It’s one of life’s cosmic mysteries. How did SA — amid the virulent deadly second wave of the coronavirus — manage not to have a comprehensive vaccine procurement and rollout plan?

On Thursday, health minister Zweli Mkhize announced a “breakthrough” in securing 1.5-million doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine from India. But the brutal truth is that “Operation Warp Speed” in the US and other initiatives have been on the go since May last year.

The searing indictment of the ministry of health by the Progressive Health Forum — published in this paper last Sunday — listed the lamentable failures and missed deadlines and denounced “a lack of foresight”. Likely this and other criticisms forced the minister to finally act.

Last month we were treated to the spectacle of his department missing the deadline to guarantee the payment needed to secure participation in the limited Covax vaccine programme. Nor has the government, amid a welter of inconsistent and arbitrary beach restrictions, bothered to explain why it cannot fund any of this and is now reliant on the Solidarity Fund — led and funded by the private sector — for the cash.

Confronted by this missed deadline and botched response, the National Treasury stated “it is a work in progress”.

Underlying all this verbal piffle and base incompetence is an uncomfortable fact: the state and its ministries, with depressing regularity, breach without consequence even the exceedingly low standard to which we hold them.

Remember the withdrawal by the National Treasury in November of a circular meant to herald the relaxation of exchange control? Its publication and then reversal, according to the Financial Mail, was a sign of how a once admired and impregnable centre of excellence has bled talent. On the lack of professionalism there and across the board in the state, one industry insider lamented: “SA has set the bar so low … it’s the new norm in government.”

While we have yet to vaccinate a single South African, Israel is on course to inoculate 15% of its population by this weekend, leading the world in the race to vaccinate.

Of course, ideology bars us from approaching the Jewish state. Back in 2016, areas of SA were gripped by the worst drought since 1904. Israel, the world leader in water technology, offered to help. Instead, the infamous Zuma-loving Nomvula Mokonyane, who was minister of water & sanitation at the time, jetted off to Tehran to sign an agreement on helping SA to reduce its dependence on surface water. Yet Iran’s track record in this area is poorly regarded. Nothing has been sighted here of the Iranian model at work.

No bar too low, no standard that can’t be breached, ideology trumping common sense — it might all be of concern to taxpayers and ordinary citizens who chafe at their pilfered pockets and nonexistent services.

This intriguing question is posed by historian Anne Applebaum in her blockbuster new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Reviewing the global trend of nepotism, state capture and corruption, she suggests there is a case to be made in its favour — at least as far as those who benefit from it are concerned.

“It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy, political competition and the free market, principles that by definition have never benefited the less successful,” she writes. “A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, what’s wrong with it?”

Actually, it’s a very ancient idea. The Greeks called it “kakonomics” — not the rude Afrikaans word, but essentially the same thing; “the economics of crappiness”, as one modern definition has it.

But as for well-targeted government programmes that actually work, dream on. Under a kakonomy, mediocre work, dishonest officials, overreaching ministers, missed deadlines, unresponsive departments and incompetent officialdom are the order of the day.

SAA is in the frame for all the familiar reasons. The R10.5bn November bailout is one explanation for why the state cannot cough up the funds for the coronavirus vaccine. Financial guru Michael Jordaan estimates that the Oxford vaccine (at R60 a time) could be administered to all 58-million South Africans for around one-third the cost of the SAA bailout.

The core reason for the demise of SAA is former chair Dudu Myeni, whose six-year rule of error and graft crashed an airline that had flown the skies for an uninterrupted 86 years.

In a judgment in May 2020 declaring Myeni to be a delinquent director “gone rogue”, judge Ronel Tolmay invited the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to review the evidence against Myeni and consider instituting criminal proceedings. Eight months later, not a word from the NPA.

Another missed deadline; or, even under the rule of mediocrity, should hope spring eternal?

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in The Sunday Times