Shades of ’80s SA in this mysterious modern Star Chamber

Shades of ’80s SA in this mysterious modern Star Chamber

The reason we use a 19th century remedy – washing our hands – for a novel 21st century virus is that the outer shell of the coronavirus is weak. The “lipid envelope” is easily destroyed by soap and water.

I read this virological fact in an article by master novelist Ian McEwan, who also, via his virologist son, warns about “fomite” – the surfaces on which an infectious agent like the dread virus could be lying in wait for you, from your shopping bag to your cellphone.

McEwan, whose novel Saturday proved that a gifted writer could master the intricacies of brain surgery, is in these days of fake news and alarmist projections a trustworthy source.

We might with rapid new technology platforms mitigate the worst aspects of isolation and disconnection, but eight months after a microbe in Wuhan jumped from animal to human, we still await a treatment or vaccine.

Like the lipid envelope, our government was weak before the lockdown and now, at the peak of the viral surge, here it is revealed, like the mythical bather, to be swimming naked as the tide runs out. Though in a South Africa-only twist, surfing for amateurs is banned but golfing for hackers is legal. Go figure.

How much does a R1bn gesture of solidarity buy you in terms of advice? Not much, according to “Cutmaker”, the nom de guerre on Twitter for mogul Johann Rupert, whose early donation to fund small businesses was heralded in March by Cyril Ramaphosa.

In frustration this week, Rupert suggested that much of what passes for decisions by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) amounts to “social engineering by decree”.

There is something very antique about commanding the whole of society by fiat and imposing decisions without scrutiny or feedback. It’s anything but democratic and has a rather 1980s South African ring about it.

That should set the alarm bells ringing – even for the staunchest supporters of the liberation movements.

In 1984, SA had a restricted (tricameral) parliament. But all the real decisions were made, off-site, by the State Security Council, beyond reference or reproach. Veteran parliamentarian Helen Suzman described it as “a creeping coup d’état by consent”.

PW Botha, who bestrode the council, justified the emergency powers assumed by the securocrats as necessitated by the exigencies of the deteriorating security situation. The courts largely deferred to the executive on its decrees.

Now, under conditions of democracy, SA is governed beyond scrutiny by the secretive NCCC. Its decrees might be illogical, harmful, racist and unscientific. But it has yet to report back – after four months of ruling by fiat – to the democratically elected parliament.

This languishing body, whose members enjoy full pay plus benefits, is constitutionally mandated to check and balance the executive on every one of its hundreds of regulations.

The NCCC infantilises the population by refusing to allow sight of its data. The courts have to date not found against it.

And if an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu begins to infect you, rest assured Ramaphosa advises that all decision-making in our modern Star Chamber is guided by science and the expert advice offered by the Big Macs (ministerial advisory committees) who advise it.

But this, to borrow again from the hamburger world, is a big whopper. Two months ago, key adviser professor Glenda Gray lambasted health minister Zweli Mkhize for dictating what the scientists could and could not tell the public.

More ominously, this week another Big Mac member, Wits University professor Francois Venter, hit out at the secrecy enveloped in decision-making, describing the process as “mysterious”.

He said the irrationality of banning people from socialising but allowing crowded taxis to operate had nothing to do with scientific advice. He noted: “It would be good to know who these scientists are.”

On Thursday night Ramaphosa announced his latest knee-capping, this time by the teachers’ union; last time he bent the knee to the prohibitionists, the time before that to the taxi bosses.

A lockdown in March that saw a surge of support for the president and health minister has by July curdled into resentment and bitterness.

Like the lipid envelope surrounding the coronavirus, credibility is destroyed when the reasoning, or lack of it, is so weak.

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

Featured in The Sunday Times

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