In 2011 Cyril Ramaphosa added to his personal fortune when he secured a 20-year deal, via his Shanduka Group, to run all 145 McDonald’s restaurants in SA. In 2016 he sold his franchise rights for “an undisclosed sum” to a Middle Eastern company.
No doubt the president still has a fond attachment to junk food’s golden arches. Yet his public pronouncements, especially in these stressed times of plague, owe far more to the Big Mac’s rival brand from Burger King, “The Whopper”.
His speech on Human Rights Day on March 21 provided the latest example of the extraordinarily high ratio of wishful thinking, to be polite, on the one hand, and reality and objective fact on the other.
Ramaphosa stated: “Government is working to ensure that the Covid-19 vaccine is available to every person in the country.”
It sits alongside so many other variants of unachievable, uncosted and undated promises flung around by Ramaphosa and his government since the ramshackle, ad hoc shambles of SA’s vaccine response commenced on January 7. And that response, if it can be so dignified, was thrown together out of panic and shame due to the government being outed by the Progressive Health Forum.
Until that date, not a single vaccine outside the stifling confines of the Covax programme had been sourced. The Treasury deviations had not been obtained. A previous promise by Ramaphosa that the government had been “negotiating with vaccine companies for the past six months” was demonstrably false.
On March 21, I happened to receive an e-mail from a vaccinated friend of mine in London, who advised “we had 840,000 vaccinations today (about one every 30 seconds), which means over 50% of all adults here have got the jab”.
On the same day, SA had zero vaccines administered. And no inoculations were provided the day before or the day after for that matter. The January promise by health minister Zweli Mkhize was that “1-million health workers will be vaccinated by the end of this month”. On current calculations, we are 75% off target.
The biggest whopper to date, though, was the same minister’s promise that SA was “on track” to vaccinate 67% of the population, or 40-million South Africans, by the end of this year. From local data journalists now estimate that on current trends this goal will be reached by year end 2039!
Since my correspondent is also a UK politician, he added: “This has transformed the political landscape here and has provoked both rage and despair in the EU.”
It is worth emphasising the vaccine leaders in large and small countries, UK and Israel, respectively, are headed by leaders who botched the initial response to the arrival of the novel coronavirus a year ago, but learnt the bitter lesson of early failure and transformed it to vaccination success one year later.
In the case of Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, this singular achievement might just return him to the prime minister’s office in an election this week, despite fearsome odds against this happening four months ago.
The ANC administration — adrift and inept and backward-facing — recalls the description Talleyrand offered of the Bourbons of France: “They had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.”
It is noteworthy that when the country was experiencing the first wave of the epidemic, in July 2020, Andrew Harding of the BBC provided a vivid exposé of shocking conditions at Port Elizabeth’s main Covid-19 health facility, the Livingstone Hospital. Doctors and health workers there described it as “like a war situation”. Instead of the “dignity for all” the president parroted on Human Rights Day, they spoke of blood and waste on the floors, lack of protective equipment for health workers, a severe shortage of ambulances and “patients sleeping under newspapers”.
Following this exposé BBC viewers across the world were doubtless surprised when the Eastern Cape health department director-general, Thobile Mbengashe, blamed the entire crisis on “historic issues dating back to white minority rule”.
SA viewers and readers are more familiar with this ruse — it is now hard-wired into every government response on every issue. It neatly elides the fact that for the past 27 years the ANC has enjoyed a monopoly of national political and fiscal power.
It might, however, be more difficult when the third wave hits SA in a month or two, to explain why in the fight of our lives against an invisible enemy, the current government left us naked and defenceless against it.
In the one corner of the country where the ANC has not enjoyed a political or any other form of monopoly, a different note was sounded last week.
In presenting his coronavirus provincial budget, MEC for finance David Maynier neither deflected blame nor misspoke the fundamental truth. He said: “The province is locked in a struggle between a virus and a vaccine, and the virus is winning — for now.
“To defeat [the virus] the province would need to vaccinate as many people as possible.”
At least here, in a moment of unusual sanity, there is not hope and hype but a frank assessment of reality. However, where is the province going to source its vaccines for which it has provided R75m for acquisitions? And why has it not rolled out any to the at-risk population. Is it reluctant manufacturers afraid to offend a vengeful central government? Or is recalcitrant provincial officials who do not wish to disturb cosy relations with the national health department?
Having been candid in its analysis, it behoves the provincial government to name and shame the sources frustrating it from applying the budget it unveiled last week.
And on the silence of those normally alert to government malpractice in the health and human rights fields, where is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)? It did remarkable, brave and pioneering work two decades back when the Thabo Mbeki administration refused to provide antiretrovirals for HIV/Aids victims. That ideological madness by the ANC government met huge civil resistance and birthed a celebrated Constitutional Court judgment. But Aids affected about 10% of the population. With the coronavirus and its ever-mutating strains, 100% of the population, save for those with antibodies, are at risk. Yet no marches, no popular outrage, no court cases.
South Africans are imperilled, and our economy is at severe risk as we head into a winter of discontent and a potentially devastating third wave. However muted and nonchalant we have been hitherto, it is time to channel outrage into resolution and convert fear into action.
One undeniable truth in Ramaphosa’s Human Rights Day speech was this line: “We share a common goal: to defeat the pandemic.” But first we must defeat the incompetence, denialism and ideology that is allowing the virus to win so far. Time to investigate the human rights toolbox for weapons.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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