The quiet politician

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on WCape Premier Alan Winde's leadership during Covid-19


He is the invisible man of politics, passing through public life virtually unnoticed despite his high office. He sparks no extremes of emotion, neither cheers nor jeers.

Unlike with his immediate predecessor, the media doesn’t seize upon and querulously dissect his every utterance. Unlike most of his equivalents in rank in the rest of the country, he appears not to harbour ambitions of a bigger job on the national political stage.

Yet the most unremarkable man of South African politics — so grey as to be almost transparent — is also one of the more admirable. Premier Alan Winde’s Western Cape government was the first to experience the full might of the Covid pandemic and, in marked contrast to the chaos and corruption that has characterised the medical response in the rest of SA, passed the test with flying colours.

Lest we forget, at one stage the ANC alliance was calling on the national government to step in, to take over from the Western Cape the handling of the pandemic. The SA Communist Party described Winde’s administration as “Trump-oriented” and “disorganised” compared to the other provinces.

“There has to be a strong team with authority deployed by the national government,” said the SACP’s provincial secretary Benson Ngqentsu. “What is worrying is that there is not even a provincial command centre here,” he said, referring to the local equivalents of the over-arching Covid Command Council, a democratically dubious structure that is only vaguely accountable to Parliament.

Fortunately, the wiser counsel of national Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize prevailed. There was no overt intervention and Winde’s low-key, evidence-driven approach prevailed, while the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and now KwaZulu-Natal, all with cadre-packed provincial covid command councils, flail about ineffectually.

Despite the lack of corruption that saw more than R2bn looted from emergency medical relief funds in the other provinces, despite the lack of organisational collapse now exposed in the other provincial health departments, the achievements of Winde’s administration have generally gone unheralded.

In some ways, that not unusual, given that the media displays an almost pathological inability to assess evenhandedly the opposition Democratic Alliance. However, even the DA itself has been curiously shy about trumpeting the successes in the only province in its control. Perhaps there’s some embarrassment that yet another of its leaders is a pale male, and old to boot.

But the most interesting aspect of Winde’s leadership is not the economic and social accomplishments of his administration, which were mostly put in place by his predecessor, Helen Zille. Rather, it’s the signs — even if the media and his party haven’t noticed — that he is spooking the African National Congress government with displays of provincial independence.

It has always been galling to the government that Parliament assembles at the heart of what for years was the only city in the country that the ANC did not control. That ignominy was compounded when the DA then won a provincial majority in 2009, resulting in more than a decade of opposition governance in the Western Cape.

The markedly different path and the relatively successful path that province has taken compared to the rest of the country is a constant thorn in the ANC flesh. What it doesn’t want to allow to happen is for the province to start flexing its as yet untested provincial powers in direct challenges to the national government. The direction of ANC’s inclination is the opposite, to water down provincial powers.

For weeks now, Winde has been calling on Mkhize and Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to meet to discuss urgently a “differentiated approach” by the Western Cape to the lockdown regulations, especially as regards the province’s important wine and tourism sectors.

His point of leverage was the government’s promise in May that its management of the pandemic would be infinitely flexible, no “one size fits all”. Instead, there would be different alert levels and regulations for different parts of the country, depending on Covid distribution patterns.

Since Ramaphosa has for the past five months effectively conceded presidential veto powers to Dlamini-Zuma, a mother-knows-best anti-booze, anti-smoking authoritarian, this was never going to happen. The single set of national regulations remained inviolate, despite the pandemic leaving virtually untouched, but nevertheless entirely locked down, four of the nine provinces.

Inviolate, that is, until last weekend. Taking advantage of the province’s steep drop in infections and consequent lack of pressure on hospitals, Winde signalled that the Western Cape would no longer docilely follow national regulations that were patently ridiculous. Alcohol sales should be “allowed immediately” in the province, with “smart recommendations” in place to curb excessive usage.

“These positions have been taken to reduce the impact of a second, equally dangerous pandemic: unemployment,” Winde said. He promised to engage the national government and the president personally on a different path for the province.

In a country where most of the public discourse is couched in rancorous tones of scorn, abuse and recrimination, Winde is a polite anomaly, disarmingly willing to concede the intellectual validity of his opponent’s position: “The provincial government fully agrees that alcohol-related harm is a major problem in the province and the country. When the domestic sale of alcohol was suspended during the lockdown, and then again recently, the number of trauma cases dropped immediately.

“But we cannot view this in isolation of the other consequences a continued ban on the sale of alcohol is causing. That is why we should not view our response to Covid-19 as a zero-sum game,” he said.

Winde’s tone is very different from the pugnacious approach of Zille. No gauntlets, no threats, nor impassioned oratory. Just a quiet appeal to good sense and speedily taking advantage of the government’s medical advisory committee’s as-yet-unexercised powers to advise on what alert level should be declared nationally, provincially, in a metropolitan area or a district.

Of course, the last thing that Ramaphosa’s administration wants to see, despite its promises of flexibility, is the Western Cape unilaterally easing the regulations. Not because of the possible health implications — throughout SA the lockdown survives only in name, as a faint inconvenience, with illegal alcohol and tobacco readily available, with crammed taxis, and with unpoliced inter-provincial travel — but because it would benefit the DA in an electorate that is deeply disillusioned by the government’s actions over the past five months.

That left Ramaphosa two options. First, to forbid the Western Cape from easing the regulations. This would have resulted in legal appeals that might have ended with the courts ruling in favour of this defiant exercise in provincial autonomy. A most unpalatable result for the ANC.

Or, second, to pre-empt and hence take the sting out of the DA challenge, by allowing a national relaxation of the lockdown rules, especially those around smoking and drinking.

The second option, which is the most likely, has another attraction. It means that the ongoing court hearings where various tobacco and alcohol alliances are challenging the government’s policies as irrational and exceeding the state’s constitutional remit, will become moot.

Winde’s provincial muscle flexing is by no means the only reason why the government is now backing down on the rules that it, just a week ago, was apparently willing to defend all the way to the apex court. But he has certainly played an important role.

So, when, very soon, you crack open that first (legal) bottle of fine Cape wine and draw deeply on that first (legal) cigar, raise a toast Alan Winde, an underestimated politician.

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