Mpumelelo Mkhabela: If we want to beat this, Ramaphosa must fix his command council

The National Command Council updates the media. (GCIS)
The National Command Council updates the media. (GCIS)

Government’s response is losing support from key influencers and ordinary South Africans. That doesn’t augur well for the fight against the spread of the virus, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

On 18 March President Cyril Ramaphosa met with leaders of political parties represented in Parliament to establish a united national response to Covid-19 devoid of party political differences.

By any measure, the meeting at Tuynhuys, Cape Town, was a success. Even DD Mabuza, our near-invisible deputy president, was visibly present in his usual very, very thoughtful posture.

Unprecedented political unity emerged from the meeting.

Ideological rivals - the DA’s interim leader John Steenhuizen and the EFF’s leader Julius Malema - set aside their respective red and blue colours and pledged support to a truly national, apolitical effort.

They agreed with Ramaphosa on a coordinated way forward.

Ramaphosa went on to read a joint statement, summarising the meeting’s outcomes.

"We hereby demonstrate practically that we are united as the leaders of our nation to overcome this global crisis facing our country and our people," Ramaphosa said.

"Regardless of our political differences, all leaders share a common desire to keep our people safe, to mitigate the impact on our economy, and ensure that the inevitable disruption to lives and livelihoods is reduced."

What was important, he said, was to preserve the lives of South Africans by containing the spread of the virus.

The opposition leaders were invited to the podium where they made statements in support of Ramaphosa.

The meeting was followed by the lockdown - again well-supported by all political parties.

The main opposition parties - the DA, EFF and UDM - didn’t back Ramaphosa only by word of mouth. They raised funds and contributed to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund he later established.

One can argue that it was the highest achievement of Ramaphosa’s consensus leadership. It’s hard to get any form of agreement among our political parties on anything.

But over the past few weeks, the political unity pact has cracked. And with it Ramaphosa’s leadership and political standing.

On the one hand, the EFF believes the government has become lenient and thus risks allowing for a high infection trajectory - arguing for a harder lockdown with strict quarantine measures to be maintained. There is no need to bow to the pressure of capitalists to open the economy.

On the other hand, the DA wants the lockdown to be relaxed and to allow for re-opening of the economy.

This notwithstanding the fact that the only province it governs, the Western Cape, has recorded more than 50 percent of South Africa’s total of known Covid-19 infections.

Other political parties that supported Ramaphosa’s pact but seem not be as resolute as they were initially are Bantu Holomisa’s UDM and Kenneth Meshoe’s ACDP.

The UDM is mourning the death of the aunt of its deputy president Nqabayomzi Kwankwa.

She died under horrendous circumstances including alleged neglect and incompetence displayed by the Eastern Cape health personnel.

This manner of her death raised serious questions about the province’s ability to manage Covid-19.

Meshoe, who had a brush with Covid-19, has been calling on lockdown rules to be amended to allow for churches to open so that it could help the destitute.

He has also questioned the efficacy of the Covid-19 testing mechanisms.

The most visible of the political fractures of the Ramaphosa pact is the political-cum-legal fight the DA is taking to Ramaphosa to downgrade the Western Cape’s lockdown from Level 4 to Level 3 regardless of the infection rate and to reverse some of the lockdown regulations.

The source of the fracture is the haphazard, uncoordinated, inconsistent and irrational manner in which lockdown regulations were decided and implemented by the National Command Council.

Without insisting on a coherent decision-making process - which should signify a centre that is holding - Ramaphosa and his ministers have undermined the national cohesion he sought to inculcate in the beginning.

Now, at the crucial time when we needed him to be strong and focused albeit empathetic in his leadership, he has come across as apologetic and weak.

The trigger of this weakness is the management of the National Command Council. It was established primarily to coordinate government’s Covid-19 response.

It is projecting anything but coordination.

Government’s response is losing support from key influencers and ordinary South Africans. That doesn’t augur well for the fight against the spread of the virus.

If we have to have a good chance of winning the fight, Ramaphosa must immediately revisit the internal workings of the National Command Council and his cabinet.

For the nation to have confidence in the council, he must publish its operational model.

This is very urgent.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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