Jobs Save Lives are written on the walls of the Spier train station in Stellenbosch to bring awareness to the plight of th​e industry. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Jobs Save Lives are written on the walls of the Spier train station in Stellenbosch to bring awareness to the plight of th​e industry. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

While insiders say that President Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to reopen beaches and allow alcohol to be sold again in the next few days, it may not be in time to save many tourism companies.

They’ve closed the beach, so some days we just come here and get maybe R20, just for survival. It very difficult here, because of [the] lockdown,” one street vendor, Delyn Mera, told news channel Al Jazeera, which broadcast a profile of SA’s crumbling tourism industry over the weekend.

It’s an important counter to the portrait painted by many in the government of how the beach ban — now in its sixth, inexplicable week — really only robbed the idle rich of a tan. The truth, as Al Jazeera showed, is that the ban rippled down to many of the 300,000 people who rely, directly and indirectly, on Cape Town’s brittle tourism sector.

As taxi driver Jack George put it: “No-one can find a job. We taxi drivers can [wait] the whole day [for] maybe one customer — [we] make maybe R100”.

George was interviewed on Long Street in the city centre, traditionally a drawcard for tourists but now looking washed up and forlorn. “To Let” and “For Sale” signs hang miserably over what were once thriving restaurants and bars.

Now it’s true that even without the beach and booze ban, tourist numbers would still be lower, owing to the global pandemic. But the government’s aptitude for self-harming has made the plunge so much more precipitous. An industry which brings $1,2bn into the Western Cape is in dire straits.

This week, the province’s premier, Alan Winde, described the beach ban as “nonsensical”. He said: “It’s not based on good scientific advice, as outdoor areas with good ventilation are safer.” 

Perhaps it is little surprise, then, that SA has now been ranked the second-worst country to live in during the pandemic.

This is according to Covid resilience ranking of 53 countries, compiled by Bloomberg and based on11 indicators, including fatalities, vaccine distribution and “lockdown severity”. It shows where the virus has been handled the most, and least, effectively.

The bad news is that only Mexico is lower on the ranking than SA — which is worse than Colombia, Argentina, Nigeria, Egypt and Brazil, among others. The top countries are New Zealand, Singapore and Australia, buoyed partly by their exceptionally low infection rates.

Interestingly, SA isn’t near the worst on “lockdown severity” — that “honour” belongs to Ireland, Germany and Israel, with countries like China and Bangladesh not far behind.

But what has dragged us to the foot of the table has been our jaw-dropping bungling over vaccines.

On the indicator of “access to Covid vaccines” — measured by the percentage of the population covered by vaccine supply contracts — SA is at just 6%. By contrast, New Zealand is at 247%, and many developing countries outrank us, like India (87%), Brazil (64%) and even Mexico (119%).

And when it comes to vaccine doses given per 100 people (a list headed by Israel, at 38), SA is still at zero. While 18 of the 53 countries are also at zero, some of them —  like New Zealand, Taiwan and Vietnam — have had almost no infections.

So it’s pretty clear that SA can ill-afford to mess up the vaccine rollout any further. And yet the absurdity keeps on growing.

Of foxes and henhouses

In an article in City Press, the government earnestly informed us that a new committee, overseen by deputy president David Mabuza, “has been set up to guard the [vaccine rollout] from possible looters during the procurement and distribution process”.

If the first image that pops into your head is of a salivating fox scouting out a rickety henhouse, you’re not alone.

Mabuza has long been depicted as something of a godfather figure in Mpumalanga’s notoriously corrupt government.

Who can forget the seminal New York Times exposé in August 2018, which reported how “millions of dollars for education have disappeared into a vortex of suspicious spending, shoddy public construction and brazen corruption to fuel [Mabuza’s] political ambitions”? (If you haven’t read it, you absolutely absolutely should, here.)

There are many other accounts too. In December, seasoned journalist Rehana Rossouw released her book Predator Politics, which details Mabuza’s role in a campaign of violence against businessman Fred Daniel. (Read this account of a Daily Maverick webinar about the book, in which Rossouw describes politicians in Mpumalanga “failing upwards”.)

Does the governing ANC really believe this is the right man to take charge of a R24bn vaccine rollout project?

As it is, public trust in SA’s Covid-19 response couldn’t be lower.

Just this week, it emerged that “service providers” had fleeced taxpayers by hugely overcharging Gauteng to “deep clean” schools that didn’t need it. In some cases these companies had scored tenders but, since they couldn’t actually do the work themselves, they’d sub-contracted real cleaning companies for just 10% of what they’d got from the government.

One sub-contractor told the Sunday Times in a report yesterday: “I applied for these contracts myself, thinking that my certification and knowledge would help me win, but instead I was contacted by two service providers asking for my assistance because they did not even know how to begin.”

In Gauteng, service providers were paid between R260,000 and R380,000 per school — more than 70 times the R3,700 spent on average to decontaminate 676 schools in the Western Cape, according to the newspaper.

Or put another way: Gauteng burnt through R431m “cleaning schools”, while the Western Cape used just R2.55m.

In this context, how does Ramaphosa believe that asking Mabuza — a man whom the New York Times said had “siphoned off money from schools and other public services to buy loyalty and amass enormous power” — to oversee our vaccine rollout would increase public trust?

Or is that something he doesn’t really care about?

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