Opinionista Judith February 1 May 2020

The Covid-19 crisis starkly reveals the strengths and weaknesses of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet

This pandemic lays bare much that we have known for a long while about this government, there’s President Cyril Ramaphosa – and then there’s the good, the bad and the mediocre. Ramaphosa, tired as he looks and surely must be, has been Trojan-like throughout, as has Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.

A global pandemic lays bare many things the fragility of human life, of economies and the systems that underpin it. It also lays bare deep inequalities and prejudices within societies, none more so than in South Africa. Burdened by its entrenched inequality, poverty, ever-deepening levels of unemployment, the coronavirus was always going to place an unbearable strain on every sinew of this society.

 A pandemic, therefore, calls for sensible good governance, led by science and for governments to act with empathy, reassurance and clear-eyed vision. It also requires governments to implement whatever measures are needed to deal with the health and economic crises swiftly and decisively.  Intrinsically linked to this is that governments are called upon to communicate effectively and impart salient information with requisite competence.

Looking at this lengthy list, it is almost inevitable that the South African government, given its inherent weaknesses, the levels of corruption specifically at local government level and its almost universal inability to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy would have its weaknesses exposed.

It, therefore, came as no surprise that the suspended Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams had a mindless lunch and thought the rules would not apply to her. Neither should we be surprised at Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu’s slowness in dispensing urgent aid to those in need. She is walking in treacle, it seems.

And we have come to expect Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu to prance around Khayelitsha for a headline while many are without water. On the other hand, the Minister of Employment and Labour, Thulas Nxesi seems to lack the energy for his job. But this is the same man who during the Zuma years tried to convince us that a swimming pool was a fire pool. It’s hard to forget such a gross cover-up for corruption. 

And so if the government is asking people to make extraordinary sacrifices then it is incumbent on them to explain this with repeated clarity and to ensure that there is no “mixed messaging”. It is also incumbent on government not only the President and the Minister of Health to continue ensuring that the balance between our constitutional rights and incursions on them is fair. This is a tricky and delicate balance and not many governments around the world have got it right.

Advice on the virus itself has changed as days go by and as scientists learn more about it. But there is much that is unknown, which makes this a challenge where health, politics and economics collide in the most uncomfortable of ways. It asks a great deal of those who lead us and while we must hold the government to account especially during a time of the national disaster, those claiming that the trade-offs and dilemmas governments face are easy to resolve, are indulging in simplistic thinking.

The situation is thus as difficult to navigate, as it is complex. And the problem in South Africa is that any one of the long list of below-average Cabinet ministers is going to get it wrong.

And some have.

Firstly, President Ramaphosa declared the ban on the sale of cigarettes over in his last address to the country. This week, however, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma declared the ban on the sale of cigarettes reinstated.  This set social media and the Twittersphere alight (if puns are still allowed in lockdown). Ramaphosa was being led by the nose, the Twitter pundits said, Ramaphosa is President in name only, Dlamini Zuma is a stalking horse for Ace Magashule. And so the hysteria ran on.

Perhaps Ramaphosa got ahead of himself and announced the lifting of the “ban” before proper discussion with his ministers? Perhaps there was a discussion and he lost out? The hysteria is decidedly unhelpful and based on very little other than a moment-in-time rant.

But what that – and the other communication of the past week – has underscored, is the need for proper political communication at this time of crisis.

One gets the sense that Ramaphosa needs someone whispering in his ear, an adviser who is able to give him some strategic advice about a “whole of cabinet/National Command Council” communication strategy. How do we say what, and when, should be the most important questions before any briefing.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone who is a David Axelrod to Barack Obama, a George Stephanopolous to Bill Clinton or, heaven forbid, an Alistair Campbell to Tony Blair — or even an Essop Pahad to Thabo Mbeki. Of course, it’s only Donald Trump who keeps his own counsel, such as it is. And we would also not wish a Dominic Cummings on Ramaphosa.

Whether these advisers were good or bad can be debated. But at various points they were the leaders’ “eyes and ears” and honed the communication as carefully as possible. Stephanopolous had to deal with Clinton’s indiscretions and the impeachment saga. But his message on the economy was also always clear — “It’s the economy, stupid!” Axelrod was often Obama’s “lightning rod” during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Campbell’s “We don’t do God” became infamous, as was his dogged defence of the government’s position on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

All these men (and they were men) tried to keep the message and create the narrative. One need not succumb to some of the cynical spin-doctoring of the likes of Campbell to see the value of someone unstintingly expanding the narrative and keeping Ramaphosa and his Cabinet astutely on message in this crisis.

One senses that person is meant to be Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu. But amiable as Mthembu is, he has almost become Rambler-in-Chief at the Covid-19 briefings. Almost, because Dlamini Zuma surely takes that title? Her manner is all-authoritarian, displays very little empathy and her delivery is belaboured, to say the least. It truly is best to tune out and wait for the summary. Every regulation is repeated with very little understanding that there really is no need for constant lecturing. Her Zulu briefings have been met with greater approval yet one does wonder whether speakers of other languages feel left out? Quite simply put, Dlamini Zuma is the worst possible political messenger for this time.

But this does not excuse Mthembu for not giving ministers designated time slots within which they have to complete what they need to say. In the public interest, Dlamini Zuma’s communication should, therefore, be curtailed to essential talking points. It is the stuff of “banana republics” where politicians dominate the airwaves because they can. Television news channels are free, however, to pan away from briefings that lose their utility. The deference to ministerial rambling is unnecessary.

Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel has been better though his repeated use of “our people” is irksome as is his often essentialist approach to the economy and what drives it.

Who will tell these ministers to tune in to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Covid-19 daily briefings to see how it is done? His briefings are on-point, with useful slides accompanying what he says and always delivered with authority and the necessary empathy. He takes a few rounds of questions and then declares the briefings over with typical Italian-American-New Yorker chutzpah. Mthembu could learn from that. There really is no need to subject anyone to media questions that are repetitive and pointless and then the inevitable ministerial repeat.

The Covid-19 crisis has therefore also become a crisis of communication for this government. This can be fixed with the right people fashioning the message which is that there are still valid reasons for asking people to stay home, yet there will be a gradual reopening of the economy. The risk-adjusted approach makes sense and so all communication flowing from that fact should be done with care and attention to detail.

Poor communication is one challenge as is the increasing heavy-handedness and violence on the part of those who are meant to protect us. The Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and the increasingly unaccountable Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula, have much to answer for.

But in the past week, it has been the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane (Kubayi-Ngubane along with Doris Dlakude, were the two senior members of the ANC in Parliament who led the defence of Jacob Zuma in the Nkandla matter. Both were seen painting their nails during the Parliamentary enquiry into Nkandla in 2016) who has made a bad situation worse with her insistence that the Tourism Relief Fund assistance be guided by B-BB Empowerment criteria and Codes. This became the subject of a legal challenge which the Minister won. It was a pity it had to come to that. This is now subject to a legal challenge. The tourism sector contributes 7% to the country’s GDP. Using the blunt instrument of the B-BBEE codes at a time of national disaster when we should be saving every job possible is illogical. This is so especially in a sector where the road to recovery will be long and hard.  It is a position of folly and also mean-spiritedness when the key message of this lockdown should be that we are in this together, black, white, rich and poor. That was at the heart of the President’s message when he announced the lockdown.

The buy-in Ramaphosa received for such a difficult lockdown was always conditional. It is conditional upon social solidarity and government acting in the best interests of all citizens. The court action has now suspended any relief being doled out in the tourism sector and it clearly is an act of folly for Kubayi-Ngubane to oppose litigation during the time of a pandemic. Can a government be so small-minded and so prepared to waste public money to prove a point? Ramaphosa must know that this criterion is unfair and he should instruct Kubayi-Ngubane to withdraw her opposition to the litigation and redraft the criteria for aid in the tourism sector.

It is perhaps helpful to note that Kubayi-Ngubane along with Doris Dlakude were the two senior members of the ANC in Parliament who led the defence of Jacob Zuma in the Nkandla matter. Both were seen painting their nails during the Parliamentary enquiry into Nkandla in 2016. No more needs to be said.

And so this pandemic lays bare much that we have known for a long while about this government, there’s Ramaphosa and then there’s the good, the bad and the mediocre. President Ramaphosa, tired as he looks and surely must be, has been Trojan-like throughout this crisis, as has Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize. Both have mostly communicated clearly and have made a case for the stringent lockdown regulations. They have, mercifully, followed the science.

Many global leaders have been found wanting and one only needs to conjure up the image of Jacob Zuma leading us through this crisis to know how fortunate we are to have Ramaphosa at the helm.

With the lockdown, South Africa is buying time until the level of peak infections inevitably comes our way. At times it is easy to forget this if we do not constantly hold the facts before us.

The irony, of course, is that the pandemic has also shown that South Africa is often so much better than some of those who represent us. And while political leadership is crucial, it is the committed citizens, the democracy activists, the frontline doctors, the scientists, the Samaritans, the educators, the farmers, the workers, the faithful gogos and countless others who will ultimately see us through this pandemic. 

Because despite the complexity of South Africa which at times is overwhelming, messy and confusing, it is always we, the people, who make the way. DM

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