The National Coronavirus Command Council has been the centre of decision making in government's response to curb the spread of Covid-19 and to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. It has seen a fair share of controversy around decisions taken, such as the continued ban on cigarette sales. Qaanitah Hunter tracked the genesis of the NCCC and how it works.
Meetings of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) can last anywhere between three to six hours. Since the country went into lockdown 43 days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa has been conducting these meetings virtually. The president opens the meetings, which usually happen on Wednesdays and Sundays, with a few remarks - setting the tone of what's to come.
Ramaphosa is described as hands-on as matters are presented before the NCCC. He reads every document, often expresses his dissatisfaction with reports presented to the meeting and will make it abundantly clear if he believes the information presented before the NCCC is flimsy. The president is said to reign in ministers in these meetings and clearly warn them against contradicting each other publicly.
To his aid, is legal advisor Nokukhanya Jele who keeps an eye on the law while other advisors, such as his economic advisor Trudi Makhaya or his health advisor Olive Shisana, join as and when they are called on.
These meetings are strictly confidential and information on how decisions are taken is not made public. This has resulted in widespread criticism of the NCCC and its ability to make far-reaching decisions unchecked.
What is the NCCC?
The country first heard about the NCCC on Sunday, 15 March, when Ramaphosa addressed the nation for the first time on government's response to Covid-19.
In his address, Ramaphosa said that this command council will include, among others, members of the Inter-Ministerial Committee who were dealing with the impact of the coronavirus and "will meet three times a week, to coordinate all aspects of our extraordinary emergency response".
It held its first meeting on 17 March and the meeting was chaired by Ramaphosa.
"The council was established to lead the nation's plan to contain the spread and mitigate the negative impact of the coronavirus," the Presidency said at the time, giving a glimpse into the working of the NCCC.
President Cyril Ramaphosa chairing a virtual meeting of the national command council from his official residence Mahlamba Ndlopfu. The council meets three times per week and assesses the efficacy of the national lockdown that came into effect on Friday 27 March 2020. (Picture: Jairus Mmutle)
How does it work?
It soon emerged that the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints) forms the technical backbone of the NCCC and meets daily to process issues before it submits reports to the NCCC.
NatJoints is co-chaired by the secretary of defence, Dr Sam Gulube, and Lieutenant General Fannie Masemola from the police, and consists of all directors general of government departments.
While the NatJoints is the national coordination structure of the country's security and law enforcement operations, that structure was roped in to coordinate government's daily response to Covid-19.
The director general in the Presidency, Dr Cassius Lubisi, who had resigned from his position but was asked to stay on as a result of the crisis, as well as the acting director general of health Anban Pillay, play an important role in NatJoints, it was explained.
They are said to process reports, including reports from the 30-member panel of experts led by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, and present the Cabinet members with options.
Ramaphosa's spokesperson, Khusela Diko, detailed that at first there were only 19 members of Cabinet who were part of the council. Ramaphosa has since opened it up to all Cabinet members. This could not be independently confirmed by News24.
Why have the NCCC when you have Cabinet?
Diko said Cabinet as a construct is not agile and is not flexible.
"It has very unique rules on how it should conduct its business and how matters are brought before it. The command council therefore is an operational mechanism tasked with coordination and management of the state of disaster. It has no constitutional standing and where any policy decisions need to be made, these are recommended to Cabinet," Diko told News24.
Lubisi took it a step forward in his letter to lawyers who threatened legal action over the NCCC.
"No rules exist to direct the Cabinet on how it organises its work to ensure the best possible co-ordination of its members and ideal means of fulfilling their functions. It makes these choices, for example, in the creation of clusters, such as the economic cluster, made up of those members of Cabinet decided on, and which can change should it deem it necessary. It is this function that informs the creation and dissolution of inter-ministerial committees, set up where a particular matter requires constant co-ordination or unique co-ordination for a specific project," Lubisi wrote.
Is the NCCC allowed to make decisions?
Ramaphosa indicated that the NCCC has been making decisions in two separate addresses to the nation.
"As a consequence, the National Coronavirus Command Council has decided to enforce a nationwide lockdown for 21 days with effect from midnight on Thursday 26 March," Ramaphosa told the public on 23 March.
Thereafter, another meeting of the NCCC was held on 29 March and decisions were taken there too.
"After careful consideration of the available evidence, the National Coronavirus Command Council has decided to extend the nationwide lockdown by a further two weeks beyond the initial 21 days," Ramaphosa subsequently said in his address to the nation on 30 March.
This gave the clearest indication yet that the NCCC was a decision-making body. Later, on 21 April, Ramaphosa addressed the nation, again citing the powers of the NCCC.
"The National Coronavirus Command Council met earlier today and determined that the national coronavirus alert level will be lowered from Level 5 to Level 4 with effect from Friday the 1st of May," Ramaphosa said at the time.
The Presidency has, however, insisted that the NCCC was merely a co-ordinating structure of Cabinet.
Diko relied on the Disaster Management Act which says the minister responsible for the act, which is Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, can declare a state of disaster and can issue regulations and directions in that regard.
Are the records of decisions and deliberations public?
The contention around this structure emerged when government made a U-turn on the sale of tobacco products under Level 4 of the lockdown.
The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) attempted to have minutes of NCCC meetings made public but it was soon made clear that it would not be allowed.
In court papers defending the decision, Dlamini-Zuma gave an indication that what happens in the NCCC stays in the NCCC.
"The NCCC is a structure of Cabinet. The minutes of its meetings are therefore classified ... Further, I am advised and submit that such minutes are privileged from disclosure in legal proceedings, as they are protected by what is known as 'public interest privilege'.
"Not even the Promotion of Access to Information Act ... permits access to Cabinet documents," Dlamini-Zuma said.