COMMENT

Operation Flying Pig

Andrew Donaldson writes on NDZ's plan to intervene in the municipalities, and other matters

A FAMOUS GROUSE

IS Squirrel nuts? On Monday, Cyril Ramaphosa hailed “a new breed of young entrepreneurs” coming up with “home-grown solutions to the contemporary challenges” the country faces as it battles the pandemic. 

These youngsters had created economic opportunities for themselves at a time when the economy was struggling and many workers were being retrenched. It was wondrous to behold, the Potemkin president declared in his weekly newsletter. “The old saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ comes to mind when I think about the resilience and ingenuity shown by South Africans during the past three months,” he said.

In fact, so effulgent and fulsome was his praise that there came, like bull elephants in a bit of argy-bargy, a mighty clash of metaphors. “The creative and enterprising spirit of these and many more young people that has been brought to the fore during the pandemic must be harnessed and supported. Even in our darkest hour, we must look to these green shoots of renewal. They are the silver lining to the dark Covid-19 cloud.”

Harnessed and supported? Not altogether logical, as Mr Spock would say. But never mind. These were, on the whole, encouraging words, I thought, for the nation’s cigarette smugglers and bootleggers. Necessity, thanks to the ANC, has indeed been the mother of invention.

But no, Squirrel was talking about youths who had chosen more legitimate ways to earn money. There were, for example, those who ran a bicycle delivery service in Langa, Cape Town. A Limpopo man started his own pizza business. A number of township residents are making and selling face masks. Musicians were promoting themselves and performing online.

All very well, but is the Gang of Four at the National Coronavirus Command Centre aware of all this activity? What does the prime minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, have to say about all this? Are lockdown pizzas and face masks Clarice compliant? Do they fit in with her plans for the new post-Covid Year Zero Khmer Rouge-style economy? In fact, is not all this chatter of enterprise a bit counter-revolutionary? Success in business, after all, does result in inequality…

Speaking of which, on Wednesday Clarice announced that her government had started the roll-out of her district development plan. It’s a model, she has claimed, that will “correct” the social inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

In terms of what may be called Operation Flying Pig, municipalities will effectively be stripped of their functions, and instead national government will intervene to allow specific service delivery and budget considerations at a “district level”. Clarice has said that, as part of the new system, ministers and deputy ministers will now be deployed as “district champions”. 

It all sounds very threatening, and there are collectivist suggestions that resources of both government and civil society — including business, labour and “the community” — will be mobilised in pursuit of inclusive growth and job creation.

What could go wrong? Well, everything. Especially for the Western Cape. Secession and independence for Spesbona cannot come fast enough.

But back to Squirrel. Earlier this month, the analyst and strategic consultant Dirk de Vos suggested on Twitter that Ramaphosa would have been a reasonably good president had he not “detoured into the position” via being a BEE billionaire. “It has rendered him both clueless about how the world actually works & without any courage to make the hard decisions that need to be made.”

That bit about the “hard decisions” is a little unfair. Squirrel probably does have the courage to make them. But will Clarice and her comrades permit him to do so? There’s the rub. Otherwise, De Vos is painfully accurate in his assessment. It is all too easy for a billionaire to talk up the entrepreneur cult. All that “nothing ventured, nothing gained” hokum. Dreaming the dream, the big idea that will hit the motherlode, and what have you. When it comes to high risks, what does a person who’s already as rich as Croesus stand to lose? 

It’s been calculated that roughly one in every 18 people worldwide owns his or her own business. That does seem as if there are a lot of businesses out there. But very few of those businesses are launched to pursue opportunities. Most, as in the case of South Africa, are simple concerns that have been started out of sheer necessity. They are a means to survive, the only way to earn a living. Not everyone, it seems, can be an SAA employee.

Pricks and jabs

The launch this month of human trials, or final “phase 3” tests, of a promising Covid-19 vaccine in South Africa comes at a time when the country is experiencing a surge in the pandemic and its outbreak is ranked the world’s fifth worst. Developed by Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, the vaccine is regarded by scientists as the front-runner in the race for immunisation against the coronavirus. Trials are also being carried out in Brazil and the UK, where infection rates are soaring as well.

This is very good news and we owe a debt of gratitude to Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand. It was he who had approached the Oxford team and pushed for South Africa’s inclusion in the trials, partly to counter “vaccine nationalism”, which gives wealthier countries first bite at new drugs. Were we permitted to do so, we would be giving that Mahdi a Bell’s. 

Although the trial design means its participants will almost exclusively be black Africans, four senior white clinicians were among the first to be vaccinated, on July 14 at Baragwanath Hospital. This was due, in part, to professional integrity but also to deal with criticism that poor people will be used as “guinea pigs”. If all goes well, a viable Covid-19 vaccine could be ready by early next year. 

However, Medical Research Council vice president Jeffrey Mphahlele has warned that the vaccine should not be seen as a “magic bullet” in dealing with the pandemic. “It will have an impact,” he told The New Humanitarian, “but it will not be immediate. It would take probably between three to five years before we see the impact of vaccinations preventing the spread of Covid-19 infection.”

It may of course take longer than that to effectively deal with the anti-vaxxers. According to a recent UK survey, an astonishing 14 per cent of Brits say they would not be inoculated against the virus, while another 13 per cent don’t know if they would refuse the vaccination or not. The pro-plaguers, to correctly identify them, are not just their own worst enemies — that would be bad enough — but their behaviour impacts on others. For years, they took advantage of the herd immunity that came with mass inoculation. But that immunity is crumbling as their idiocy gains traction and more and more parents refuse to inoculate their children. Witness, for example, the return of measles in developed nations. Not for nothing has the World Health Organisation identified the “movement” as one of the top ten threats to global health. 

There are, of course, nut jobs in tin foil helmets who suggest the WHO is in itself one of the biggest threats to global health and they point to the organisation’s poor early response to Covid-19 as proof thereof. But these people are invariably firm believers in homeopathy and therefore deserve our pity. Perhaps we could cheer them up with an old joke: what do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine. 

Meanwhile, if effective, we may need to come up with a name for this Covid-19 vaccine. It’s presently known as “AZD1222”. Which is a vast improvement on its previous tag, “ChAdOx1 nCoV-19”, but still awful all the same. My own feeling is that “Magic Bullet” will do. With Jeffrey Mphahlele’s permission, of course.

The spirit of Frankenmanto

Further to reports on Port Elizabeth’s Livingstone Hospital and images of rats drinking from pools of “dark red waste”, it now appears that this was not blood but beetroot “juice” after drains had been blocked by vegetable matter. The Daily Maverick recently quoted a “giggling” Siyanda Manana, the Eastern Cape health department spokesman, as saying: “It looks like blood but it is the beetroot peels. We don’t know where this came from. It could be from anywhere in the hospital.”

This is more good news. Many South Africans are familiar with the healing properties of beetroot, garlic and the African potato. Patients at Livingstone need not be concerned about the rodents. They are now among the healthiest in the province. Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba has also been urged to try this miracle diet — although with caution. Overdoing beets can result in bloating, cramps and flatulence. Gomba is no doubt aware of this, but it is probable that apartheid will also be blamed for any discomfort suffered.

Cometh the hour…

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula is adept at playing the fool. It’s a little person thing, a way to capture the attention of a world that literally looks down on him. There may also be a tactical advantage to Tickey’s clowning: if people can laugh at him, then maybe — just maybe — they will forgive him his many, uh, shortcomings and the fact that he is a taxi industry sock puppet.

But the act is tiresome, and even unsophisticated supporters of the ruling criminal enterprise now regard Mbalula’s “politician for the Idols generation” schtick as hackneyed and laboured. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that he is capable of earnest discourse, and is prepared to face up to unpleasant realities. In last week’s economic cluster briefing on Covid-19, he had this to say of the renewed booze ban: 

“Even now, when you can see what alcohol is doing to us in terms of our plans, there are still people out there who believe we are very stupid, we are a government that must not be respected, with a president who doesn’t know what he’s doing and they say it [openly] without fear and they openly campaign about it. That is South Africa. In other countries, you’ll never find that. We must understand at the end of the day that government has got to take decisions.”

Many of his colleagues may beg to differ. But, and aside from the national exceptionalism, it is difficult to argue with Mbalula on this score. There may yet be surprising depths to this shallow fellow.