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Opposition parties struggle with how to play a Covid-19 role

- William Gumede

South Africa’s opposition parties appear to be confused, chasing shadows or paralysed by the enormity of the Covid-19 crisis.

Opposition parties, are supposed to hold government accountable, offer new ideas on post-Covid-19 economic, political and social reconstruction and act in such a way the public would perceive them to be able to do a better job if they would have been in government. Yet, South Africa’s opposition parties appear to struggle to come to terms over what role they should play in the pandemic engulfing South Africa.  

Some opposition parties, such as the Inkatha Freedom Party, United Democratic Movement and the GOOD party appear to have entirely disappeared from the public scene in the aftermath of Covid-19 crisis.  

At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak the opposition parties started well-enough. Outside parliament the 14 opposition parties issued a joint declaration: “The 14 political parties in our Parliament are standing together, across party political divides, to fight this disease together. We hereby demonstrate practically that we are united as the leaders of our nation to overcome this global crisis facing our country and our people”.

Opposition parties even made innovative proposals then. For example opposition parties proposed that government gave an Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) contribution holiday to employers, allow for Value Added Tax (VAT) refunds and for government to encourage business to propose payment holidays on property loans, business loans and vehicle loans. After that things went peer-shaped for the opposition.

The Economic Freedom Fighters since have supported Madagascar’s untested herbal drink as an “African solution” “cure” for Covid-19. The World Health Organisation has rejected the herbal drink saying ordinary Africans also deserve medicines which have been clinically tested, just like communities in Western or other developing countries.  

EFF leader Julius Malema have also been touting African herbs including the herb commonly known as Umhlonyana in isiZulu, Lengana in Sesotho, Wilde Als in Afrikaans and Artemisia or African Wormwood in English. “Let’s start bottling it nicely because the only thing that we buy from these people is their fancy packaging”, Malema said.

Separately, Malema said South Africans must be defy moving the lockdown to level 3 on 1 June, saying if the EFF was in power, it would keep the lockdown at level 5, even if it means collapsing the economy. “If this white economy collapses, let it collapse”, he said, as if the economy is only made up of white participants, and as if only white, not black people will suffer if the economy collapses.

Economic Freedom Fighters MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi saw a conspiracy in US billionaire Bill Gates offering to help African countries amid the coronavirus outbreak, rather than embracing help to stem the rising Covid-19 tide from overwhelming South African and African health and economic systems.

Ndlozi tweeted: “Nothing qualifies the university drop out Bill Gates to lead debates on vaccines & medical responses to #covid_19 except that he holds shares in BIG pharmaceutical companies. It’s a FACT that Gates is an under educated computer nerd who dropped out of university to become rich!”

The Democratic Alliance attacked Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel for gazetting a list of clothing and related products that could be for sale in retail stores during level 4 lockdown as “frankly mad and seem more at place during the 1980s under the Soviet Union than they do in a democracy like SA”.

Patel defended the clothing regulations saying they were requested by industry bodies and was aimed at pushing SA-made products to boost the local manufacturing and retail sector. The clothing industry bodies supported Patel. The National Clothing Retail Federation (NCRF), the industry body which include Mr Price, Pick n Pay clothing and Queenspark, and the Apparel and Textiles Association of SA (Atasa) supported the gazetted regulations for their potential “to ensure a form of social and economic recovery by many distressed companies in the sector”.

In holding government accountable, the opposition, should try to articulate realistic alternative policies for governing the country, which means they have to promote the interests of, and be relevant to the wider population. Off course, an opposition party, may decide it wants to remain small, and would rather just play a minimal watchdog role and only focus on the interests of a small core constituency, or alternatively just criticise government for the sake of it, just to get attention, with no intentions of wanting to be taken seriously as a possible government-in waiting.

Nevertheless, the opposition should ensure the sitting government make decisions in a transparent, rational and fair way. And get government to explain the reasons for coming to certain decisions. As a case in point, there has been very little rational explanation from government why tobacco and alcohol could not be sold during level 5 and 4 lockdowns and why e-commerce was not allowed.

Currently there has been no parliamentary oversight or even debate of the Disaster Management Act or the declared state of emergency, which gives the government extensive powers, nevertheless, opposition parties can still do so in parliament. They have not done so.

The DA and the Freedom Plus (FF+) did say they were planning to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of some lockdown regulations.

The government has reopened schools, yet with no readiness plan, given that social distance in public transport and schools are almost impossible, that many public schools do not have basic amenities such as working toilets and that pupils, if infected, will in turn infect vulnerable family members at home.

Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa movement had petitioned the Constitutional Court to challenge government’s decision to reopen schools, but the court dismissed the application.

The opposition should hold government accountable to ensuring that human rights, freedom of expression and equal treatment is respected during the implementation of the lockdown. They must make certain that food gets to the poor on time; that the unemployed can access Covid-19 social grant quickly and easily without red tape; that distress businesses can get help quickly and fairly from the R500bn Covid-19 fund.

They should insist civil society organisations to get funding from the R500bn Covid-19 fund, which is not currently the case. They should safeguard against corruption, mismanagement and waste of Covid-19 funding; and watch over Covid-19 funding to ensure it is given to struggling businesses based on merit, fairness and common sense.

They should push for government to partner with civil society and business to deliver public services during Covid-19 crisis; and to advocate for the public and private health sector partner to share resources, expertise and services to combat Covid-19, which is not currently the case.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in the Daily Dispatch.