Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media during a visit to the Rand Water head office in Johannesburg. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media during a visit to the Rand Water head office in Johannesburg. Picture: GCIS

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You have to feel for President Cyril Ramaphosa. Since he assumed office, all manner of governance failures have really started to bite.

There’s Eskom – unable to keep the lights on, its coal dry, or its balance sheet in the black. The economy is reeling from one ratings agency review to the next as it spins into junk.

SAA has entered a seemingly terminal nosedive, despite the R16.5bn-odd the taxpayer has ploughed into its coffers over a decade. An inert prosecuting authority seems unable to, well, prosecute those who have benefited from the wholesale looting of the state. Business confidence has tanked. The rand has readied itself for a Nomvula Mokonyane-like pick-up. 

And those conditions have been in existence since before the coronavirus reached SA’s shores. Last night health minister Zweli Mkhize announced the number of confirmed infections had risen by 99 in the previous 24 hours to reach 2,605 cases. More disturbing, however, was that the number of Covid-19 deaths had increased by 41%, to 48.

Looked at holistically, Ramaphosa is facing a series of crises that would daunt even the most efficient of multitaskers. 

Into that equation factor in the time he must spend keeping his cabinet in the correct playpen. Executive leadership is usually a team effort. But on this front, Ramaphosa, along with Mkhize and finance minister Tito Mboweni, has been let down badly by some of his counterparts.

First, there was social development minister Lindiwe Zulu’s ill-advised jaunt to Melrose Arch – and the similarly imprudent Instagram video of the event. Back in the heady days preceding lockdown, when we were asked to stay home rather than ordered to do so, Zulu showed scant regard for Ramaphosa’s plea to contain the spread of the coronavirus, instead taking to social media to bewail the strictures of social distancing. For her efforts, she was forced to make a public apology. 

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams found herself the star of a similarly short-sighted Instagram post – this one showing her out on a lockdown lunch, in breach of the regulations. This time there was a public dressing down and two-month suspension (one without pay). With any luck she’ll use her time out to figure out the spectrum rollout her department has been promising for years.

Water minister Lindiwe Sisulu has also taken to social media, and not just to show off the immaculate grooming that should accompany one’s culinary endeavours during lockdown. She’s proudly documenting her efforts to ensure “every corner of Mzansi will have water to help fight the spread of #Covid19inSA, even after the pandemic subsides”. 

All of which would be admirable, were it not for the fact that it’s 26 years into democracy and access to water is a basic right. One would really have hoped that, by now, the water department and its minister wouldn’t be quite so blatant in demanding adulation for getting around to finally doing to its job.

Then there’s cabinet’s perennial manchild, transport minister Fikile Mbalula. Not one to let ignorance stand in the way of hubris, he’s flip-flopped on taxi capacity and protective face masks. And in the midst of the lockdown, he took the social distancing directive to a whole new level by bringing large numbers of people together to highlight the importance of being apart.

These transgressions, while indicative of those ministers’ cavalier attitude to their duties and the public that funds their position, may be relegated to the realm of farce. But defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s hand-waving impotence at the alleged abuse of civilians by members of the defence force speaks to a concerning lack of oversight of one of the most potent levers of state. Police minister Bheki Cele’s exhortations to his forces have been altogether more disconcerting. Just days into lockdown, when the police had been accused of heavy-handed tactics, he was reported as vowing: “Wait until you see more force.” 

And now we are. As of today, the tally of civilian deaths during lockdown, allegedly the result of police action, has reportedly reached at least eight. The police officers using rubber bullets and sjamboks to enforce the lockdown in Hillbrow told reporters from the Mail & Guardian and amaBhungane that they were following orders from “the top”.

Just last weekend Cele, in his crusade to keep South Africans sober, threatened to “destroy the infrastructure where liquor is sold” – itself an illegal act. It underscores that his is a dangerously martial mien – tyranny in a blue coat – that has so far gone unchallenged by the one institution that is supposed to check the executive: parliament.

It’s an argument that constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos makes in this Daily Maverick column.

The danger, says De Vos, is that some believe the heavy-handed tactics of the security forces are warranted in the face of the coronavirus crisis – a more sinister incarnation of the curtain-twitching Karens that bark at the neighbourhood WhatsApp group when a jogger appears. Allowing such abuse now is not only potentially calamitous for accountability of the security forces down the line, it also erodes the public’s willingness to play by the lockdown rules.

And it’s particularly problematic in societies as unequal as ours, which is an argument made by Karl Roberts, Alex Broadbent and Benjamin TH Smart in this article on The Conversation Africa website

Context matters, they say, and in social situations where it is near impossible for individuals to isolate themselves because of the precarity of their existence, the police need to focus on “harm reduction” to give effect to their public-order mandate. It’s about proportionality, communication and the “co-creation of solutions”.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult line to tread. These are extraordinary times, and police forces around the world are finding their way as they go along – some more successfully than others, as Damien Cave and Abdi Lait Dahir show in this New York Times roundup of law enforcement around the globe.

But what the police most definitely don’t need is the inflammatory rhetoric of politicians exhorting them to sacrifice the most sacred of civil liberties in ostensibly safeguarding life. 

As the philosopher Montesquieu argued: “No tyranny is more cruel than that which is practised in the shadow of the law and with the trappings of justice: that is, one would drown the unfortunate by the very plank by which he would hope to be saved.” 

Ultimately, the buck stops with the president. He hired these clowns in the first place. Now it’s up to him to ensure they know the difference between tyranny and the rule of law. 

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM

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