Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Ramaphosa's government should explain and explain if it wants to build trust

When the public's perception is that regulations are inexplicable or are motivated by reasons not linked to the intended outcomes, confidence in the government is bound to suffer, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.


There was national unity of purpose at the onset of the battle against Covid-19.

It was remarkable. It engendered national confidence.  

But there is a risk we may be returning to what, for a lack of a better phrase, can be described as confidence-sapping settings typical of our society.  

For the uninitiated, the settings of South Africa include inconsistent policy making, elite mistrust of the government, government-business tensions, racial polarisation, stealing from the poor, economic decline and lack of foresight. 

It might sound cruel to suggest that such a terrible cocktail constitutes our national default setting. We have the agency to change the settings to be in line with our aspirations.  

Right now, the nation is consumed by a debate-cum-mudslinging over whether the government should lift the ban on smoking.

The contradictory statements from the government on a variety of issues - dog walking, jogging and cigarettes - do not help matters.  

Such regulatory uncertainty is avoidable.

The government should provide cogent reasons why the sale of cigarettes could exacerbate the spread of Covid-19 or undermine the national response to contain the pandemic.  

President Cyril Ramaphosa has commendably made a public commitment to be guided by science and the experience of other countries.

Mpumelelo Mkhabela: "We should also take advantage of the crises caused by Covid-19."

So, why not unleash health experts to explain the public or personal health benefits of prohibiting cigarette sales or the dangers of lifting the ban?  

Similarly, the government must show that it has not opened a market for illicit cigarette dealers to displace lawful traders.

If there are valid reasons why certain businesses such as e-commerce or other activities should not be undertaken, the government should explain to minimise the doubt about the credibility of decisions taken.  

Explain, explain and explain, but not for its own sake. Every decision taken must be backed by supporting facts or theoretical assumptions that can stand rational scrutiny. 

When the public's perception is that regulations are inexplicable or are motivated by reasons not linked to the intended outcomes, confidence in the government is bound to suffer. Compliance could weaken.

And costs of enforcement could rise.  

It can't get any worse than when the reversal of a president's public undertaking is announced by a minister. It certainly doesn't look pretty.  

To address this, the government should not try to tackle critics; it must rather change the way it operates internally.

Ramaphosa will have to change the way he presides over his Cabinet. 

coronavirus

President Cyril Ramaphosa (GCIS)
 

Internal coherence in the Cabinet or the National Coronavirus Command Council and dovetailing to Cabinet clusters and other agencies will eventually find expression in consistent and coherent communication.  

We should also take advantage of the crises caused by Covid-19.

This will require innovative thinking. The following case studies illustrate the point.  

Bad leadership: B-BBEE and tourism relief funding  

Trade union Solidarity and Afrikaner civil rights group AfriForum took the government to court to challenge the use of B-BBEE as part of the criteria for small business relief funding.   

Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane defended the decision and won. She argued the emergency funding did not nullify the B-BBEE laws she was obliged to implement.

The High Court agreed with her that not adhering to transformation measures in times of economic crisis could worsen South Africa's race-based economic inequalities.  

The court found white-owned businesses were not disqualified as they could still score good points if they showed they met other requirements and some implemented transformation measures.  

The legal questions the court dealt with are more complex than Judge Jody Kollapen made them to be. He oversimplified the implications of the case.

Anyway, it was always going to be disastrous if he decided either way. What was required in the first place was not a legalistic approach.  

Kubayi-Ngubane should have started by asking business not compliant with empowerment laws whether they had an empowerment plan to comply and whether they could be assisted to do so in the near future.   

She is right that being in disaster mode should not mean the suspension of laws, including transformation laws. At the same time, the emergency situation requires that all South Africans benefit from any form of relief equitably regardless of race.  

However, this does not give businesses a justification or excuse to opt out of transformation as a matter of principle. Which brings me to the type of organisations which are challenging the government.  

Solidarity and AfriForum have been fighting transformation policies for a long time. While their argument had moral appeal because of the Covid-19 disaster, at the heart of their policy is fundamental opposition to transformation policies.  

Kubayi-Ngubane failed to provide leadership.

Nothing stopped her for the purposes of disaster relief funding to adjust the requirements to include plans and commitments to comply. In this way, she could have secured future compliance while providing relief to as many businesses as possible.  

By subjecting disaster relief funding to empowerment requirements, Kubayi-Ngubane wrongly equates a national disaster to a government tender.

Critically, it is the government that ordered businesses to close. And strictly for the purposes of national disaster, the businesses regardless of race complied with the law.

One of the difficulties of implementing the B-BBEE criteria would be the certification.

Has Kubayi-Ngubane considered the fact small businesses will have to provide B-BBEE certificates? Or will her department play the role of a certifier for BEE compliance?  

Conspicuous in its absence in this case is the B-BBEE Commission whose task it was to oversee the implementation of B-BBEE legislation.

Why didn't they ask to join the case to help the court find a solution?

Political leadership failure in this case risks causing unnecessary racial divisions.  

Think out of the box: Taxis and the 70% loading rule 

In one of the many Covid-19 briefings, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula tried to explain the rationale for the regulation allowing for 70% loading for mini-bus taxis.

Taxi operators had complained to him the stringent requirements of less than 70% loading would put them out of business.  

What complicated matters, Mbalula said, was that unlike other sectors that could benefit from the government's business relief measures, the taxi industry was largely informal.

This made it difficult to assist them with government relief funds for businesses.  

Mbalula missed an opportunity to get the taxi industry within full regulatory control.

Had he read Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's growth plan, he would have found a proposal for the formalisation of the taxi industry and bringing it under the subsidy net.  

To secure a subsidy, taxi owners would have to register their businesses as companies, have bank accounts and tax numbers. Taxi operators already need a licence.

The government could target licenced operators to register them as transport companies that could be subsidised.  

Throw in an innovation there; you have an IT-based South African Revenue Services-linked ticketing and payment system that could be instituted across the taxi industry to eradicate the use of hard cash.

This requires thinking out of the proverbial box. It is yet to come. 

Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, inspecting

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula. (Supplied)

One student, one computer and data package 

Wits University has begun a process to issue computers to students who don't already have to resume the academic year wherever they are.

The vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, has provided compelling leadership on this issue to rescue the academic year from collapse or postponement.  

Now, there is no reason why, as part of the Covid-19 relief funding, the government is not making once-off funding allocation to universities to purchase computer packages for all university students in South Africa.  

With proper use of available technological tools, universities should be able to complete the academic year regardless of where students and lecturers are.

It would be better for many students to have an option to continue their studies at home, connecting to live lectures.  

This lockdown period could be used to prepare universities for new ways of knowledge acquisition.

This requires the kind of vision demonstrated by Habib and his colleagues at Wits.

All universities should adopt it and not fall for the response that usually kills innovation: "It's impossible."

Of course it's possible. 

 - Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a former parliamentary correspondent, editor of Sowetan and a political analyst. 

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