Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 3 June 2020

Covid-19 and South Africa: The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

Court challenges, soaring coronavirus infection rates, political squabbling and government indecision are creating a perfect storm which threatens to batter South Africa even further.   

South Africa is approaching a tipping point in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, beyond which the government may find itself standing by quite helplessly and increasingly isolated in the coming months. Following one estimate, the country may reach that tipping point in November, when between 40,000 and 45,000 South Africans are projected to die from Covid-19

We may, then, reach the point that in Melayu is called habis which, directly translated, means “finished” – but when applied to politics, it refers to a moment when everything is so messed up that it can no longer be corrected, and when damage to society can no longer be undone.

Axiomatically speaking, corporate leadership (including government) is a 360 degree practice. In other words, the president, or any head of a country, has to keep their eyes on everything around them. They are at least expected to delegate someone trustworthy and competent to deal with matters away from the centre. As this leadership beams outward, to the periphery, there are, inevitably, “challenges” that are projected to the centre from any point along the circumference. 

The government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is being challenged from the most distant locations to (until recently) the most obscure. Challenges are also coming from hastily assembled formations of vested interests. All the while, the focus on battling the pandemic seems to have loosened government’s management of crime, corruption, maladministration and general lawlessness

The legal challenge

Earlier this week, the Pretoria High Court found that in declaring the State of Disaster to cope with the pandemic, the overwhelming number of regulations were “unconstitutional and invalid”. 

The court sided with Reyno de Beer and his organisation Liberty Fighters Network (LFN). They argued that the regulations failed to satisfy the rationality test as they encroached on the rights guaranteed to citizens in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The court gave government – through Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma – two weeks to fix “deficiencies” in the regulations.

Judge Norman Davis ruled on Tuesday that, “… Their [the regulations’] encroachment on and limitation of rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution are not justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom…”

It was made clear that the lockdown failed the test of rationality – and failed to show a connection to the objective of slowing or limiting the rate of Covid-19 infection. It is not inconceivable that the action brought against Dlamini Zuma may be politically driven, and with a long-term view on land expropriation. The language of the LNF seems to be couched in the language of “fighting for the right to equal justice for all, especially in relation to stopping evictions”, but at the level of perception, they seem not unlike a legal wing of AfriForum. Couched in the language of the battle for justice and equality, their website specifically calls for “economically oppressed South Africans and lawful residents of all different groups as members, in particular inviting the economically oppressed from the white minority to join the struggle against the evil of class differences and inequality”.

Again, at the level of perception, their battle to fight for “lawful residents” could quite easily be extended to the lawful residents of land – vast tracts of which remain in the hands of what the Liberty Fighters Network described as the “white minority”. We will have to wait and see what will happen next, and how precedents that will be set against (current) evictions may be used to protect white land ownership in South Africa.

The infrastructure challenge

As the Covid-19 virus sweeps across South Africa, it is becoming clearer, almost daily, that the country’s hospitals are having difficulties dealing with infected people. One example from the Eastern Cape stands out. At Livingston Hospital in Port Elizabeth, sanitary measures (cleaning and sanitising) in the casualty unit were reportedly not being implemented, while the hospital had to deal with staff and personal protective equipment shortages. Because of these issues, the province’s biggest casualty and emergency unit in the Eastern Cape was shut down on Wednesday. It is especially concerning since the Eastern Cape has overtaken Gauteng as having the second-highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country, with 4,324 cases, 88 deaths and 2,123 recoveries. 

In Cape Town, the Western Cape’s largest hospital is under severe pressure, and has reported a need for more nurses, with many of its ICU beds occupied. The Western Cape accounts for well over half of the national number of coronavirus cases. Groundup reported, almost two weeks ago, that the number of Covid-19 patients at Groote Schuur Hospital was doubling every five days, and that the hospital will not be able to cope unless something is done. 

At the time of reporting on 21 May, the hospital was running seven wards with over 120 Covid-19 patients, and 19 patients in four intensive care units. Three of the wards were for confirmed Covid-19 cases while others were for suspected cases. Also in Cape Town, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is currently treating seven children for Covid-19. This was confirmed by the province’s Health MEC, Nomafrench Mbombo, on Wednesday. By midweek, 30 children – out of 37 tested – had recovered from the virus.

Crime and lawlessness in a pandemic

With the growing number of infections, criminality and lawlessness continues unabated, and political office-bearers continue behaving badly. Projections of infections are frightening. It is as if the virus has not even properly reached South Africa yet.

The release of the projections during an extensive technical briefing with Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and members of several teams producing modelling for government, came after intense criticism over the apparent lack of transparency over the modelling methods and data on the virus. 

Modelling by a consortium of some of the country’s foremost experts would have us believe that  between 40,000 and 45,000 South Africans could die from Covid-19 by November. As things stand, based on reports from around the country, current numbers of ICU beds will be overwhelmed “almost immediately”. 

The total number of cases between now and November is expected to be between 1 and 1.2 million. The National Institute for Communicable Disease confirmed, on 1 June that there were 34,357 infections in the country. In general, there is a projected need for between 20,000 and 35,000 ICU beds over the next six months. While different provinces are expected to peak at different times in the coming weeks – with varying rates of infection and deaths – the national peak infection rate is expected around mid-July to mid-August.

Against this backdrop, the crimes and misdemeanours of South Africans – notably political office-bearers – will not cease. It was reported this week that the National Prosecuting Authority has declined to prosecute two criminal complaints of fraud lodged against Pretoria attorney Lesley Ramulifho in connection with a multimillion-rand Lottery-funded drug rehabilitation centre near Pretoria. More than R20-million – and possibly more – of the total Lottery funding of R27.5-million for the project cannot be accounted for and, almost three years later, construction of the facility is still not complete.

Public lawlessness and recklessness continues unabated. One particularly gruesome minibus taxi accident just outside Cape Town left at least two people dead and 15 seriously injured after the vehicle collided with a lamppost. Police said the driver fled the scene.

Can the centre hold?

All told, the government is facing enormous and unprecedented challenges. While the legal case against the state has been given a rest for two weeks, there seems to be no stopping the virus, crime or lawlessness in the country. It does not help that political office bearers keep getting involved in petty arguments on social media. What all of these do – and the above are merely examples of a very grave national state of affairs – is give impetus to centrifugal forces that pull power and authority away from Pretoria. Combined, these may cause the government to lose focus, destabilising the state, and pulling at the loose ends of an already frayed society. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is unquestionably the clearest and most present danger, but what the courts do next, with respect to the legal challenges from the Liberty Network, may have serious implications for long-term land reform, or, as the populists might put it, “return the land to its rightful owners”.

The challenge for the presidency is this. Does it have a bead on each event along the 360 degrees of states of affairs that abound. Can the centre hold, or have we reached the point of habis? DM

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