/Mbhazima Shilowa: Were left to the whim of ministers as economic, social fault lines pile pressure on Ramaphosa to deliver

Mbhazima Shilowa: Were left to the whim of ministers as economic, social fault lines pile pressure on Ramaphosa to deliver

2020-05-14 06:00

Listening to the President last night, one got the impression he addressed the nation prematurely due to pressure, even as the government is not yet ready to decide which areas will move to what level and when, writes Mbhazima Shilowa.


I grew up in a family that told countless stories and regaled us with folklore.

At one point I assumed this was just a way of keeping us awake while they cooked food late into the evening after coming back from working the fields.

Or that this was just a way of ensuring we stay up long enough to empty the bladder before going to sleep so as not to wet the blankets. I say blankets because there was no bed to speak of.

It was just a mat made of reeds known in Xitsonga as “sangu”. 

It was only in later years that I realised that stories and folklore are a way to explain the happenings in life in a way that was easy to understand for the young and old alike.

As a result when other kids who stayed at school longer than I did resorted to Don Quixote and Voltaire I took refuge in stories and folklore. 

In a song titled Mbhongholo by CTD Marivate he writes of a man, his son and a donkey. 

In its opening stanza he asks if people have ever seen people carrying a donkey.

In rhetorical fashion he asks how it came about that people carried a donkey.

He concludes that it came about as an old man and his son were on their way to the market to sell the said animal. 

In brief he writes ” … On their way to the market with the ass in front, they met school kids who laughed at them for not riding on the ass, whereupon the old man put his son on the ass while he hot-footed [it].

“Further on they came across other folks who laughed at the old man for hot-footing it while his son was riding the ass whereupon he decided to take a ride as well. 

“But people being people, the next group they bumped into scolded them for riding on the poor ass instead of carrying it. They tied the poor ass and continued to the market. Unfortunately it not being used to the situation, wiggled as they went past a stream and fell into it drowning in the process.”

In dramatic fashion he concludes that “va sala va lo khekhexwa mbhongholo yi khulukile!”

Their prized donkey drowned while they looked on!

It is common knowledge that before President Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster and the subsequent lockdown, he consulted widely with church leaders and their organisations, business and trade union leaders represented in Nedlac, as well as political parties represented in Parliament.

All of them without exception gave him their support. Here was that elusive national project that everyone felt they owned and could champion. 

When he announced the Cabinet’s contributions to the solidarity fund, most parties in Parliament also joined with its own pledges. 

Even when he announced the extension of the lockdown to 35 days, he followed the same process, consulting parties in Parliament, the presidential coordinating council that comprises provincial premiers and Salga; business and trade union leaders. 

While there were murmurings especially from the Democratic Alliance and the tobacco and liquor lobbies, the centre appeared to be holding. 

The wheels began to come off, at least publicly, when it became clear there was a need to reassess the effectiveness or otherwise of the lockdown as well as the easing of measures in areas which appeared ready to return to some form of normality with a minimum impact on the health of workers, the public and consumers. 

Liquor and tobacco

The DA and business made proposals that on paper appeared to be a call for a phased lockdown relaxation, but in reality was a call for its lifting especially the sale of liquor and tobacco.

It is important to note that small and informal businesses had raised their concerns from the onset because of the impact, particularly in the townships and business districts.

The government’s handling of the announcement on the sale of cigarettes and the subsequent rescinding of the decision did not help matters.

Those who had called out the regulations as being irrational and unconstitutional felt vindicated.

It remains to be seen if these will be challenged in their totality or will remain one of those things which continue to linger on forever. 

Since the move from level five to level four of the lockdown we have seen the continued increase in testing, the number of people who have tested positive and fatalities.

The Western Cape has overtaken Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal as the epicentre of the pandemic and most fatalities respectively, with the Eastern Cape’s number also steadily climbing. 

There has been varied explanations for the rise in numbers by the provincial government and the DA: ranging from the claim that they are testing more people than other provinces, better tracing and identification of hotspots and being thorough on the causes of death.

It has also been suggested albeit without any shred of evidence that other provinces are under-reporting on people who are positive or have died of Covid-19.

Politics, which was placed on the back-burner has now once again taken centre stage with some blaming it on the DA and its supposed cavalier attitude to the pandemic.

Some have even called for the province to be moved back to level five and national government getting more involved.

To be fair, a similar call has been made regarding the Eastern Cape, best known for its mediocre performance on health and education even under normal circumstances.

Even with the rise in fatalities the call for the opening up of the economy has not subsided.

Business, some trade unions and the DA have called on the government to allow more business to open, arguing that in any case the lockdown was not meant to be indefinite, but to help flatten the curve, delay the peak and to get the health system ready for the expected influx of patients, especially during our flu/winter season. 

The government is not helping.

Whereas there seemed to be a sense of an end goal at the beginning, especially after the briefing by Minister Mkhize and the medical advisory team, we now seem to be just flying by the seats of our pants. 

In some instances we are at the whim of Ministers. 

The Stone Age

Ebrahim Patel, the Trade and Industry Minister, is a case in point.

His views on e-commerce would not have been out of place during the Stone Age, not to mention his approach to what could be sold in the different shops or which sectors of the economy can open for business.

There is no logic, rationality or explanation for the decisions.

He fancies himself as the equivalent of a General in the USSR in charge of the planning department deciding on what make of car, clothing, food and drinks that are allowed to be bought.

I am surprised he has not appointed a director, a design officer, from whom all industries and shops could pick up a specimen sample.

For someone who was the general secretary of a clothing and textile union he surely should know that before going to next season’s clothing, shops put on sale the current season’s clothing.

It is not like, “well you can sell it next year as well”. 

The only thing missing is a member of the Komsomol sitting by the entrance of the store with a copy of Pravda to see if the items you’re leaving will conform to the party line. 

It is said that the list emanates from the clothing industry.

If that is the case there should be an explanation on the choice of products.

Does it reflect the factories that are open already? Does it mean that the rest are not able to meet the lockdown relaxation regulations? Only time will tell.

Also, missing is the government outlining what the objective criteria is that could be used to decide on the relaxation or lifting of the lockdown.

One that doesn’t change due to political or socio-economic factors or players.

The president reasserted them yesterday and one hopes that that’s what would be used by the government henceforth. 

Which areas and when?

The Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu and Dr Mkhize have said that “models have indicated that the virus peak is only likely to be reached between August and September this year”.

If the aim is to buy time to prepare the health facilities, build field hospitals, revamp existing ones and quarantine sites, we need to be told the numbers expected per province so that we would know whether we are ready to relax the lockdown in a specific province, metro or district. 

If it’s to level the curve we need to know the expected plateau per province, metro or district municipality.

For instance: using current data, does objective criteria justify Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, Free State and the Northern Cape being under Level 4 lockdown?

Or should the lockdown be relaxed except maybe in dorpies and towns? How will that be possible if the main centres of economic activity: Gauteng, the Western Cape and KZN remain under Level 4 lockdown?

Even as the Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, Free State and the Northern Cape numbers may be low, have they built the necessary capacity were we to have an uncontrollable wave?

If they are not ready, how long do they need to be ready?

Like other areas, they would still be expected to sanitise, wash hands with soap frequently, maintain physical distance including in public transport and shops. 

I know the situation in Gauteng and they seem ready for the next wave judging by the revamping of existing facilities, new field hospitals and quarantine sites.

The Western Cape Premier Alan Winde says the province will be ready within the next two weeks.

What about KZN and the Eastern Cape? How ready are they? 

In all provinces are we just ready with facilities or does that includes staffing and protective clothing? Is it just public institutions or have the private ones been included as well should it be necessary?

Some of the trade unions, Cosatu in particular, have also called for the opening of the economy arguing that the UIF fund will not be able to sustain workers.

If that is the case, I would argue that there is a need for a framework agreement at Nedlac which should be replicated in all industry bargaining councils that include the health and safety protocols that should be followed leading to opening.

These include:

  • Sanitising the work place
  • Protective clothing 
  • Physical distancing 
  • Monitoring, testing and treatment regime

Since thousands of people rely on trains, the government will have to come to the party on Metrorail.

Physical distancing will be impossible. The only solution is more trains which will be difficult under the current financial and economic conditions.

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t

The President finds himself in the situation of the old man and the donkey.

Does he let the son ride the animal? Does he join in the ride, or do they carry the donkey?

More importantly, how does he ensure that, this being an unusual situation, that the donkey does not get loose and drown?

Try to please everyone, and you will please no one.

Expected to please everyone and in the process pissing of those who agree with his strategy. 

Again, try to please everyone, and you will please no one.

Listening to him last night, one got the impression he addressed the nation prematurely due to pressure, even as the government is not yet ready to decide which areas will move to what level and when.

Objective criteria meant to please no one, but a guide would stand him in good stead during times of criticism.

Otherwise, as Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the CDC in the Obama administration, said of the Trump administration’s strategy to open the economy: “We’re not reopening based on science, we’re reopening based on politics, ideology and public pressure. And I think it’s going to end badly.”

– Mbhazima Shilowa is a former Premier of the Gauteng Province, trade unionist and Cope leader.

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