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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Politicians like nothing more than a scapegoat to draw attention from their own failings. When something bad happens, it’s always someone else’s fault. Entire communications machineries exist in every government in the world to deflect attention.

Just ask Fikile Mbalula, who, as head of the ANC election campaign, decided to blame the SABC for the party’s dismal performance at the local government elections, in which the ANC’s majority slipped below 50% for the first time since the dawn of the democratic era. Rather than accept that his party has let the vast majority of South Africans down consistently over nearly 28 years, he looked for someone else to blame for the party’s obvious failings.

The British government’s decision, against the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), to immediately ban air travel between the UK and SA set in motion a chain reaction of similar restrictions that will have a devastating impact on the job-critical domestic leisure industry, which was showing signs of recovery. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government sought to achieve herd immunity in the early days of the virus and allowed it to run amok, killing tens of thousands especially in vulnerable old-age homes, is keen not to be blamed should the Omicron variant take hold in the UK (though cases of it have already been reported there).

The B.1.1529 variant, with its “unusual constellation” of new mutations, was first identified by scientists in SA and has once again prejudiced the free movement of people in and out of the country. Scientists say it’s too early to determine the impact of the new variant – whether it is more or less infectious than previous strains, what the risk of death is, or whether current vaccines will remain as effective against it as they have been in the face of earlier variants.

SA found itself the target of global travel bans last year as scientists first identified what became known as the Beta variant, but not before British politicians labelled it “the SA variant”.

No sooner did news of this latest variant break last week than international media organisations were calling it the “SA variant” again, despite the established protocols specifying that each new variant be identified by the next letter in the Greek alphabet, precisely to avoid the stigma it brings.

As the British government appears so keen for SA to take ownership of the variants its scientists identify, might I suggest a little consistency on the issue of ownership of things discovered not just in SA but around the world.

Let’s start with the Cullinan diamond.

If the British government wants us to bear the brunt of the discovery of the latest virus mutations, fine, but we are going to need some financial assistance based on the fact that so many people are going to once again cancel travel plans in what was traditionally the biggest holiday period of the year. We accept that Britain, like most countries in the world, have got itself into more debt than it might have planned to do, so there is no need to deliver a bundle of cash. Just give us back the enormous 530.4ct Great Star of Africa in the Sovereign’s Sceptre and the smaller 317.4ct Second Star of Africa, which is mounted in the Imperial State Crown.

The diamonds are two of the 105 cut from the 3,106.75ct Cullinan diamond found at the Premier No 2 mine at Cullinan, near Pretoria, in January 1905. It failed to sell in London for two years despite huge interest in owning it, so in 1907 the Transvaal Colony government bought it and prime minister Louis Botha presented it to King Edward VII, who had it cut by Joseph Asscher in Amsterdam.

When these two stones are returned, SA might find a market for them among the global elite, which might go some way to offsetting some of the economic damage the knee-jerk travel ban has done.

While the English are about it, they could return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, stolen by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis. And let’s not forget the loot gathered from the burial chamber of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, or even the Rosetta Stone, which helped with the translation of hieroglyphics. They can return these to Egypt, and give the Benin Bronzes back to West Africa. All these are kept in the ironically named “British” Museum.

The big difference between these artefacts and viral outbreaks is that we can prove their country of origin, unlike this particular coronavirus mutation for which SA has been scapegoated.

It sends a dangerous signal to scientists around the world, that rather than being proactive and getting the information out as quickly as possible, some might become cautious for fear of sparking a knee-jerk reaction to the news rather than treat it immediately with the urgency it deserves.

Whitfield is a contributing editor to the FM

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