Since the declaration of a State of National Disaster on the 20th of March 2020 and the subsequent implementation of a nation-wide lockdown, in response to the rapid spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in South Africa, government has had to balance the saving of lives and the cost of re-opening the economy, with some praising and others criticising how government has attempted to balance the two. The lack of Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny on the decisions taken by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) has particularly raised concerns. On the 15th of May, the Democratic Alliance (DA) filed constitutional court papers challenging the National Disaster Management Act and the broad powers it gives the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. The DA has accused the NCCC, which is at the centre of decision-making in the government’s response to curbing the spread of COVID-19, of “acting without any checks and balances and writing laws and regulations as they please”. DA Leader John Steenhuisen, at the time expressed that the country has to “blindly trust a body called the National Command Council, a small group of Ministers who do not account to Parliament or anyone else”. The Presidency countered these statements, insisting that there was nothing untoward or illegal about both its establishment and operations – a fair statement given that at the start of the lockdown, no one seemed too bothered to know exactly how many people sit on the NCCC, who they are, the criteria used to select them, and how they arrive at the decisions they take on behalf of over 58-million people.
The African National Congress (ANC) has also been criticised for politicising the relief measures put in place to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on the poor and vulnerable. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has also entered the fray, with its leader, Julius Malema, stating that his party will not be participating in any COVID-19 related consultations called by the President, because the party is of the view that the President uses such consultations to neutralise opposition to the manner in which government is implementing lockdown regulations. This is evidently different to the unified approach and solidarity the ANC government and opposition parties displayed at the start of this pandemic, where a revolt from opposition parties would have been too early of a tactic to play and definitely unfavourable to the eyes of the masses, given the sense of urgency to come up with reasonable and practical approaches to move the country forward. Malema may have a point in his sentiments towards what the ANC is currently doing, but it is also important to remember that no opposition party wants to or should appear to be agreeing the ruling party too much, as this can take away from an opposition party’s footing, relevance and main agenda in this interesting game of politics. It is without a doubt that political parties have found a way to politicise the response to the pandemic with a view on the upcoming elections in 2021, not forgetting that the ANC has in the past been criticised for using government food parcels and social grants as campaign tools. These are items which have now gained attention, being part and parcel of government’s COVID-19 relief package.
The R350 unemployment grant over a period of 6 months, has been welcomed by most, however, questions remain on whether the grant will continue beyond the 6 months period. With more jobs expected to be shed during these tough economic conditions the coronavirus pandemic has brought upon, the unemployment rate is expected to rise to 50%, creating an even bigger need and dependence for this grant. This poses a political conundrum for the ANC, as the fiscus might not be able to accommodate an extended period of the unemployment grant and on the other hand the ceasing of the grant, which might turn those recipients against the ANC and see the opposition, particularly the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) capitalising.
It will also be interesting to see how the political game transforms in the next coming months with new political developments and views coming into the mix. Political parties will need to gradually shift away from the politics of COVID-19 in light of next year’s local elections, and refocus on matters of the heart and issues affecting service delivery, which essentially should be the core of local elections. The Constitutional Courts new ruling, now allowing individuals to contest elections is an interesting twist that will now make the ruling party and opposition parties re-examine their relevance in the eyes of voters. We know that some voters are still sceptical concerning EFF and the way it has approached politics, people still have uncertainties with the DA’s local government policies and approaches, and will force the party to relook its “Cape Town model” of running cities which has been marked with criticism for prioritising suburbs over rural areas and townships. Herman Mashaba with his new party is set to make a come back into politics, however the question is whether or not he will display the same energy and position when he returns. The COVID-19 pandemic does have a sell-by date, and the pressure is on for both the ruling and opposition parties to evolve if they are to stay relevant during COVID-19 and beyond.
Written by Whitney Mathabela