Bonkers Bonkers

Andrew Donaldson writes on our Chief Justice's recent rant against Covid-19 vaccines


IT can’t be easy, being the Chief Justice. The burden of responsibility is terrible. On the one hand, your word, technically, is the law. Which makes you the bee’s knees and very important in the grand scheme of things. 

But, on the other hand, there’s all that heavy judging stuff. Tons of reading and research to get through, ploughing through case histories that are relevant to matters that come before you, all that weighing up of legal arguments and evaluating ponderous evidence, balancing the fevered testimonies of people who are intensely antagonistic towards one another. 

It’s a grind. You need all the wisdom of Solomon. And then some.

Who then would begrudge Moegeng Moegeng a little down time to take leave of his senses? Other chief justices may have enjoyed such leisurely pursuits as angling or water colour painting on their rare days off. But Moegoe Moegoe likes to scare people witless with dire warnings of the evils of medical science.

He was filmed in full cry recently, ranting away at an event at Tembisa Hospital that vaccines were “of the devil” and capable of corrupting people’s DNA. His outburst was apparently a reaction to health minister Zweli Mkhize’s announcement that the country was officially in its “second wave” of coronavirus infections. 

“Whatever phase is said to be coming, Lord, I judge it,” he said. “I run it down in the name of Jesus. I lock out every demon of Covid-19 … I lock out any vaccine that is not of you. If there be any vaccine that is of the devil, meant to infuse triple-six in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA … Any such vaccine, Lord God almighty, may it be destroyed by fire in the name of Jesus.”

This does seem an odd sort of thing to say at a hospital, a place where, among other things, vaccines are routinely administered to patients. Moegeng’s office has however described his thunderous pro-plague display as “prayer” and not a “statement”. This of course reduces the lunacy factor by all of, hmmm, maybe less than zilch. 

Perhaps it is true that people do pray more fervently at hospitals. But seldom do they want damnation rained down on medical science. Usually, they hope medical science has got it right as far as their innards are concerned, and that the surgeon’s not drunk.

Needless to say, Moegeng’s performance has greatly annoyed the country’s scientists. Wits University virology professor Barry Schoub, who heads the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, told TimesLIVE: “It is unfortunate that someone of that stature is misleading people because vaccines are such a major part of controlling this epidemic and it is unfortunate that someone with such influence is opposing efforts to control it.”

Just as unfortunate is the fact that none of this triple-six mojo will be infused into the lives of most South Africans in a hurry as the bulk of it has been snapped up by the world’s wealthier nations, like Britain and the United States who began their vaccine roll-out programmes this week. 

According to The Sunday Times, South Africa needs a Covid-19 vaccine by April next year, but care must be taken in choosing one best suited to the country. The newspaper quoted Covid-19 ministerial advisory vaccines committee member Professor Helen Rees as saying, “We have to spend our money on vaccines wisely as we don’t have the deep pockets of wealthy nations.” 

We kind of know why those pockets aren’t deep. But let’s not go there just yet. 

Last month, South Africa pledged R500-million towards the World Health Organisation’s Covax programme, which aims to provide equitable access to proven vaccines in middle- and lower-income countries. 

A mere R500-million? It seems chump change, cool-drink money, let’s just say, to the likes of people like the Guptas. But does the country have it? According to finance minister Tito Mboweni, South Africa was on track to stump up the cash, which was due on Tuesday. If the money was forthcoming, then the country would receive its first batch of Covax vaccines in the second quarter of 2021, the health ministry has said.

Meanwhile, a new report by People’s Vaccine Alliance – a group which includes Amnesty International, Oxfam, Global Justice Now and others – claims that wealthy nations have hoarded enough doses to vaccinate their populations at least three times over. Canada appears to be the worst of the panic-buying stockpilers and has enough supply to vaccinate each of its citizens five times. 

These rich countries account for 14 per cent of the world’s population but have snapped up 53 per cent of the world’s most promising vaccines. This, according to the alliance, leaves the world’s poorest 67 countries with just enough to vaccinate one in every ten people.

And, according to The Guardian, the best vaccines have already been snapped up. The newspaper reports that supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, claimed to have a 95 per cent efficacy, will almost all go to rich countries – 96 per cent of doses have been bought by the West. The Moderna vaccine, also said to have a 95 per cent efficacy, is going exclusively to rich countries. The prices of both vaccines are high and access for low-income countries will be complicated by the ultra-low temperatures at which they need to be stored.

“By contrast,” the newspaper said, “the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, which has 70 per cent efficacy, is stable at normal fridge temperatures and the price has been set deliberately low for global access. The manufacturers have said 64 per cent of doses will go to people in the developing world. The campaigners applaud this commitment, but said one company alone cannot supply the whole world. At most, Oxford/AstraZeneca can reach 18 per cent of the world’s population next year.”

Mucho mumbo

But back to Bonkers Bonkers. To be fair to the Chief Justice, only a small chunk of his “prayer” was devoted to anti-vax propaganda. However, the rest of it was still unholy crap. To wit:

“Any legalising agent, Lord, for wickedness in this nation, for wickedness in Africa and across the nations of the world, Lord God almighty, send your angels, send even your angel of the media, send all the angels of fire, the angel of judgment, the angel of the wings of the Lord, to enforce your will. In the name of Jesus, no more suffering, Lord. No more suffering.

“Revive the economy of this country. For you have told us, Lord, there are many hidden minerals still that will only surface when righteousness emerges. My Father and my God, if there be any leader in this nation who is serving himself or herself to the exclusion of the people, pretending to be a good leader, you know them. Accept they repent. Judge them without delay. My God, I say it and will never apologise for praying, judge the evil ones who want to corrupt this country and eat along with their friends. Time for their judgment is now, in the name of Jesus.”

Amen. Just one thing: what is a “legalising agent”? Some kind of lawyer? A judge, maybe? 

Meanwhile, give us a shout when you find those hidden minerals. I ask as an angel of the media.

Twenty-twenty hindsight

Speaking of eating along with their friends, the Chinese authorities did move with admirable swiftness to shut down the Wuhan wet market on January 1 this year. It seemed like the logical thing to do. About 70 per cent of the first confirmed Covid-19 cases were either stall owners, employees or regular customers at the market. 

Cleaning and disinfecting the market destroyed much in the way of anything that could be of use to researchers, but swab tests did reveal traces of the virus in places where wild animals were held. According to an investigation into the origins of the pandemic, a typical stall sold wolf pups, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes, civets, salamanders, turtles and crocodiles. Sometimes the animals were slaughtered in front of customers, otherwise assorted animal parts, such as crocodile tail, belly, tongues and intestines were on sale.

Appetising as all this may be, it’s still not certain that the virus came from the market. It is quite possible an infected person may have brought it in, although no-one believes stories in the Chinese media that this person was probably a foreigner. 

In the year that followed the closure of the market, the pandemic has claimed the lives of 1.5 million people, according to NBC’s Covid-19 global tracker. It ranks countries according to reported fatalities. South Africa is in 14th place, behind Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Russia, Spain, Iran, France, the UK, Italy, Mexico, India, Brazil and, in top spot, the United States.

Most reviews of 2020 point out that it has been a “lost year” in several senses. Besides the enormous loss of human lives, the pandemic ground to a halt many career and family goals. It left an enormous hole in our culture. The arts suffered and, as a result, humanity did so too. The first lockdown was marked by some of the worst human rights abuses imaginable. 

An Alexandra man, Collins Khoza, was dragged from his home and killed for no other reason than soldiers noticed a half-finished glass of beer on a chair in his yard. Beaten to death for his own good, I noted at the time. Months later, there’s still no sign of Moegoe Moegoe’s angel of judgment as far as Khoza’s killers are concerned.

Despite this, there is despairing talk that the SANDF, along with other law enforcement agencies, must be deployed on our streets once more, given a second crack at the whip as it were, this time to ensure that citizens are mask compliant. This is probably more bad news for the nation’s surfers and dog-walkers.

Smiley’s tipple

Hamba kahle, then, John le Carré, who lifted the veil on the morally ambiguous and perhaps not so secret world of Cold War espionage in his novels. The obituaries, fittingly, are stuffed with anecdotes about an extraordinary life. David Cornwell (his real name) really did work in intelligence, collaborating with what The Times referred to as “low-level agents” travelling to eastern Europe. 

He began writing soon after his induction into the service, drawing on his experiences in MI5 and MI6 to create “an alternative, private world”. It became a “Tolkien-like” exercise, he later said, except that “none of my characters have hair between their toes”. The bulk of his writing was done during his morning commute into London. “To give the best of your day to your work is important,” he said. “If I could write for an hour and a half on the train, I was already completely jaded by the time I got to the office to start work. I was always very careful to give my country my second-best.”

Le Carré certainly had no illusions about his country’s class system. Before his recruitment to the Intelligent Corps, he taught French and German at Eton but could never accept its ethos, which he regarded as “a deliberately brutalising process [that] integrated you with imperial ambitions and then let you loose into the world with a sense of elitism – but with your heart frozen”. Here, too, was inspiration for his novels in so far as the school’s “worst pupils provide a unique insight into the criminal mind”.

He was perhaps as uncomfortable with the London literary world, which he felt never accepted the commercial success of his books. In 2011, he released the following statement within 45 minutes of being nominated for a Booker prize: “I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.” The nomination was for Our Kind of Traitor, a novel that is routinely ignored when critics list Le Carré’s best books. These usually include Smiley’s PeopleThe Honourable SchoolboyThe Spy Who Came in From the ColdA Perfect Spy and his masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Late-period Le Carré was just as good, particularly The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, proving that the Cold War was not his only inspiration.

One British state secret that he did share and is definitely worth repeating comes courtesy of novelist Jenny Hobbs, founder of the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Le Carré was a friend, and told her that, when it comes to Scotch, Her Majesty’s diplomats serve their guests Hankie Bannister simply because it tastes expensive. (It’s not.)

Lastly, but not leastly…

The regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) wish you and yours all the best over the festive season. Our prediction for the coming year? Accused Number One gets his day in court. This week, his legalising agent, Eric Mabuza, handed in the tersest of terse “get stuffed” notes to the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture: “We are instructed by our client, President JG Zuma, that he will not be participating in these proceedings at all.” 

Hubris? Perhaps not in the classic sense. Just an extraordinary belief that if you don’t go to court, they can’t send you to jail. I believe he will ultimately be proved wrong. This may suggest that I’m a hopeless optimist. But so what? No-one’s perfect.