Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga at the Funukukhanya Primary School in Tsakani, Ekhuruleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga at the Funukukhanya Primary School in Tsakani, Ekhuruleni. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

If the blistering indictment delivered by judge Sulet Potterill against one of the government’s most shameful lockdown rules doesn’t spark deep introspection in the halls of political power, nothing will.

In a 54-page ruling in the Pretoria high court on Friday, Potterill found that basic education minister Angie Motshekga and eight provincial education heads had breached their constitutional duty by freezing the school feeding scheme, which feeds 9-million of SA’s 20-million children.

“A more undignified scenario than starvation of a child is unimaginable. The morality of a society is gauged by how it treats its children,” she said. “Hunger is not an issue of charity, but one of justice. The degree of the violation of the constitutional rights is thus egregious.”

It’s yet another devastating ruling laying bare how badly the government has fumbled its role during the lockdown. And it echoed many of the same themes as judge Hans Fabricius’s seminal ruling in May over the failure of the government to hold anyone accountable for the death of Collins Khosa at the hands of the army.

Potterill’s judgment sketched a picture of a government entirely indifferent about the fate of the country’s most vulnerable — a view not helped by Motshekga’s argument that she doesn’t really have a constitutional duty to feed the children anyway.

It was alarming that she fought this case in the first place, given how fundamental the school nutrition programme is to the country’s backbone: it provides food for half of all children in SA, three-quarters of all learners, and a fifth of SA’s total population.

As one parent put it in an affidavit for this case: “When they were fed at school, this was not a worry for me. When my children ask for food it upsets me because I cannot always provide enough.”

But it wasn’t just the apathy that troubled the judge; it was the “untruths” too.

Motshekga tied herself in knots when she tried to argue the programme was being implemented. Said Potterill: “Making such a statement under oath when the common cause facts show the contrary, is surprising and disturbing.”

Elsewhere, seven of the provinces swore that by June 22, all learners would receive food. But actually, by that date, 6-million of the 9-million children remained unfed.

Since the department can’t be relied on to keep its promises, the judge has now ordered there be “judicial supervision” of Motshekga and her MECs, to ensure they implement the feeding scheme — another embarrassing stamp of disapproval.

For a government to have to be ordered by a court to feed starving children is the most shameful moment of the lockdown. Potterill’s ruling stands as an emblem of how President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Covid-19 response has gone depressingly awry.

The silence that speaks a thousand words

It’s not just that the lockdown rules are harsh; equally problematic is that the government doesn’t think it needs to account to its citizens for them either.

On Friday, the SA Medical Research Council finally got the go-ahead to release the models underpinning the alcohol ban — five days after the ban was instituted.

The model itself says: “It is imperative to maintain absolute transparency and inform the public of the rationale behind its decision to reimpose a ban or tighter restrictions.”

Which should be Public Policy 101. Yet, that’s a course it seems Dr Zweli Mkhize wouldn’t pass right now.

As News24’s Kyle Cowan, Azarrah Karrim, and Qaanitah Hunter write, Mkhize has refused to release any of the 70 medical advisories drafted by the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19. These are the advisories on issues like the alcohol ban, and the baffling decision to allow taxis to go back to 100% capacity.

The thing is, the scientists themselves want these released. Prof Marc Mendelson, head of infectious diseases and HIV medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, told News24 that “by making them public, South Africans can, at last, see what the MAC advised and balance the arguments for themselves”.

So why not release them?

One anonymous expert has a theory: “Many decisions are not discussed within the MAC, or go against the MAC advice, and then ministers say this comes from scientists and advisers.”

It does indeed seem plausible that many of the silliest decisions taken by the government weren’t based on the scientific advice, but rather on politics. Releasing the advisories might expose this — and would embarrass Mkhize, co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, and others.

Still, thanks to News24, we soon may be able to decide for ourselves, since the outlet has lodged access to information requests to force Mkhize to release them.

News24, along with the Daily Dispatch, Daily Maverick, The Herald and others, have been at the forefront of reporting about the meltdown in the Eastern Cape hospitals in recent weeks. And yet many people apparently hadn’t noticed, until the BBC got on the job this week, in a report which was as horrifying as all those that preceded it.

Stories like this, this, this and others have shone the focus directly on this national shame.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times reported how a team of doctors spent 12 days visiting hospitals in the province, where “patients have to sleep on hospital floors awash with blood and human faeces”.

Like with the school feeding scheme, the Eastern Cape debacle is the result of a chronic lack of leadership. And by far the most egregious statement came from Eastern Cape health department superintendent-general Thobile Mbengashe.

He told the newspaper: “Services in the Eastern Cape have not collapsed. We are in a good space … we have not done any worse than any other province.”

Actually, Mr Mbengashe, this isn’t true. You have done worse than other provinces. And the fact that you don’t know that means you have no business collecting a salary.

Spare us the misguided matron

Yesterday in City Press, editor Mondli Makhanya wrote of the “cult called the national command council” who “behave like they crave the power that Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and the Congo’s Sassou Nguesso wield in their tinpot dictatorships”.

If you’re looking for evidence of this, look no further than Dlamini Zuma’s statement this week that “it is our responsibility to call the police when we see people with alcohol”.

She’s wrong, of course. You’re allowed to drink alcohol — just not to buy it.

But it has shown her true colours. Dlamini Zuma should be freed to go back to her real calling: as a matron at a stuffy high school, where no smoking, no drinking, and back home by 9pm is at least a proportionate request.

But then, if Dlamini Zuma is acting Iike this, it’s because, as former FM editor Barney Mthombothi wrote, she’s doing whatever she wants, with Ramaphosa reduced to a bystander. “What is the point of Ramaphosa’s presidency? What is its raison d’être? What’s the point of seeking power if you’re unwilling or incapable of using it to tackle issues crying out for attention?” he says.

Lack of leadership is the diagnosis reached by Mcebisi Jonas, writing in yesterday’s Sunday Times. “We are realising, with horror, that our state is not fit to meet the challenge of Covid-19 … the real danger is that alongside the mounting socioeconomic decline, we have just run out of ideas,” he writes.

Jonas’s article is bracing, but excellent. He talks about the countries ruled by populists which have descended into chaos (Brazil, the US, the Philippines) and those passing the stress test, like South Korea, New Zealand, Rwanda, and Ghana.

At its heart, Jonas’s article is a plea — yet another one — for Ramaphosa to please just show a little leadership. At this point, even the barest amount will do.

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, click here.

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