Governing during a pandemic is akin to playing a round of golf. Both are long roads, writes Richard Calland
Just as it’s all but impossible to play well, let alone perfectly, for 18 holes, so mistakes are bound to creep into the political management of the government response.
After a solid “first nine” last year, during which both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, offered calm, collected and clear leadership while building trust — the first and most important commodity at a time of national crisis — since the turn of the year, the performance has been marred by a series of horrible shanks into the water.
(For non-golfers, let me put it thus: the wheels have come off in spectacular fashion, with a number of errors).
Just over 15 months in, it’s an appropriate time to take stock, and three errors of judgment, strategy and political leadership stand out and need to be weighed in the balance.
First, the failure to build sufficient additional healthcare capacity. When assessing government performance, hindsight is unhelpful and unreasonable. The evaluation has to be of the decisions that were taken at the time, in light of what was known at the time.
Hence, the decision to go into a very tough, and extended, lockdown from late March last year was both justifiable and wise in the context of the information — or lack of it — available to the government at the time.
There was understandable fear that Covid-19 would run rampant through working-class communities and cause unconscionable loss of life. The images of people dying in the corridors of Italian hospitals were frightening.
So the reasonable government response was to lock down to buy time — to “flatten the curve”. And, indeed, the transmission curve was flattened, at great cost to livelihoods and the economy, and the health system was not overwhelmed — at least during the first wave.
So far, so good. But in relation to the second and, particularly, the third waves, the government has failed. It has failed to invest at the scale and with the urgency required, and which the medical science community advised would be necessary if the country were to be able to cope with further, potentially larger waves and the accurately predicted mutations in the virus.
Of course, the government faces an acute fiscal crisis: there were no reserves to deploy. But line items should have been shuffled with clear-minded purpose and decisiveness. There was little or no sense of prioritisation; no recognition that far greater public spending on public healthcare was essential.
Hence, the painful loss of lives that has occurred since December reflects badly on the government — whether it is because the track and trace system was inadequate, which is likely the case, or because people’s access to adequate healthcare was jeopardised.
This poor performance is reflected in South Africa’s “excess deaths” data, with “excess deaths” defined as the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected numbers of deaths in the same time periods.
A research team put together by the South Africa Medical Research Council and the Centre for Actuarial Research at the University of Cape Town concluded in May that, contrary to the government’s own assessment, as high a percentage as 85% of the excess deaths recorded since the beginning of the pandemic should be attributed to the Covid-19 virus.
“Allowing for this”, the group conclude, “and the relatively young population, Covid-19 deaths per capita in South Africa probably rank in the top five countries in the world”.
This is a dismal finding. It implies that the “investment” in the long, hard lockdown was wasted.
Politically, this poor performance has not stuck to Mkhize — until recently. And here comes a major, inexplicable failure of political leadership. The available evidence suggests that at a time when the government was unable to find sufficient additional resources to ramp up the public health system, its health minister was bending over backwards to ensure that R150-million of public money was squandered on a company called Digital Vibes run by people close to him.
This sticks in the craw. It angers the public. It undermines public trust in everything else the government does. And it demands a decisive, immediate response.
Instead, Ramaphosa dithered. For several days there was uncertainty, as Mkhize fought for his political life which he had so carefully reconstructed last year, after the disastrous campaigns he ran for top six positions in the ANC in 2017.
The president finally said he would ask Mkhize to go on “special leave” while he awaited the report of the Special Investigating Unit. This was very bad politics: people who have lost loved ones or lost their livelihoods during the past year haven’t had the luxury of “special leave”.
No: Ramaphosa should have required Mkhize to resign immediately. Once again, the president can be seen as a political leader who is unwilling to use his authority and who vacillates at crucial moments.
The equally depressing aspect of the Digital Vibes saga is that it is just the tip of the iceberg, as everyone in and around the government and the governing party knows. It happens all the time. Cronies benefit from government contracts that are awarded at excessive fees for basic work that could — and should — be done at one-tenth of the price.
This is a president who is winning most of the political battles he needs to win, particularly within the ANC. Now that his troublesome secretary-general, Ace Magashule, has been removed and politically neutralised, Ramaphosa looks very likely to win a second term as president. He may even get a clear, uncontested run into re-election as ANC president at next year’s national elective conference.
But despite this, he continues to operate in third gear, unwilling or unable to put his foot on the clutch and thrust his decision-making into a higher ratio.
Firing Mkhize was a no-brainer of a political choice. Losing a minister of health during a pandemic is inconvenient, but being seen to be soft or weak when confronted by evidence of corruption by a minister of health during a pandemic is far worse.
Now, Ramaphosa faces a tricky cabinet reshuffle — a big test of his political judgment, and one that will determine the pace of policy-making and execution for the rest of his first full term in government.
Here, again, there has been more delay and dithering. There are now acting ministers in two critical portfolios — minister in the presidency (previously held by the late Jackson Mthembu) and health.
In the cabinet, four big political elephants jostle for ascendancy in the economic cluster: Tito Mboweni at Finance, Ebrahim Patel at Trade and Industry, Pravin Gordhan at Public Enterprises and Gwede Mantashe at Energy. Like a radio station that loses touch with its frequency as you drive out of town, so these four are not quite in tune, especially on the biggest economic policy issue of the time: How much of the state’s stake in the economy should be ceded?
The privatisation of SAA gives an indication of a new pragmatism in government. But in the energy sector, Mantashe continues to get in the way of substantial structural reform that could yield significant inward investment. The Karpowership fiasco, alone, proves Mantashe is not fit to serve in this portfolio. As his own advisers conceded, Ramaphosa needs to “take ownership” of this space. But he seems to lack the strategic wit or muscle to provide the leadership needed.
I digress. Back to the political audit of the government’s pandemic performance and one last, obvious failure: the vaccination programme.
It was abundantly clear from April last year that the only endgame would be vaccination. Pretoria slept on the job, failing to appreciate this single strategic priority. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: the shambolic, lamentably feeble roll-out, and the pitiful public communications.
Historically, a global shock such as Covid-19 usually leads to a grand, new social compact or massive societal upheaval. In South Africa, neither is yet visible. While a “sustainability revolution” emerges elsewhere, here the government has not offered a distinctive fresh vision for the future, nor is there yet revolution in the air.
The spectacle that will unfold at Nkandla over former president Jacob Zuma’s possible arrest will only momentarily divert attention from the failure of governance. The population has an opportunity to vent its frustration where it can matter most — at the polls in October, assuming the third wave has abated by then.
Despite Ramaphosa’s parochial political victories and steady progress in rebuilding state institutions, his government’s performance on the pandemic means that it does not deserve, and has not earned, the electorate’s approval.
In golf, “under par” is a good thing. In politics, not so much. Ramaphosa has to raise his game; politically, his pandemic performance is seriously below par. And even though he is winning battles, he could yet lose the war.
- Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Republic Mail and its associates.