From governance woes to inequality, South Africa strugg…

The State of Disaster declared a year ago failed to solve many of South Africa’s problems. And the nation is still in a state of disaster.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

As of Monday, 15 March 2021, South Africa has spent a year in a national State of Disaster that allows governance by ministerial regulation, with many of the “extraordinary measures” announced then still in place in some version today.

“We have decided to take urgent and drastic measures to manage the disease, protect the people of our country and reduce the impact of the virus on our society and on our economy,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa in his first address to the nation on that Sunday evening of 15 March 2020. “We have now declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act…”

At the time, 61 Covid-19 cases were confirmed in South Africa. The World Health Organisation had declared Covid-19 a “public health emergency of international concern”, or a pandemic, on 11 March 2020.

By 10 March 2021, South Africa had officially confirmed 51,015 Covid-19 deaths and 1,524,174 infections. That national State of Disaster declaration a year ago triggered significant changes in South Africa’s governance, changes that remain in place to today.

“As part of the intensification of this effort, we have decided to establish a National Command Council chaired by the President. This command council will include, amongst others, members of the inter-ministerial committee and will meet three times a week, to coordinate all aspects of our extraordinary emergency response,” announced Ramaphosa on 15 March 2020 in the first of what would be 18 addresses to the nation over the next year.

That National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) replaced the Covid-19 interministerial committee (IMC) – these so-called IMCs are how Cabinet organises itself. The command council plays a central role in the governance of South Africa, even though the executive decision-maker, according to the Constitution, is the Cabinet, the collective of ministers led by the President.

The impact of the changes, and the role of the NCCC, became clear a week later as the number of Covid-19 patients increased to 402.

“As a consequence, the National Coronavirus Command Council has decided to enforce a nationwide lockdown for 21 days with effect from midnight on Thursday 26 March,” announced Ramaphosa in his 23 March 2020 address to the nation.

“This is a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. While this measure will have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods, on the life of our society and on our economy, the human cost of delaying this action would be far, far greater.”

But by May 2020, those references to the NCCC and “the NCCC decided” had disappeared – at least from the presidential addresses. Advocates Nazeer Cassim, SC, and Erin-Dianne Richards, in correspondence with the Presidency, pointed out the NCCC had no decision-making status.

Then the Presidency’s response was that the NCCC was a Cabinet committee and Cabinet still took the final decision. And that’s the line the Presidency has stuck to. Yet parliamentary replies by June 2020 showed all Cabinet ministers were appointed to the NCCC according to presidential letters dated 18 and 19 March 2020.

If the NCCC is the Cabinet, why would Cabinet not just do its job without a militaristically labelled command council? Cabinet is the constitutionally established executive decision-maker.

In some government circles the NCCC is seen as focusing energy and attention on key areas and, finally, getting ministers to work together. Touted as something positive, this, however, raises concerns about governance – particularly that Cabinet, in its push for collective decision-making, is bogged down in process and protocol rather than substance.

An urgent review of Cabinet processes was needed to ensure responsiveness in governance. Instead, the usual official response to sidestep a problem was followed – a new structure, the NCCC, was established.

Alongside the briefings without qualitative interrogation, which are an attempt to control the optics, the NCCC has become officialdom’s chief tool during this State of Disaster to push an official narrative of progress.

It has shifted governance in a constitutional democracy, in which accountability, openness and responsiveness are supposed to be foundational values.

During the State of Disaster, significant aspects of people’s lives were shaped by ministerial directives and regulations – the curfew continued to limit movement for those without permits, for instance. These directives and regulations, unlike legislation, do not require consultation or public participation.

Rarely over the past year have Cabinet statements referred to recommendations by the NCCC. The statements of the Cabinet meetings of 10 and 12 July and 2 December 2020 stand out.

An argument could be made that those traditional Cabinet statements are not needed because the President has made the necessary announcements in his addresses to the nation. But, without those official statements, the trail of executive decision-making is

broken. That’s particularly the case because alongside the NCCC another structure not established in law or regulation, the NatJoints (National Joint Operations and Intelligence Structure) that brings together police, soldiers and spooks, has a central monitoring and advisory role.

As governance has been shifted, the State of Disaster has also turned to a review of economic policy framed by talk of structural reform and reconstruction.

Depicted as a public health emergency with measures to protect lives, protecting livelihoods unfolded in April 2021 with a support package that offered targeted tax relief, temporarily increased some social grants and implemented an expanded Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme through the Unemployment Relief Fund. Many of these relief measures remain in place, at least until April 2021.

Talk of economic recovery and reconstruction, after a series of discussions and consultations within the governing ANC and outside, ultimately led to the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. This was announced in mid-October 2020 by the President in Parliament.

As part of this economic governance and policy shift, the Presidency established special offices on project management, driving the mass public employment and infrastructure projects, and another on investment.

The joint initiative with the National Treasury, Operation Vulindlela, is resolving administrative bottlenecks from water and mining to prospecting permits.

“I have the suspicion the work of the Vulindlela unit will expand … to include additional support in the economic reconstruction and recovery programme and it may just become an example in the state system [of] how to unblock bottlenecks,” was how Finance Minister Tito Mboweni described Operation Vulindlela in his post-Budget briefing on 24 February.

Operation Vulindlela, like the Presidency’s project management and investment offices, does not directly account publicly to, for example, Parliament.

Neither does NatJoints or the NCCC. By contrast, a specific parliamentary committee exists for each minister in Cabinet, the country’s executive decision-maker, as mandated by the Constitution.

During the State of Disaster, significant aspects of people’s lives were shaped by ministerial directives and regulations – the curfew continued to limit movement for those without permits, for instance. These directives and regulations, unlike legislation, do not require consultation or public participation.

As a responsible government we consider it critical that we continue to have all options at our disposal should any of these prove necessary to combat the pandemic.

Though “the NCCC decides” was ditched from the presidential addresses, also ditched were regulations banning the in-store sales of hot cooked chicken or of open-toed shoes and T-shirts in the wake of public derision.

Saturday 13 March marks Lockdown Day 352 in the year-long State of Disaster. What has remained in place are measures like the curfew, whereas booze bans, alongside restrictions on alcohol sales, have come and gone over the past year.

The ban on tobacco sales was ultimately lifted. Courts found it unconstitutional and inconsistent with the National Disaster Act. But like other State of Disaster court challenges, government is also appealing this judgment.

“As a responsible government we consider it critical that we continue to have all options at our disposal should any of these prove necessary to combat the pandemic,” said Ramaphosa in response to a recent DA parliamentary question, adding that his administration’s action was “entirely justifiable”.

Governance justifiability stands in contrast to governance shakiness, including in an area such as the economy.

Despite a series of agreements in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), ahead of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, movement on a clear scarce-skills visa regime or independent power producers’ Bid Window 5 remain outstanding. The agreed auction spectrum, key to broadband rollout, was moved from December 2020 to March 2021 – and now is tied up in the courts over how it has been conceptualised.

Covid-19 vaccinations, central to reaching population immunity levels, may well prove to be another area of concern.

After controversies over pricing and budgeting, in early March the government started to manage down its previously stated target of vaccinating 1.2 million healthcare workers by the end of March, ahead of a third Covid-19 wave. That target would now be 700,000, according to Bloomberg.

South Africa received a total of 160,000 vaccine doses, but inoculations seemed to stall after 101,573 healthcare workers were vaccinated by 6 March, just over two weeks after Ramaphosa joined the first recipients at the Khayelitsha District Hospital on 17 February 2021.

In his Q&A in the House on Wednesday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize blamed vaccine supply challenges for not hitting government’s self-stated targets. More vaccines were expected in April, May and June, which would allow an escalation of vaccinations.

“We will do everything to target as many people as possible by the end of the year,” Mkhize said as MPs repeatedly turned to numbers and timeframes. The health minister stayed on message: “Our target will remain [that] we vaccinate as many people as possible.”

If this is what happens in one of government’s top priorities – “defeating the coronavirus pandemic”, as Ramaphosa put it in his 11 February State of the Nation Address – governance capacity and capability are in doubt, even with the claimed focus of the NCCC.

Managing down vaccine expectations, alongside scandals like the personal protective equipment tender corruption that benefited the politically connected, further fractures public trust.

The impact of Covid-19 on South Africa has been devastating. On the health front, the ripple effect of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions has already been felt in the officially acknowledged decline in collections of HIV, TB and diabetes chronic medication, and the impact of deferred surgeries on both patients and health institutions.

Social Development call centres are unable to assist social grant beneficiaries who instead queue in all weathers at Sassa offices countrywide. Queues also form at police stations, labour offices, Home Affairs and elsewhere.

Also, Covid-19 mortality rates could be up to three times higher, given the Medical Research Council’s excess deaths statistics, which show the difference in natural deaths expected before the pandemic.

Hunger is on the rise, according to research by the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile survey (Nids-Cram).

Joblessness has hit unprecedented levels: 42.6%, on the broad definition that includes those too disheartened to even try to find work. Research indicates a net loss of 700,000 to 1.3 million jobs during the State of Disaster. Given that one worker on average supports four to eight people, the loss of one job has significant impact.

On the economic front, the 7% economic contraction is marginally better than the forecast 7.2%. But debt looms over South Africa: effectively one in every five tax rands goes to debt repayment. By all accounts, business confidence remains tepid.

On the social front, amid deepening inequality, the State of Disaster regulations contributed to criminalisation. By 18 February 2021, according to Police Minister Bheki Cele’s recent parliamentary response, 401,850 people had been arrested for contravening State of Disaster regulations. Of those, 39,714 people paid admission-of-guilt fines and so picked up criminal records that will hang over them for the rest of their lives.

Cele’s parliamentary reply does not detail the contraventions – the parliamentary question had not requested this – but the State of Disaster regulation breaches could be as simple as not wearing a mask or being outside one’s home during curfew (and not for medical and security emergencies or with a permit).

State of Disaster police actions are under scrutiny. Legal action has been taken by a father arrested for rushing to a local hospital to get baby formula, and the water-bombing of grant applicants at the Bellville, Cape Town, South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) offices by police is now under investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, according to a parliamentary reply.

Social Development call centres are unable to assist social grant beneficiaries who instead queue in all weathers at Sassa offices countrywide. Queues also form at police stations, labour offices, Home Affairs and elsewhere.

Government across the board is struggling to provide services as the State of Disaster, renewed monthly, has become normalised.

South Africa today is poorer and more unequal than it was this time last year. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]


Marianne Merten

Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

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