On Thursday, 24 June 2021 on my way to work, I listened with horror and disbelief to the spokesperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Vuyani Pambo, on Radio 702’s Clement Manyathela’s show.
According to Pambo, the EFF would be marching to the offices of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) to demand the registration of the Chinese Sinovac and Russian Sputnik vaccines, claiming they both have higher efficacy than the Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Asked whether he was not concerned about their planned march being a Covid-19 superspreader event, he said they would rather die fighting for vaccines. Indeed, the following day the march did take place with large numbers of people in clear defiance of the Covid regulations.
As usual, the authorities did nothing. After all, this was Julius Malema, the untouchable politician.
As he was addressing his supporters, one was struck by the gross inaccuracies in his message. Malema demanded the registration of the Chinese and Russian vaccines. In his usual “Idi Aminian” rant, he also demanded the resignation of Sahpra’s chairperson, Prof Helen Rees, who he accused of having received money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and further accused her husband of being a shareholder in Aspen, the company that will be producing the J&J vaccine in South Africa.
Initially, Malema’s target at Sahpra was its CEO, Dr Boitumelo Semete-Makokotlela, who happens to be an African woman. Then, in a move that betrays the EFF’s racist tendencies, it emerged that Prof Rees was the rightful target. After all, she is a white woman of English descent. Malema gave Rees seven days to resign from Sahpra, failing which he and his supporters would descend on her home.
Malema tends to launch personal attacks and threaten people he dislikes based on their race, gender or political affiliation. Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordan was called all sorts of names based on his race; international relations minister Naledi Pandor was attacked for speaking her “cheap English”, the late Kwezi was insulted and degraded and told that she “enjoyed her stint with Zuma”, and so it goes on. He just seems to get away with it.
How does Sahpra work? Sahpra was formed by the amalgamation of the former Medicines Control Council (MCC) and the Directorate of Radiation Control and derives its mandate from the Medicine and Related Substances Act (Act No 101 of 1965 as amended) as well as the Hazardous Substances Act (Act No 15 of 1973).
It comprises a board chaired by Prof Rees. Board members are chairs of several scientific committees and are experts from our universities and academic hospitals. It has a CEO who leads the operational team. Core to its function is to ensure the registration of safe, efficacious and quality medicinal and other therapeutics for the people of South Africa.
For any product to be registered for use in South Africa, it must successfully go through all scientific committees of Sahpra, a process that cannot be influenced by the board chairperson or the CEO. Sahpra does not solicit manufacturers to apply for registration, but it is the manufacturers who should take the initiative to approach Sahpra by way of an application to register their product, whereupon they complete the necessary application documents and pay the requisite fees.
In the past, when I was a council member for the MCC, funding was provided by the department of health (DoH). It was difficult, as we did not have enough support staff and other things to support the secretariat and hence there was always a backlog in the processing of applications for medicine registration.
Currently, I believe the government has allowed them to keep the application/registration fees and to also do some limited fundraising from not-for-profit organisations. Hence, they raised some funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation specifically to address the backlog. The donation goes directly to Treasury, which then dispenses it to Sahpra as and when they need it for operational purposes to deal with the backlog. Prof Rees wrote about this in the Medical Chronicle.
Is it wrong to receive donations from the Gates Foundation? Absolutely not. The World Health Organization receives donations from it. Bill Gates is the billionaire founder of Microsoft and through his foundation he supports worthy causes all over the world, including on the continent of Africa.
Among these are projects to supply water and treat diseases such as malaria, TB, HIV and so forth. Malema accuses President Cyril Ramaphosa of being a stooge of Western governments. This is unfounded. For example, the whole HIV treatment programme in South Africa is funded by American taxpayers — this started long before Ramaphosa came into government. Indeed, when Donald Trump came into power, he stopped the funding for the ARV programme in South Africa.
One could argue, why should American taxpayers pay for our ARV programme while our greedy politicians are busy stuffing our own taxes into their bottomless pockets? That said, our DoH went begging to the US to reinstate the funding.
In part, Malema’s vitriol against Ramaphosa derives from his own inferiority complex. Malema knows that he is highly unlikely to achieve the same Struggle credentials and credibility that the president has. Besides, unlike Jacob Zuma, Malema knows that Ramaphosa is a thinker who is painstakingly rebuilding law enforcement agencies, and it may well be only a matter of time before Malema is made to account for some of the scandals he is alleged to have been involved in.
If Western governments and foundations stopped supporting worthy projects assisting poor people in South Africa, would the Russians or the Chinese chip in? I doubt this very much, as thus far we have not seen much from BRICS. Instead, the Russians almost sold us nuclear energy for over a trillion rands and were it not former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, we would be in financial ruin by now. The Chinese are in Africa for China’s interests only, and no one else.
Who exactly are Prof Rees and her husband, Dr Fazel Randera? They are among South Africa’s former freedom fighters and stalwarts of our Struggle for liberation. I met them in the late 1980s as a medical student member of an organisation called the National Medical and Dental Association (Namda), led by Cde Dr Diliza Mji and later by former Robben Islander Prof Vuyo Tom.
It was formed as a progressive alternative to the apartheid-aligned Medical Association of South Africa (Masa). Not only did Namda provide a platform for progressive doctors and dentists to air their views, but as part of the mass democratic movement, it crafted a vision and formulated clear policies for a future healthcare system in a free South Africa.
In the trenches, it also provided much-needed support and care for victims of apartheid brutality, provided primary healthcare in rural communities and exposed the damage caused by irresponsible mining and disposing of mining waste near black residential areas, among other activities. It also forged close links with the ANC in exile.
Fazel and Helen were among Namda’s key leaders (it is such a pity that Namda was disbanded after the unbanning of the ANC in the mistaken belief that the ANC health desk would advance the struggle on the health front).
Fazel was later appointed by former president Nelson Mandela as a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was subsequently appointed inspector-general of intelligence services. He practised as a GP in Soweto and his patients included all of South Africa’s post-1994 heads of state, with the exception of President Ramaphosa.
Presently he, with other former Struggle stalwarts, is a campaigner for the new Defend our Democracy movement.
Julius Malema may be forgiven for not knowing this part of our Struggle history as he was a toddler then. Malema and his EFF would be best served spending some time acquainting themselves with the history of our liberation Struggle in South Africa. DM