Maverick Citizen


2021: South Africa’s last chance saloon

Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. (Photo: Flickr / GCIS) / President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images) / Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

This is a pivotal year for South Africa. Much will depend on decisions in four areas — vaccines, booze ban, lockdown and national executive decision-making — all important on their own, but also crucial interconnections of governance, policy, politics and, in no small measure, BS.

As the new year essentially continues where 2020 left off, the Covid-19 lockdown, which on Wednesday hits Day 293, has seen the securocrats just able to carry the day. 

It is still bans, curfews and permits. Livelihoods, not so much.

The silence on economic and social relief measures was resounding in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Monday of the new permutation of the lockdown. That silence was widely noted, and Cosatu called for more action.

“The government needs to realise that the Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health tragedy, but also an economic one and therefore must be fought on both fronts. Lives and livelihoods must be saved in equal measure,” said Cosatu in a statement that also pointed out that the complete absence of economic and social relief measures for lockdown-affected workers and businesses was “callous”.

The R350 Covid-19 unemployment grant ends in January. The additional child care grant and pension top-ups ended months ago, as has the Unemployment Insurance Fund Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme, or the UIF Ters.

It’s no secret South Africa’s coffers are running on empty — debt repayments are the fastest-rising Budget item, was Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2020 mantra. An estimated 2.2 million jobs have already been lost, affecting more than 10 million people as one worker, on average, supports five people.

The National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, or NIDS-CRAM, in its September 2020 reports highlighted a “drastic” increase in both adult and child hunger — and South Africa’s economy is expected to contract 8.1%. 

That’s the reality that underlies 2021, no matter the spin, pretty phrases and narratives, or controlled optics.

How this reality further unfolds in 2021 can be measured by action in four areas — vaccine policy, acquisition and dispersal; the booze ban; lockdown restrictions; and how the national executive actually makes decisions in South Africa’s constitutional democracy.


Almost overnight, the government pulled together a vaccine plan, even if on the same day the official announcement was made late on Friday 3 January 2021, the messaging from the ministerial advisory group was that “vaccines are not a silver bullet”. 

The Covid-19 vaccine and the danger of creating false expectations

Coincidentally, that messaging followed a rather robust critique by South Africa’s Eminent Scientists, including several who were relieved of their ministerial advisory group duties when Health Minister Zweli Mkhize shifted things around in September 2020.

Vaccines for South Africa. Now

A plan exists now, but money may still be an issue although it’s understood the February Budget will at least pencil in the R1.8-billion or so needed for the Covax facility vaccines. The focus must now fall on how exactly private medical aid cross-subsidisation of those in the public health system would work. The details would be crucial to track the money through the system.

But already money is causing ructions. Concerns are rising of looting along the lines of the personal protective equipment (PPE) tender corruption that benefited the politically connected and, as tax boss Edward Kieswetter is on public record as saying, those who managed to turn their existing companies like car washes and bakeries into PPE manufacturers.

Covid-19 corruption: Two-thirds of contracts are under investigation

Central to this is the government plans to outsource storage and distribution of vaccines, according to the plan presented to Parliament’s health committee on 7 January 2021, a week after Mkhize’s televised Friday evening Zoom briefing.

In the wake of the PPE corruption scandal, the government has opened PPE contracts to public scrutiny — it’s available on the National Treasury website, but provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng have also released their own data.

The question, however, is if officialdom has learnt the lessons to ensure the Covid-19 vaccination programme remains above claims of malfeasance, while implementation rolls out speedily and effectively.

Booze ban

It’s easy. Banned, and if found at a roadblock confiscated, with the transporter of such State of Disaster contraband maybe arrested, but definitely fined.

But going dry by force does not change the underlying dynamics that alcohol abuse, as any healthcare worker can testify, leads to horrific violence between people, accidents, death and terrifying injury.

The horrific impact of alcohol abuse has been well known for many, many years. The South African Medical Research Council established alcohol abuse cost the economy an estimated 10% to 12% of the 2009 gross domestic product (GDP). In 2015 an average of 74 to 282 adults died every day because of alcohol, according to the Medical Research Council.

In 2016, then trade and industry minister Rob Davies launched the Liquor Amendment Bill that aimed to restrict booze advertising, raise prices, raise the legal drinking age to 21, to limit trading hours and to ensure no pubs, bars or shebeens operated within 100m of a school or a place of worship.

Nothing ever came of this legislative initiative. 

The reality is that if the law had been changed, alongside a strong public health/education campaign, South Africa could have been much, much further down the road in fundamentally changing the dynamics giving rise to high levels of alcohol abuse. The empty Christmas trauma wards of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital — tweeted photos of which received presidential approval — would be a step closer to a reality that signifies fundamental changes in social conduct and values, rather than being an artificial emptiness resulting from prohibition.

Russia, in the space of less than a decade, cut alcohol consumption and related deaths and injuries by upping taxes and thus increasing prices, which were also hiked by raising the alcohol floor price — the higher the alcohol content the higher the minimum price — alongside limiting and regulating alcohol sales hours. According to various reports, life expectancy went up, health improved and the country recorded a notable drop, particularly among teenagers, in crime and violence. 

So it can be done. Healthcare workers will thank everyone, long past the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this requires clear and speedy policy development and implementation and hard and consistent work, not Cabinet (or is it the National Coronavirus Command Council?) teetotallers pushing their personal agendas.

Lockdown levels and risk-adjusted strategy

The long and short of it here is that the government’s risk-adjusted strategy is blown to bits. It has been, pretty much from the start. Released in April 2020, one round of public comments was allowed over about four days, and never again.

It’s policymaking on the hoof. 

This illustrates governance malleability — possibly on the back of the securocrats mobilising in the National Coronavirus Command Council that receives input from NatJoints, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure of police, soldiers and spooks that is not publicly accountable and is not established in law or regulations.

South Africa finds itself in a Level 4 minus-minus or maybe Level 3 plus lockdown with a dash of Level 2. And the current so-called Advanced Level 3 version is a different permutation of what had been called “Adjusted Level 3” of 1 June to 18 August 2020, and is even different to the first take of advanced Level 3 introduced from 29 December 2020, given the land border closures and slightly earlier end to the curfew at 5am, rather than 6am.

According to the government’s risk-adjusted strategy, Level 4 has the booze ban, curfew and all gatherings except funerals prohibited, while Level 3 allows places of accommodation to be opened. Only Level 2 finally allows interprovincial and leisure travel (currently allowed), while still prohibiting all gatherings.

This mix and match approach to lockdown detracts from people taking it seriously. So does the government narrative around the reasons for the lockdown.  

The hard lockdown from 27 March 2020, initially for 21 days to 16 April, but extended by two weeks, was to prepare the health system to withstand the Covid-19 storm. Field hospitals sprang up, even if on many occasions without the required high-flow oxygen or healthcare workers. The army talked much about turning its bases into lasting legacies of the fight against Covid-19.

But like tracking the coronavirus, the hard work of shoring up the health system was not done. 

Although healthcare workers are exhausted after months of unrelenting work, the nurses and doctors who completed their community service year in December 2020 were not deployed, except in the Western Cape. What’s even more nonsensical is that nurses had received government bursaries and in return had signed contracts to work back their study support.

In Gauteng, nurses who had just completed their community service were ready, willing and able to work, but instead were served termination notices. On Tuesday, the Denosa Student Movement staged a sit-in in protest.

“It’s lack of proactivity and lack of leadership,” Denosa Student Movement chairperson Nathaniel Mabelebele told Daily Maverick on Tuesday. He was confident Gauteng needed only a prod to find the money to fully employ the nurses, as this had emerged as the trend in recent years. Ditto KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo where nurses had actually left to find work elsewhere over what Mabelebele described as official “stubbornness”.

With the National Health Insurance a key government policy priority — reiterated also in the governing ANC’s January 8 Statement earlier in January 2021 — serious questions about official ineptitude must be raised if healthcare workers can’t be promptly and properly employed and deployed in a pandemic for which government’s self-set, much-repeated motto is saving lives and livelihoods.

National Coronavirus Command Council

In at least two of Ramaphosa’s earlier addresses to the nation, he spoke of how the “National Coronavirus Command Council decided”. It’s a bit more convoluted now — “Based on the recommendations of the National Coronavirus Command Council, Cabinet has decided…” 

That’s because in May 2020 advocates Nazeer Cassim SC and Erin-Dianne Richards questioned how the National Coronavirus Command Council derived decision-making powers.

The Constitution in section 85 rests executive decision-making in the president, who exercises this executive decision-making authority together with members of the Cabinet.

But a set of parliamentary replies in June 2020 has highlighted the blurring of lines as effectively the whole Cabinet was drafted into the National Coronavirus Command Council. All Cabinet ministers were drafted to the National Coronavirus Command Council because their participation in the Covid-19 national response was crucial, said Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu in his parliamentary reply.

Who is in charge – the NCCC or the Cabinet? Ramaphosa unveils the blurring of democratic practice at the highest level 

But if the whole Cabinet, the constitutional decision-maker, is in the National Coronavirus Command Council, is there really a need for his command council? Or is having a “command council” a nostalgic fancy back to the ANC’s liberation days? 

While Cabinet ministers are accountable to Parliament — publicly — as each portfolio has a parliamentary committee, the National Coronavirus Command Council is not. Yet the council through its recommendations has a key role in governing South Africa (as has the NatJoints — police, soldiers and spooks) and is not established in law or regulation. It’s on public record that NatJoints monitors the Covid-19 lockdown, reports back and makes recommendations alongside the forum of South African Directors-General to the National Coronavirus Command Council.

Ceding control to faceless securocrats and unaccountable governance structures chips away at SA’s constitutional democracy, one broken bit at a time

While Ramaphosa does the verbal somersaults to ensure at least tick-box compliance with the constitutional imperative that Cabinet is the executive decision-maker, senior public servants are less circumspect.

On several occasions, most recently on 12 January 2021 as on 28 December 2020, the Government Communication and Information System talked of “National Coronavirus Command Council media briefing on Covid-19 regulations”. 

Not the Cabinet, not even Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who’s in charge of the State of Disaster declared and renewed monthly since 15 March 2020. No, it’s the National Coronavirus Command Council.

That attitude appears widespread among even senior officials. On Monday, Basic Education Director-General Mathanzima Mweli told a televised media briefing on the marking the 2020 matric exams that his department “reports to the National Coronavirus Command Council every week”. He’s by no means alone.

The dominance of the National Coronavirus Command Council has opened the door to the promotion of personal agendas and ideological persuasions of individuals, rather than what the Cabinet does, according to the Constitution, including implementing laws, developing and implementing national policy and coordinating the functions of state departments and administrations.

On a side note, describing the presidential Covid-19 addresses to the nation as a family meeting is neither cute nor folksy, but part of the deflection of government accountability and transparency.

The one-way communication by which the Presidency can control the optics does not brook questions, and thus not accountability or transparency. Like many others, communications consultant Mabine Seabe quite correctly points out in a family meeting, anyone can ask questions and make suggestions.

Talk with us, not to us, Mr President

On Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced his department would no longer solemnise marriages, issue smart IDs to anyone except matriculants, and not issue passports except for categories of persons who are permitted to travel, as he put it during the televised lockdown briefing. 

Aside from the queues at social grant offices or labour courts without the will or wherewithal to ensure physical distancing and mask wearing, the Home Affairs announcement is an indication of an already weak public administration unravelling further.

Government’s crisis management energy of the initial Covid-19 pandemic weeks is spent. Structures established at the start of the pandemic pandemonium, like the National Coronavirus Command Council, have become fossilised into the routine of governance, blurring the lines of what is constitutional governance and what is not.

It’s not too late, but hard decisions must be taken. Now. This year will be pivotal for South Africa. DM


"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 that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    In recent months it became clear that South Africa is on the verge of a major shift in its political dispensation. The country has slowly but surely turned into a socialist state, hastened by the pandemic, and the establishment of the so-called National Coronavirus Command Council (simply another word for Politburo). Decisions taken by this council, highlighted by its handling of a vaccine, are a-typical communistic in nature. The country’s love affair with Russia, China, and Cuba is well-known, and senior politicians (Zuma, David Mabuza) even fly to Russia and Cuba for to medical attention. Several ministers are members of the SA Communists Party. Even the Government’s so-called health expert, Professor Abdool Karim (remember his “next slide” presentation) has admitted his failure on the vaccine. That whilst other expert scientists, fired by the minister of health in September as advisers, warned the government to invest in a vaccine urgently as late back as June. They did not. Instead, they simply apply more and more restrictions, a-typical of communists. The Command Council, this Government, this president, has failed our country! And to those that believe it will get better, don’t hold your breath. It will gradually get worse. It is already a failed state, where the health system has collapsed, where the economy has collapsed, and where the only one’s better off are Government officials, even if most of that is due to widespread corruption, the norm in the ANC.

    • Peter Holmes says:

      Completely agree with Coen’s assessment. While Marianne Merten’s article is commendable, SA is way past the “last chance saloon” stage. If I had R100 for every article I have read over the past three or for years cautioning that this is SA’s “last chance” to fix things, from corruption to the economy, I’d be a wealthy man!

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      And over the last years there has been a concerted effort by some to TRASH THE DEMOCRATIC OPPOSITION! When I say “some” that includes some heros in THE PRESS! All those little snide remarks about the DA, remember them? If the democratic opposition (not restricted to the DA but not including the “Good Party”!) was more powerfull the anc would have stronger opposition. The strength of an opposition party depends on the number of votes it gets. If YOU don’t vote for the democratic opposition don’t complain!

      • Coen Gous says:

        Glyn, to get votes , you need Black voters, and Afrikaans White votes. The DA has, and still is, loosing both. And that is their own fault, not the voters. They’ve lost the edge, despite good governance in the Western Cape, especially the city of Cape Town. But they are loosing big time in other areas. Many who are critical, including the press, are because of the changes the DA implemented in the last 3 years, including the leaders selected

  • Rob Glenister says:

    It is long past time for Business and the people of SA to take over the economy and dealing with the pandemic. These inept bumblers and self satisfiers are destroying our livelihoods and endangering our lives.

  • JV SL says:

    “AstraZeneca can’t sell Covid-19 vaccines in SA, despite government claims of being in talks for months”……Today News24

  • Cecil van den Bergh says:

    Cry the Beloved Country

  • Sam Shu says:

    Even before the capitalism vs socialism discussion. Even without the corruption, this is sadly a combination of kragdadigheid from the old days combined with complete ineptitude destroying our country.

    This is a great article but i just cannot see who, how or where these hard decisions will be made🥲

  • C Moola says:

    The dangers are clear and present. Our easy default into militaristic language – from the metaphor of “war against coronavirus” to the President’s appearance in fatigues when sending off the SANDF to lockdown support duties to the language of “Coronavirus Command Council” (despite the handy alliteration), can only pre-empt a slide towards militarism in the political sphere. The longer it goes on for the more difficult it will be to claw our way back to civilian mode.

  • Rael Abramowitz Abramowitz says:

    What the President told us on TV has now been interpreted by Nkosazana Zuma as she prefers.

    • Coen Gous says:

      This comment will possibly be banned by DM, but they never tell you why. However, this women really is a insult to people with a I.Q. higher than 100 (about 80% of the population). She speak to people as if they are children age 4 to 6.

      • JV SL says:

        I am a bit surprised your comment was not “moderated”….Perhaps this “moderation” applies only to the discussions about Tramp versus Comrade President Joe Xiden….

  • Darryl van Blerk says:

    There is enough in this analysis to present to a rational court of law to have the opaque and Stalinist NCCC declared unconstitutional and thus illegal. Any takers?

  • Guy Young says:

    The obvious start is to get rid of SAA nobody wants it least of all the South African taxpayers, next but at the same time fire at least 3/4 of the ministers .

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    How does one get this news to all those millions who vote anc without question?

  • Rosemary Duncan says:

    A long chance long gone! Why haven’t there been more outcries in 2020 about the so called National Command Council, I knew then our democracy lost, and useless opposition!

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