgency be seized with the vaccine saga.
A month ago, on December 29, opposition chief whip Natasha Mazzone wrote to parliamentary speaker Thandi Modise requesting the urgent summonsing of parliament to debate and clarify the vaccine issue. In the worst traditions of her predecessors, Modise declined the request.
It will be recalled how in a previous era former speaker Frene Ginwala stifled parliament’s enquiry into the notorious arms deal, and how in the Zuma years Baleka Mbete used her office to shield the president from his opponents. The speaker’s question-begging to the request of the opposition is cast in the same disreputable mould. She denied the request with the blithe acceptance “that the vaccine will now be available in the second quarter of 2021 as indicated by the executive”.
Because parliament is prevented from exercising its rights on the issue, the DA then sent Ramaphosa a legal letter on January 18 demanding a transparent account of both the vaccine acquisition and distribution plan. Ramaphosa or his office never bothered to respond. Now it heads to the courts “for relief as a last resort”.
When the Mbeki administration championed Aids and antiretroviral denialism as country policy it was the courts that rescued the nation from government madness through the Treatment Action Campaign case. Now, with a clear and present danger of government malpractice in the face of an even deadlier pandemic, will they rescue the country again?
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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