Enter the buffoons

Andrew Donaldson says SA has decided to treat a public health crisis as a security issue


THE publishers of Carl Niehaus’s forthcoming autobiography must be worried. Initial misgivings about having to market his memoir, Beyond the Pale, as a work of fiction have reportedly been superseded by the real fear that their author may now have stage four cabin fever and his paranoia is peaking at eleven.

This, mind you, even before South Africa’s lockdown came into effect at midnight on Thursday. Who knows what state he will be in by next week, never mind April 16. The men in the white coats will almost certainly have their work cut out for them when they come to take the MK military veterans spokesman to the rubber room.

It was the recent publication in the Citizen of a long and rambling letter in which Niehaus railed away at “detractors and haters” that sparked such concerns. Most of it dealt with his greatly unappreciated role in the struggle. Reading it was a deeply moving experience, and I had to catch my breath at his account of being sent down for a long prison stretch. That sort of thing is alas so rare these days.


The letter is typical Niehaus. As you may well be aware, he is a religious person and he suggests that much of the setbacks he has endured could be compared to the betrayal and suffering of Jesus. There are, in addition, the usual swipes at the opponents of radical economic transformation as well as those who, quite unlike himself, are frauds who masquerade as revolutionaries.

Interestingly, Niehaus claims to have delayed publication of Beyond the Pale for more than five years. “I held back,” he writes, “out of concern that I do not want to damage and destroy other people’s lives, no matter how much callousness they have shown, and the pain they have inflicted on me.”

But he’s rushing his “no holds barred” book into print because he has scores to settle, and he wants to deal with “the terrible slander and character assassination” he has personally endured. “The time had come to publish,” he says, “to call out [so-called ‘comrades’], and to expose them for the charlatans that they are.”

And why not? Life in lockdown is a dreary slog. Who knows how long we may be here, and in need of some light relief. A book by a serial fibber who walked on water as he singlehandedly overthrew apartheid may perversely just be the thing until wine o’clock.  

To be fair, it is not just Niehaus who is in some discomfort. 

The plague has changed everything. The Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) remains shuttered and whatever comfort we may have once sought there is now off-limits. The journalism business, meanwhile, is taking a vicious beating. Previous staples like teenage gender realignment surgery and seasonal rail strikes have all fallen off the agenda and cynical news junkies must instead endure endless home videos from extroverts virtue-signalling in quarantine. It’s as if the broadcasters have been taken over by Facebook and the infection rate of Supine-19 has gone through the roof.

In this respect, I am, like my colleague Jeremy Gordin, also puzzled at the chunderous praise heaped on Cyril Ramaphosa for his response to the crisis. 

One of those engaged in the ululation, as Gordin called it, was Ferial Haffajee. Not only did she declare, in the Daily Maverick, a keen admiration for the deep humanity and mettle of Squirrel’s leadership, but she also reported waking from her nocturnal writhings last Saturday greatly comforted that Jacob Zuma was no longer the president: “Imagine if this happened in the era of State Capture?”

As nightmares go, this one seemed particularly bad. But yes, just imagine. The virus, she says, would be an “opportunity to loot and not an existential crisis to be managed”. 

The Guptas and their patronage networks would be in control of the procurement of emergency services. The airborne contagion that is Accused Number One’s special friend, Dudu Miyeni, would still be in charge at SAA, looking for new destinations for her empty aircraft. What’s left of the SABC would be used by the idiotic Hlaudi Motsoeneng to urge the population to gather at evangelical rallies. Eskom would still be “managed” by Ben Ngubane and Brian Molefe and the darkness would be perpetual.

“It is a precarious time,” Hafajee writes, leaving aside the what-iffery, “but South Africa is well-led. For the first time ever, the Cabinet is responsive, clear and frank about the challenges they face as the series of briefings by Ministers in the past 10 days have shown.”

Well, no. Not really.

For a start, this is a public health crisis, not a security issue or a law and order matter. You’d think that this message would have been made clear to police ministers the world over. But what’s the point when our police minister is Bheki Cele?

Like many in Squirrel’s cabinet, Cele is a disastrous hangover from the Zuma era. If the years have taught us anything it is that he is useless at just about everything. And he is especially useless when it comes to police matters. And wearing hats. Cometh the hour, then, cometh the buffoon, and Cele elected to dress like a goon in a bad gangster movie in his televised bid to bid to bully the nation into lockdown.

There came warnings of fines and jail sentences, and a long list of regulations and prohibitions that would be enforced by both the police and the military for the duration. All large gatherings were to be banned, along with non-essential movement. Shopping centres would be closed, with the exception of grocery stores and pharmacies. There was a total ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products, a patronising gesture that may encourage further criminality. Besides making everyone’s life a misery, that is.

It’s worth noting that, for their lockdowns, various US states and Canada are allowing bottle stores and cannabis dispensaries to remain open as they provided essential services. This is what adult administrations do: treat their citizens like adults.

But Cele appeared to enjoy himself, alarming a frightened nation. “There shall be no food at restaurants,” he warned. “You buy food from these outlets and go and cook at home, so there is no need to be on the road. There is no need to move around. There was a little bit of a story earlier that you can walk your dogs. There shall be no dogs that will be walked. The cluster met and discussed and we agreed that it does not enhance the call made by the president.”

We know all about “cluster”. It’s usually employed as a prefix. 

But that “little bit of a story”, incidentally, originated with the only person other than Ramaphosa that we should be hearing from at such times, and that is the health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize. It was he who had previously permitted dog-walking, provided social distancing was practiced.

Following the confirmation that it had been outlawed, along with other forms of outdoor exercise, the idiot transport minister, Fikile Mbalula, tweeted: “So cute, you are upset because the most upsetting thing said to you today is that you can’t walk your dog or jog. Sembi!” 

This sort of spite is no doubt rooted in childhood trauma, but it is unbecoming in an adult, even one so immature and short.

There was further confusion when the small business development minister, Khumbudzo Ntshaveni, suggested on Tuesday that only spaza shops owned by South Africans could trade during the lockdown. The next day, her office explained that all spaza shops, even those run by foreigners, could remain open, provided they had a municipal licence.

Then, on Thursday, the pencil-necked trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel announced that businesses permitted to provide essential services were required to obtain official permission from the department of trade, industry and competition. 

Such applications were to be directed to the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission via their BizPortal website and a certificate authorising such trade would duly be issued by the commission. This is according to regulations gazetted by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

As an aside, it’s perversely fitting that Proxy-Zuma’s name should pop up amid all this bureaucratic “clustery” as she was right there at the start of post-apartheid South Africa’s first major public health crisis. As health minister in the mid-1990s, she was implicated in the debacle surrounding the Sarafina II Aids musical, which set the template for much of the government corruption that followed. That she is still with us is quite astounding. 

A few hours before the lockdown came into effect, Ramaphosa addressed SANDF troops at the Doornkop military base in Soweto. “Go out and have the best of missions,” he told them. “This is a mercy mission, this is a life-restoration mission, this is a life-saving mission, this is a life-giving mission. Go out and save the lives of South Africans.”

It was slightly reassuring that he urged them to do so with restraint, respect and responsibility. This was not a time for “skop, skiet en donder”, he said, and they were there to support South Africans through a difficult time. 

“Our people are not hostile. They are not going to be against you. They are not going to resist you. They are going to abide by the regulations that have been issued. As you go out you are going to find a population that is in full support of the work that you are going to do. And all I have ever heard from our people has been supportive. They respect and support the [lockdown] decision.”

How much better it would have been if those words had been directed at doctors, nurses and emergency workers — and not soldiers. 

As it is, Ramaphosa did himself no favours by turning up in camouflage. He’d worn military fatigues, he told the troops, in a bid to show them they had the support of their commander-in-chief. The gesture impressed some old military veterans, like Bantu Holomisa, who tweeted that Ramaphosa had the makings of “a good machine gun carrier”. Dressing up like Carl Niehaus also ominously suggested the tinpot repression of the South American juntas. After Squirrel's speech, the soldiers toyi-toyed for the cameras. 

It made for great television. But, as they say, the optics were not good. 

I write, of course, from Bog Island, where both prime minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles have tested positive for Covid-19. There is perhaps as much confusion here as anywhere. But the rules for lockdown are simple and unambiguous. There are just four:

We’re allowed to shop for basic necessities, including alcohol, but as infrequently as possible. We’re allowed one form of outdoor exercise a day, be it cycling, jogging or walking the dog, but we must practice social distancing and gatherings of more than two people are not permitted. We’re allowed out for medical reasons, to provide care or to help the vulnerable. And we’re allowed to travel to and from work, but only if that work cannot be done from home.

Squirrel and his cabinet would have shown a greater mettle and a deeper humanity had they simply copied these guidelines and not opted to get all clustery on the people.