Home Opinion & Features OPINION: Mbalula wades into pandemic with flip-flops

OPINION: Mbalula wades into pandemic with flip-flops

Minister’s incompetence risks the credibility of what mostly has been an excellent government response to the pandemic

IT WAS an open-air coronavirus-incubating session at a crowded Johannesburg taxi rank. Shoulder-to-shoulder with smirking, sinister-looking taxi bosses, the self-styled “Mr Fixit” of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet gave a public demonstration of government resolve in the face of the plague.

Ever since the promulgation of the lockdown regulations, nearly 58 million South Africans have been pleading, to absolutely no avail, for the prohibition on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol to be lifted. Yet when regulations need to be relaxed or abandoned to benefit powerful constituencies that are well connected to the ANC, it’s a different story.

The to-and-fro saga of how many commuters will be allowed to travel in a minibus taxi during the lockdown is a telling example of how the ANC takes important decisions. And, no surprise, it has less to do with the public good than the party’s advantage.

As is often the case, the theory was sound. From the outset, the government had identified the 200 000 taxis, which each day convey about two-thirds of the country’s commuters, as the mode of transport most likely to spread the virus. Consequently, taxis would not be allowed to transport full loads, thus minimising the risk of the passengers infecting one another.

Loading was restricted to 60% of licensed capacity – “anything above that undermines what government is trying to achieve,” said Mr Fixit, who also preens behind the handle “Mr FearFokkol” – which meant that, by questionable arithmetic a 22-seater minibus was restricted to 11 people and a 15-seater to eight.

Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the implementation was cack-handed from the start. Angry over the loss of income from their 24/7 pack-and-stack model, the taxi owners threatened to close down, potentially making impossible the movement of essential services workers. 

The government’s capitulation was quick. On Wednesday afternoon, at the minister’s public huddle in Jozi, Mbalula announced that the legal loading would be eased to 70%. Then, in a slow reveal, the full extent of the climbdown became apparent. Taxis would, however, be allowed to load to full capacity if passengers wore surgical masks or N95 respirators.

His about-turn was greeted with howls of public derision. Was the minister aware what “full capacity” means to the average minibus taxi driver? As the video evidence on social media attests, this can be as many as 26 adults or 58 kids in a single vehicle.

Where would commuters get personal protection gear, if frontline health workers were unable to? If commuters could sit cheek to jowl as long as they wore masks, why could masked joggers not venture forth alone?

By Thursday morning breakfast, Mbalula had U-turned again, now making FearFokkol the owner of more flip-flops than are found in the closet of the average Jeffreys Bay surfer. 

Full-capacity trips were out and it was back to the 70% rule.

Mbalula’s incompetence, of which we have seen previous evidence when he was sport and then police minister, risks the credibility of what mostly has been an excellent government response to the pandemic. In the face of crisis, Ramaphosa acted swiftly and convincingly. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been impressive: competent, calm, and candid.

Generally, public support for the measures, despite the niggles, has been remarkably high. The government must nurture that confidence, not erode it.

It’s not only Cabinet clowns like Mbalula and Small Business Development Minister Khumbuzo Ntshavheni – she of the fiasco of contemplating race-based criteria for assistance to faltering  SMMEs and the sidelining of foreign-owned spaza shops – who are endangering the lockdown’s objectives. There are also the heavy-handed actions of some in the police and military.

We’re barely a third of the way through the lockdown. All our racial and class fault lines are showing increased strain. All our historical tendencies towards state thuggery are surfacing. Ours is a country where economic and physical survival are poised in precarious balance. Things could go spectacularly wrong unless Ramaphosa improves the calibre of governance at this fraught moment.

Maybe it’s time for Fixit to Fokk*f?

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