Cyril Ramaphosa’s day on Monday was appreciably better than the ones preceding it. He could go on national television, the risibly termed “family conversation’” as a late day Father Christmas.
He was flushed with excitement after his visit to Johannesburg Airport to receive a million batches (a small fraction of our need) of the long promised, hitherto unsighted vaccines. Then, in his television address, buoyed by declining coronavirus cases, he could mitigate the harshest aspects of the second wave lockdown regulations implemented last month.
Only the most churlish or cynical couldn’t but hope that Monday’s events will be the harbinger of another rare sighting on these shores: an actual new dawn that moves beyond hope and hype and headline-chasing into reality and implementation.
It is indeed perfectly possible, though precedent suggests it is improbable, that the “omnishambles” which best describes much of government’s responses to the virus and the vaccines needed to interdict it, is now behind us.
That delicious term “omnishambles” was first aired in the 2009 British television satire The Thick of It. It is a term of political art to define multiple errors which compound on each other, and in this case a new minister with a potentially corrupt husband and a favoured daughter. If it sounds familiar, then it is and has decidedly local and current echoes.
On the vaccine saga, enough newsprint and electrons have been expended to print multiple books and reignite our failing electricity provider, respectively.
Despite the numbers bandied on acquired vaccines, we have no idea whether SA has obtained firm delivery and rollout dates. Big brand name pharmaceutics companies are assiduously name-dropped to the media, but the government’s timeline and delivery mechanism remain clouded in both conjecture and mystery.
And while multiple nations kicked in their procurement and placement programmes midyear 2020, ours only began, according to National Treasury, in January 2021. We entered a race for survival six months after it had begun.
The cynics have been quick to suggest, again with a welter of case studies in support, the real reason for the delay in acquiring and rolling out the millions of vaccines needed is to allow the skimmers, grifters, middlemen and crooks an opportunity to place themselves in the procurement supply chain.
And the gift that keeps on giving to this school of thought is the ANC flagship province of Gauteng. In the world of diminished local expectations, little is expected, for example, of good governance in the Eastern Cape. There lurid tales of desperately ill patients, in conditions of squalor and filth, fighting over scarce oxygen became the staple of international news stories months ago. Also, in political reality, the ANC’s huge majority in a province it won by nearly 40% over its closest rival inoculates it from electoral challenge.
But in Gauteng, where it clung to power by a proverbial fingernail in the last election (winning just 50.19% of the total vote provincially), logic would suggest that party political antennae would be quaveringly sensitive to any perceived scandal or botch-up.
Logic clearly is unknown to the ruling party panjandrums in Johannesburg, however. In a truly bizarre and gut-wrenching tale of incompetence, thievery and malpractice, the revelations on the latest scandal makes even the most jaded commentator take note.
Gauteng province did not just pay over the odds for “deep cleaning” its schools of the virus, but, in the estimation of Financial Mail editor Rob Rose, paid 70 times more than the Western Cape for the same service. Of course the usual suspects, in this case the provincial premier and his hapless MEC for education, denied responsibility or accountability. You have to ask if the line function minister, Panyaza Lesufi, had no idea and no knowledge that his department blew a cool R431m “cleaning schools” while his Western Cape counterpart (Debbie Schaefer) spent R2.55m for the project (or R3,770 per school vs an average R300,000 per Gauteng school), what is he doing in this post?
Lesufi is a micro manager or headline chaser of note: He rushes to every troubled school, inveighs against perceived evils from hairstyles to private education, yet he cannot account for his department’s accounts.
But set aside both expectation and cynicism for a moment. There is another explanation for SA’s lethargic and delayed entering of the race for the Covid vaccine.
Multilateralism, justice and equity are aspirational. It doesn’t make them unworthy, but it is frankly bizarre for a head of state to be either so gullible or ill informed not to worry about where and when the vaccines for the 90% not covered by Covax will be sourced.
Perhaps matters and vaccines will start moving now and the fumbling approach and shift-shaping excuses will give way to a realistic and realisable strategy.
But even if the opportunity costs of the vaccine are beyond dispute, there are the real and ongoing costs of the current crisis and lockdown, which are both measurable and deeply miserable.
It is to be hoped the lifting of the booze ban and relaxation of curfew hours will breathe life into the dying corpses of our restaurant, hospitality and entertainment industries.
According to Wendy Alberts of the Restaurant Association of SA, an estimated 800,000 people were employed by the industry at the commencement of the 2020 lockdown, many of them unskilled. There is no hard number for the number of establishments that have closed their doors, many of them permanently, because of the lockdown’s severity. But likely hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, many of them irrecoverably. It is estimated that turnover in the sector is down about 30% per establishment in the latest lockdown.
Now SA is hardly alone in restricting restaurant activity and operations. Closed spaces are petri dishes of potential infection.
But in fiscal rich Britain, its government actually subsidised the costs of meals for diners in an attempt to keep its establishments afloat. We have no such largesse, despite the mega millions spent deep-cleansing Gauteng schools for example.
But with SA’s restaurant industry literally on life support, and tens of thousands of staff out of work and on the streets, you are entitled to ask in which mad kitchen was the following conjured up?
Last week, the bargaining council for the restaurant and fast-food sector blithely ignored the fact that the sector it governs can scarcely stay afloat. Instead, its well-paid official announced a slew of new rules and regulations which could add 16% to the costs of each establishment. In addition to above inflation wage increases mandated for restaurant workers, each outlet must now fund annual bonuses, “dispute resolution costs”, a R25 general fee for the bargaining council, funeral benefits and so on.
Given the choice between saving the industry it is legislated to protect, the bargaining council (which happily has the power to extend its remit over non members and non parties) decided to send the entire sector “over the edge”. That is the expert view of specialist writer Shirley de Villiers.
But even a non-expert can remind you of the adage: “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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