Mbalula wades into Covid-19 with flip-flops

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the transport minister's bizarre N95 taxi mask proposal


It was at a grimy, crowded downtown Johannesburg. At first sight, it appeared to be an experimental attempt to incubate the coronavirus among as many people, as quickly as possible.

But it was actually a press conference. There, hemmed in by smirking, sinister-looking taxi bosses, the self-styled “Mr Fixit” of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet, gave a public demonstration of government’s resolve in the face of the plague.

We, ordinary people, have some experience of this resolve. Ever since the promulgation of the lockdown regulations, close on 58m South Africans have been pleading for the prohibition on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol to be lifted. To absolutely no avail. Not even expert medical advice on the nature of addiction has been able to sway the new puritans gleefully depriving the populace of some solace during the three-week isolation.

Yet when regulations need to be relaxed or abandoned to benefit powerful constituencies that are well connected to the African National Congress, it’s a different story. When the mafia running the black taxi sector snaps its fingers and demands concessions damaging to the containment of Covid-19, the government, in the form of Transport Minister Fikile “Fixit” Mbalula, says, “Ja, baas!” Whatever the boss wants.

The to-and-fro saga of how many commuters will be allowed during lockdown to travel in a minibus taxi, is a telling example of how the ANC takes important decisions. No surprise, it has less to do with the public’s wellbeing than the party's advantage.

As is often the case, the theory was sound. 

From the outset, the government had identified the 200,000 minibus taxis, which daily convey about two-thirds of the country’s commuters, as the mode of transport most likely to spread the virus. Consequently, taxis would not be allowed during the lockdown to transport full loads, in order to minimise the risk of the crammed passengers cross-infecting.

Taxis would operate only for two four-hour peak periods. Loading was restricted to 50% of licensed capacity, which meant that a 22-seater minibus was restricted to 11 people and the 15-seaters to eight. Or as the arithmetically challenged Mr Fixit, who also preens behind the handle “Mr FearFokkol”, put it: “We have clarified that it can only be 60%. Anything above that undermines what government is trying to achieve.” 

Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the government’s implementation was cack-handed from the start. 

Angry over the loss of income from their patented 24/7 pack-and-stack business model, the taxi owners threatened to close down for the duration, potentially making impossible the movement of essential services workers. Government capitulation was swift.

On Wednesday afternoon, at the minister’s public huddle with owners, drivers and commuters at Noord Street rank in Jozie, Mbalula announced that the legal loading would be eased to 70%. Then, in a slow reveal, the full extent of the concession became apparent: Taxis would be allowed load to full capacity if the passengers wore surgical masks or N95 respirators.

This about-turn was greeted with howls of public derision. Was the minister aware what “full capacity” means to the average minibus taxi driver? As the video evidence on social media attests, this can be as many as 26 adults or 58 kids in a single vehicle. For hours. In a stuffy metal box.

Where would commuters get personal protection gear, given that frontline health workers were unable to? And if commuters could sit cheek to jowl on condition that they wore masks, why could masked joggers not venture forth in solitude? 

By Thursday morning breakfast, Mbalula had U-turned once more, now making FearFokkol the owner of more flip-flops than to be found in the closet of the average Jeffreys Bay surfer. Full-capacity trips of masked commuters were no longer acceptable and it was back to the 70% rule, but only if wearing the scarce respirators. 

Mbalula, a man who on his birthday — April Fool’s day, in case you want to diarise — is prone to effusive self-congratulatory social media posts, is vainglorious enough not to be fazed by these policy zig-zags. Indeed, when rescinding the most recent ruling, he made a virtue of necessity by lauding his reversal as evidence of admirable sensitivity to a public that was “without comfort with these measures and urged that we reconsider”.

Mbalula’s incompetence, of which we have previous evidence when he headed the Sport ministry and then that of Police, risks the credibility of what mostly has been an excellent government response to the pandemic. In the face of crisis, Ramaphosa acted swiftly and convincingly. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been impressive: competent, calm, and candid.

Not everyone sees it like that. Several conservative commentators have taken ideological umbrage at Ramaphosa’s enthusiasm for the Chinese model of containment, apparently unaware that this model, endorsed by the World Health Organisation, has so far proved to be the most successful. Generally, however, public support for the measures, despite the niggles of nicotine and booze deprivation, has been remarkably high.

Of course, it’s not only cabinet clowns like Mbalula and Small Business Development Minister Khumbuzo Ntshavheni — she of the fiasco of contemplating race-based criteria for assistance to faltering to SMMEs and refusing help to foreign-owned spaza shops — who endanger the lockdown’s objectives. There are also the heavy-handed actions of some in the police and military.

There have been dozens of incidents of bullying and beating, of sjamboks, rubber bullets and water cannons. Not against truculent mobs but against ordinary citizens, and often for no worse a crime than not keeping the desired one-metre social distance in a shopping queue.

We’re barely a third of the way through the lockdown. All our racial and class fault lines reflect the increased strain. All our historical tendencies towards state thuggery are surfacing.

Ours is a country where economic and physical survival are poised in precarious balance. Things could go spectacularly wrong. Ramaphosa improving the calibre of ANC governance at this fraught moment can only improve our odds.

Maybe time for Fixit to Fokkoff?

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye