Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Fikile Mbalula. Picture: REUTERS
Fikile Mbalula. Picture: REUTERS

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula actually got something right when he gazetted new travel regulations under SA’s “adjusted level 1” lockdown early this week.

It was a rare achievement for someone who often makes headlines for the wrong reasons. 

As of Tuesday, all inflight refreshments (except bottled water) are off the menu on domestic flights. And passengers have been barred from bringing their own cheese and crackers.

It’s an eminently sensible decision. If passengers keep their masks on for the whole two or so hours they’re in the air, they’re less likely to spread the coronavirus to those around them.

Though airlines haven’t been associated with super-spreading events – and various studies point to the efficacy of air filtration systems in planes – there have been reports of transmission on flights, according to the New York Times

But with proper “layering interventions” in place – hand-washing, surface sanitising, masking-wearing – planes could be safer than indoor restaurants, according to a Harvard study cited by the Washington Post.

It is, however, the face-to-face interaction required by inflight services that is problematic, writes the Post’s Shannon McMahon: a whole plane demasking at the same time, cabin crew leaning across passengers to serve refreshments, and increased movement in the aisles that could spread droplets.

So, good on you, “Mr Fix” – for once you got it right.

Of course, domestic leisure travel has been permitted in SA since mid-August, so it’s befuddling that these restrictions should only be considered necessary now, as SA is easing other restrictions. Perhaps corona stayed home for Christmas.

In any event, we’ll be covered for Easter.

Less surprising is that the industry was caught flat-footed by the decision. 

It would have been nice if airlines had been given a heads-up before the notice was gazetted,” Lift CEO Jonathan Ayache told consumer journalist Wendy Knowler. But that lack of consultation – basic decency, even – is entirely in keeping with the government’s approach to its lockdown decisions so far.

Yet, for all that chicken and beef gone to waste, Mbaks couldn’t muster a single social media post – perhaps the most surprising aspect of the whole affair. This, from a man whose Twitter feed is a paean to his own magnificence.

If Fiks didn’t tweet it, did it even happen?

Finding photo ops

It could be that there simply wasn’t a good enough photo-op in the offing. 

This is, after all, the minister who apparently once had the police keep several men tied up next to the tarmac for three hours so he could claim credit for their arrest – for a heinous crime it turned out they didn’t commit.

More likely, Mbaks didn’t tweet about his airline achievement this week because his attention was elsewhere – he spent most of the time putting out social media fires precipitated by his latest tone-deaf Tweet.

After a social media user posted a picture of a crumpled car and pot-holed stretch of road that wouldn’t be amiss in Baghdad – warning she’d almost lost her sister as a result of the state of disrepair – Mbalula’s less than elegant response was: “This is regional road, Province must sort it.”

When taken to task, he became strangely tetchy for a man who once claimed, “you have to have a thick skin and good sense of humour to use social media effectively”.

Mbalula is absolutely correct that regional roads are the domain of the provincial authorities (though with agreement, the national roads agency can intervene). 

And he did alert the Limpopo transport department to the problem (“Please attend to this as u can see the danger it is to the motorists”) – even thanking it publicly for handing off the problem to the provincial public works department and road agency. (Behold, government by Twitter.)

Still, it’s something to see a minister so callously washing his hands of a constituent’s very valid concerns. The Pontius Pilate of SA politics.

To then shrug helplessly at the “many regional roads like this” (reported to him “weekly”, I must add), where “in most instances the funds were embezzled”, and to suggest, “I think we must run a campaign on potholes” ... well, you’d swear he wasn’t actually in government with the clout to do something.

Contrast that with health minister Zweli Mkhize who, after receiving a complaint on Twitter about Tembisa Provincial Tertiary Hospital, quietly asked the health ombudsman to investigate. (In case you missed it, the horrors of the ombudsman’s findings are detailed here.) 

No public performance; no passing the buck; just getting something done.

Acting the part

I’d probably have more sympathy for Mbalula if he behaved more like a minister and less like a five-year-old playing at one. In other words, if he spent half as much time actually fixing his portfolio as he does telling us that he’s doing so.

Take just the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), whose goings-on have been covered thoroughly by James Stent for public interest news agency Ground Up. 

On Wednesday, Mbalula and the Prasa high command were on the carpet before the parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa). It was, it seems, a less than compelling case for competence.

As Stent reports, the minister and the Prasa board can seemingly not agree as to whether the board is quorate or not. (And, if not, Mbalula is in contempt of an August 2020 Western Cape high court order.)

Then there’s the complete inaction on 277 already finalised reports on Prasa from the special investigating unit (Prasa claims to be waiting for the final report in mid-March). This, at an agency with R28bn in irregular expenditure.

Similarly, little has apparently been done to remedy the auditor-general’s concern about vacant positions at the agency. Prasa says it’s waiting for a skills audit to be conducted before it gets to that. Only, it hasn’t even started that process.

There’s also that small issue of a purge of executives in the past month – four of whom have already been reinstated by the Labour Court. (In the case of Nqobile Pearl Muntali, Prasa was flayed for having “misrepresented the true facts at the time of the termination, [which] was not only appalling, but shockingly malicious and inhumane”.)

And, no, we still don’t know if the “tall trains” will be able to run on our rails. Neither, it seems, does Prasa. But we do know – thanks to Stent doing the maths – that we’ve paid about R113m per locomotive for them (against an initial contract price of R50m).

Perhaps if Mr Fix had spent more time on the ground, and less chasing his tail on social media, he’d be able to give a better account of things.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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