Ejecting the elephant from the room

Jeremy Gordin says Covid-19 has forced SA to confront the dire consequences of ANC rule

Yesterday the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) released a report, related to “excess deaths from natural causes,” that suggests the figures for Covid-19 related deaths that have been released by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize are on the low side.

The MRC calculated that there were 17 090 “excess natural deaths” from 6 May-14 July. “Natural deaths” are not, by the way, attributable to trauma or accidents. In short, although the official death toll figure stands at about 6 000, if one looks at the present rate of death and, using the MRC figures, one extrapolates into the next few weeks, I fear that we might by the end of August have as many as 50 000 Covid-19 related deaths.

This might be less deaths than the number of South Africans who died during the HIV/Aids crisis of the early 2000s. But making such a comparison is close to pointless, isn’t it?

What has also been clarified during the last 10 days or so is that the worst has indeed happened: The ANC-led lockdown has left us with a devastated economy and a raging epidemic.

Some three million people have lost their jobs since the various lockdowns began (so roughly a third of South Africans are unemployed), hunger is a real problem for many, and the financial aid for most has been botched. On Friday, the Gauteng High Court ordered the Department of Basic Education and provincial education ministers to restart the National School Nutrition Programme. Read it and weep – because, if Nelson Mandela were alive, I believe he would be.

Additionally, the government’s reaction to Covid-19 was also, as we know, laced with cruel and unnecessary treatment of its citizens, such as banning tobacco and liquor sales. These regulations were imposed just because the government “could”.

In short (again), the hard lockdown achieved extraordinarily little. Testing and contact tracing were not sufficiently or efficiently scaled up; and, other than in the Western Cape, hospitals and field hospitals were not sufficiently prepared.

Even today, as Mkhize visited the Eastern Cape, trying to salvage some “dignity” (I suppose you’d call it) following the lacerating international coverage of hospitals and health services generally, certain health workers said, perhaps even without prompting (yeah, right), that the booze ban had helped ensure more bed beds would be available for Covid patients. But surely if you have re-imposed a curfew, as was done recently, this keeps all those drunken drivers off the roads?

Worse, however, but not without irony, alas, is that Covid-19 has demonstrated the presence of the proverbial elephant in the room. (Actually, there are two elephants in the room – I’ll get to the second one a little later.)

It’s not that everyone has ignored the (first) elephant. Some have pointed out his/her presence, but the government, the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa praise singers and fellow-travellers, and so on, have said for months, if not years, “Ach, get over yourselves, stop making a fuss, we don’t mind having that pachyderm perched on the edge of the sofa, s/he doesn’t eat or drink so much, s/he’s not intractable, we’ll handle things in due course ....”

Perhaps we had learnt to tolerate it and the decline that had resulted from its voracious appetite. But Covid-19 does not care, as it rampages through the land. The epidemic has forced us to confront all the consequences of the elephant of ANC rule: the dismal economy, the state dysfunction, the badly run hospitals, the bankrupt SOEs, the rampant tenderpreneurship (even in the procurement of PPE), and so on.

But this elephant seems as immovable as ever. Or is it? Today a friend suggested that maybe Ramaphosa/the ANC would not survive this Covid-19 mess and its shifting of the spotlight squarely onto the elephant. We are still “a democracy” and the only thing that can “save” us is the electorate – by ejecting the liberation movement parties from power. He added, though, that a good start would be for our recognised “thought leaders” to start leading the way.

Today, Jonny Steinberg wrote an entertaining piece in Business Day, of which the sub-head is “It is astonishing to think how little headway populist mythology has made in SA” and in his article Steinberg looks at the headway “populist mythology” has made in Poland and Hungary.

Steinberg continues: “One would have thought Covid-19 would finally burst the dam wall. Levels of hunger doubled overnight. Residents of townships were suddenly policed with an aggression that rivalled the era of high apartheid. And all this to prevent the spread of a virus that had yet to arrive. Yet in one poll after another SA’s citizenry expresses high levels of trust in President Cyril Ramaphosa ...

“Who knows?” Steinberg continues, “It may be that Covid-19 will erode the legitimacy of SA’s existing order over time. When it becomes apparent that the country is permanently poorer, that the summit of prosperity is in the past, not the future, perhaps then mass disenchantment will propel populist mythology to centre stage.”

Hmmm, a peculiar piece that I just do not grasp – for a simple reason: the ANC and many of those who vote for the party (or its EFF offshoot) believe far, far crazier things than the modern populists he references. Don’t take my word for it; check it out.

Then, earlier this week, Max du Preez wrote a piece that I suppose could be called a sort of “Mea Culpa”.

Du Preez writes that he “badly wanted [Ramaphosa] to succeed in leading us out of the Zuma desert. After his first year as president I started getting impatient with the lack of real change, and occasionally voiced this frustration. On every occasion, people from his inner circle, including ministers and former ministers, advised me to hold my horses, to appreciate that Cyril was a man for social compacts, consultation, and consensus rather than political theatre. The president is going as fast as circumstances allow him, they told me, and the result will be visible soon.”

But, as Du Preez goes on to say: “The ANC is as untransformed, corrupt and ideologically decrepit as before. ... Ramaphosa’s government preferred to treat South Africans as subjects rather than citizens in partnership to fight the pandemic. They don’t need to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, they don’t deserve to be told about the science we’re following (or not following), they just need to do as we say. To question us is unpatriotic (or racist). ...Nothing would make me happier than if [Ramaphosa] would prove me wrong in the weeks and months ahead. But I’m done with holding my breath.”

The point here is not to say “I told you so” – to either Du Preez or Steinberg. Nor even to point out that it’s a bit unfair to blame Ramaphosa alone for the ANC being “as untransformed, corrupt and ideologically decrepit as before”. (That’s the ANC, Max; so it goes; where have you been?) Nor even to suggest that it’s also a trifle unfair to blame Ramaphosa for the Covid-19 disaster with which we presently sit. He’s the boss, Max; he's supposed to make decisions; that they don’t get implemented is not entirely his fault. And don’t forget Ramaphosa is surrounded by several folk who are unlikely to join Mensa International any time soon.

What I wonder about, however, regarding Du Preez and others, is that second elephant in the room. It’s this. How come the Western Cape has done as well as could be expected in handling Covid-19?

One factor is that it is run by politicians who are more interested in governing than “eating”. But, even more importantly, it has an operational and competent civil service, including its health care and hospital administrators. I.e., no cadre deployment, no tenderpreneurship and no bribery necessary to make the operation work – a “professional” civil service.

Yet, from those who are so “disappointed” with Ramaphosa and the handling of Covid-19 epidemic, one hears no mention of this. They merely sit in their mud puddles, feeling sorry for themselves, eloquently mourning Ramaphosa, but there are no words on why the ANC really must be jettisoned as soon as possible, or what the alternative is that needs to be put in its place.