Cooperative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma has become a de facto prime minister figure in South Africa.
This was clear when she fronted an almost three-hour-long national briefing to explain the country’s move from the drastic Level 5 to extreme Level 4 of lockdown on 29 April.
An anti-tobacco advocate of at least three decades standing, her power is also clear from the continued ban on the sale of cigarettes and tobacco-related products.
President Cyril Ramaphosa suggested on 24 April that cigarette sales would probably be permitted, but that decision was rescinded by the National Coronavirus Command Council which now governs South Africa. On the command council, Dlamini Zuma is now the most influential figure along with Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.
The command council consists of about 20 ministers (of a total of 33 ministers); the representatives of the NatJoints (a security structure comprised of the police, the army and intelligence) headed by the secretary of defence; the directors-general of the 20 departments and it meets almost daily. For more on the NatJoints, read here. Dlamini Zuma derives her de facto role during the Covid-19 crisis from both law and politics.
Dlamini Zuma, as Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), oversees the Disaster Management Act, the umbrella legislation that permits the lockdown. She declared the state of national disaster and now oversees it.
The Risk-Adjusted Strategy Regulations passed on 29 April are indicative of her enormous power. They read: “The Cabinet minister responsible for cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Dlamini-Zuma) upon the recommendation of the Cabinet member responsible for health (Mkhize) and in consultation with Cabinet, declare which of the following alert levels apply, and the extent to which they apply at a national, provincial, metropolitan or district level.”
Dlamini Zuma flips the switch on which levels apply as South Africa tries to stamp down the coronavirus and Covid-19. By 29 April, there were 5,350 confirmed cases since 5 Marchand 103 people had died. The viral curve is now regarded as being in the amplification phase as South Africa moves out of the phase of the calm before the storm.
Between now and September (the month scientists suggest the South African epidemic will peak), Dlamini Zuma is going to be the key political figure. The 71-year-old politician is highly regarded by President Cyril Ramaphosa even though they ran against each other at the party’s Nasrec elective conference in December 2017. The race was tough but never ugly, and she was gracious in defeat. Appointed to Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, she has worked assiduously in the relatively unsexy but important portfolio which largely oversees local government (a mess of a sphere) and the state’s relationship with traditional leaders.
The declaration of a state of national disaster (instead of a state of emergency) has catapulted her into the front seat of political power. The continued booze sale ban is probably influenced by her too, along with Police minister Bheki Cele. In our violent country, 1.8-million people a year are admitted into trauma units with one in two there for inter-personal injury, followed by accidents and then a general category that includes self-harm and other workplace injuries – this translates into 34,615 trauma admissions per week, says Professor Charles Parry, director of the Medical Research Council’s alcohol, tobacco and other drugs unit. In about four in 10 cases, alcohol is a factor in the trauma. Dlamini Zuma, a doctor, noted Parry’s research that trauma unit admissions are down by about 68% in the lockdown, as she explained the extension of the ban during Level 4.
Dlamini Zuma is also responsible for the declaration of a curfew that was not formally regulated under lockdown Level 5 which was supposed to be stricter. In the regulations she passed, it is now established in law as: “Every person is confined to his or her place of residence from 20h00 until 05h00 daily, except where a person has been granted a permit…” The regulations contain bans too like a ban on funeral night vigils, again a hardening of regulations beyond lockdown Level 5. Previously, only the numbers of mourners were restricted but cluster infections spread in the Eastern Cape are shown to have started at funerals. The movement of children regulations has been tightened too.
The regulations bear the hallmarks of a strict politician, a characteristic associated with Dlamini Zuma. At the Amanzimtoti training college, she was a school prefect. As South Africa’s first democratic-era health minister, she oversaw anti-tobacco legislation that is among best practice in the world and Dlamini Zuma went up against the powerful tobacco lobby several times. Big tobacco is threatening legal action against the continued ban (Ramaphosa’s initial support for a lifting of the sales ban could turn up in court as evidence) and Dlamini Zuma is likely to be unmoved. But in a misstep in her campaign to become ANC president, images of her with tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazzotti were published in the Sunday Times, along with allegations that he had funded campaign collateral for her supporters. Dlamini Zuma denied this but acknowledged meetings. Those images flashed across social media as she extended the cigarette sale ban as of 1 May.
No one can doubt Dlamini Zuma’s commitment to her role: she was obviously physically and mentally exhausted as she took the country through what Level 4 would mean. On more than one occasion, she asked South Africans to stop calling the lockdown “draconian” as she attempted to show how this is an important public health battle. That is true, but what was missing was an explanation or rationale for the many of the steps undertaken.
Advocates Nazeer Cassim and Erin Dianne-Richards have now written to the Presidency asking about the constitutional mandate of the national command council, a question that Dlamini Zuma is likely to have to answer. DM