South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, recently confirmed that schools would be opening for Grades 12 and 7 0n 1 June, after many confusing messages to the public. Since hints of schools reopening were made, there has been a flood of reports of school unreadiness, including reports that the Department’s own set of minimum standards for school reopenings have not been met in some schools. There has been little transparency about what information is informing the decision on schools nor has the department been forthcoming with detailed plans and budgets on how schools that are not ready will be supported.
Motshekga also said caregivers whose children have underlying conditions should disclose the conditions to the school, but did not give details on what would be done to support these learners. The lack of transparency leaves those who are most affected by this decision unable to critically engage with the plan, a plan that’s success is dependent on learners, caregivers, teachers and communities working together.
While there is no doubt that schools cannot remain closed forever, the inability to engage and not being reasoned with makes it difficult to have confidence in the department. Less than 24 hours before children were meant to go back, the minister released a statement saying that the reopening has been postponed to 8 June.
But this lack of transparency is not unique to the Department of Basic Education. It has been a consistent characteristic of the government’s response to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.
Not sharing information with the public is unhelpful and lacks foresight. Transparency generates public trust, because it allows for critical debate on the credibility of decisions being made. And credibility has an impact on adherence and support of measures such as the lockdown. This is particularly important in a context of those who are already poor and vulnerable, “suffering relatively more than the rich for the same benefit to society”, which has been the case with the lockdown, as pointed out by Dr Sean Muller, an academic economist who has been consistently critical of the government’s approach in the absence of transparency.
But over and above that, the lack of transparency reduces people to subjects rather than agents who can meaningfully, critically engage with and inform the measures being put in place and also hold the government accountable on what the measures are meant to achieve. As noted by Kenyan social and political commentator and cartoonist, Patrick Gathara, “democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions”.
It’s also creating space for lobbyists to potentially have sway behind the scenes. Corporate lobby groups such as the tobacco industry have seized on the lack of transparency to further undermine the measures taken by the government, by rightfully questioning the rationality even if not in the interests of public health. This ongoing public spat between government and the industry has proven to be a distraction from far more pressing issues, given the airtime it has received. More recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that under Level 3 lockdown, recognised places of worship can resume services with a maximum of 50 people. In the absence of understanding this turn around, suspicion has been fuelled that the government has caved to the religious lobby groups, possibly at the expense of public health.
According to reports, the government has claimed that it was withholding information to avoid causing panic because it is “not Gospel truth”. This negates the fact that the information is not about certainty, it’s about guiding decision-making; assessing whether measures put in place are actually working and most importantly, ensuring that the information that’s informing the government’s decisions is critically reviewed by people outside of government to build trust.
It also points to a failure to learn from similar crises. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an important lesson from the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002, is that “there are ethical, strategic and public health imperatives that point to the need for transparency in communication of information during a public health emergency”. It goes on to note that transparency “is also an element of procedural fairness in decision-making and priority setting. It is also a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for accountable decision-making and for the promotion of public trust”.
In the absence of transparency that engenders trust and treats people as agents, the government has had to turn to coercion and brute force to enforce some of its decisions. And that’s not the only harm done. In the absence of reasoning about the decisions being made, an environment of suspicion and distrust is fuelled, which can have disastrous consequences for the response to the pandemic, given the importance of public trust for successful public health interventions as learned from Ebola and other health crises.
The Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, has repeatedly invited “’constructive engagement” which is just not possible in the absence of transparency. One way of addressing this is by ensuring all information informing decisions is made publicly available, including on the data free Covid-19 resource portal. And this should be made available before decisions are made, unlike what happened with the release of governments models and projections which were only made public two months into the lockdown. And these should go alongside accessible mechanisms for engagement.
Initially when the government reported deaths, details such as gender, age and underlying conditions were provided, which just stopped being consistently done. But that information should continue to be shared. Recently South Africa’s first person between the ages of 10-19 died of Covid-19 related complications, a few days before schools are supposed to reopen. In the absence of more detailed information, this news has the potential to cause even greater anxiety for caregivers and communities at large.
Government officials should also stop responding defensively to requests for more information, as is the case with their initial response to the Economic Freedom Fighters’ request for a racial breakdown of Covid-19 data. When declining requests for additional information, a rationale should be provided rather than incoherent and disproven claims. Especially given that more information may prove to be useful for accountability and planning reasons. The Minister of Health has since responded to the request in a briefing.
As Arundhati Roy writes, this moment could potentially be “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”, which in this case could be shifting how the government relates to those it is meant to serve. Unfortunately, South Africa’s government seems determined to continue to resist putting people, our trust and agency, as well as transparency and meaningful engagement at the centre of its decision-making — as has been the case for many years now. DM
Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2019 she was announced as an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity. She is also an inaugural Obama Foundation fellow and an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti