South Africa’s problems only start with the Covid variant

The author is a political commentator and author of “We Have Now Begun Our Descent”.

Judging from his presidency and his response to the pandemic, South African Cyril Ramaphosa is a man who starts off well but struggles to finish.

Three years ago he seemed on the verge of big things. Despite being Nelson Mandela’s preferred successor, he lost an internal party contest and moved into business and made a fortune in the 1990s. In 2017 he returned to politics, won the leadership of the ruling African National Congress, dismissed the scandal-ridden Jacob Zuma and promised a “new tomorrow”. Business confidence rose.

But today, Ramaphosa is faced with a barrage of criticism, political uncertainty and a growing public health crisis. His government is involved in corruption allegations over Covid-19 spending. Friends and enemies alike complain that he is too cautious in implementing urgently needed reforms and that he no longer has a grip on the ANC. The economy is shaky: rating agencies have warned of rising national debt, and power outages occur almost every day. His government’s handling of vaccine procurement and introduction has been chaotic.

That was not the case a year ago. Unlike UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Ramaphosa received praise from the World Health Organization for its early response to a pandemic. He quickly initiated a lockdown and carefully opened in December. Throughout this period, he insisted on the importance of scientific advice while mobilizing business, civil society and the public sector to work with him. Then everything began to unravel.

In December it became clear that South Africa had neither vaccines nor rollout plans when it had them. The “incompetent and cocky” procurement team had not done any business outside of the WHO Covax initiative. As with many other emerging markets, this meant late deliveries. Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, for example, tried to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and acquired 1.5 million doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca push. However, its launch has since been suspended after a study showed it offered limited protection against the 501. V2 variant first identified in South Africa.

To be clear, this suspension was not the government’s fault. Instead, it shows the best part of its scientifically driven coronavirus response. What does contain water, however, are general concerns about the vaccine rollout plan. If the country wanted to vaccinate 40 million people this year, according to government plans announced in January, it would have to vaccinate 150,000 a day for six months and double that for the next six months to feed 67 percent of the population and achieve immunity. That was always unrealistic.

With by far the largest reported number of cases on the continent – nearly 1.5 million confirmed and nearly 47,000 deaths – South Africa is now trying to catch up. Negotiations on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are currently underway. Others to use are the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine and possibly Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm. Even so, the rollout funding is so uncertain that the business has reportedly been pressured to get involved.

This shows Ramaphosa’s biggest problem: the economy. He has failed to relax the rules of business and restructure the cash-guzzling state-owned companies. For ANC opponents, including Zuma boss, he looks weak. The enemies are now planning against him and are planning to table a motion of censure at a party convention later this year – though it’s not clear that it’s legal to do so mid-term.

Ramaphosa became known in the 1990s as chief negotiator for the ANC in democracy and constitutional talks for his ruthless but effective consensus-building. These skills are not shown now. Two more years as ANC president, he can still change things. But time is running out.

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