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June 28, 2021

Africa

SOUTH AFRICA: Pandemic politics

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • On 27 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a return to “Level 4” lockdown restrictions for an initial 14 days in a bid to stem a third Covid-19 wave.
  • While less restrictive than the severest lockdowns of 2020, the pandemic surge and lockdown measures raise concerns about South Africa’s fragile economic recovery, which the government is seeking to bolster via the first significant reform signals in years.
  • Politically, there is little patience for fresh lockdowns as the government’s delayed vaccine rollout faces growing scrutiny and opposition ahead of the October municipal elections.

The latest surge in infections is driven by the Delta variant and has already seen average daily new cases surpass the peak of January’s second wave, particularly in Gauteng. As of 27 June, the seven-day moving average of confirmed cases had surged to 15,083, compared with 11,407 a week earlier. The tightened lockdown measures include an extended night-time curfew (9pm-4am), a ban on all gatherings, the prohibition of alcohol sales, and early school holidays. This time, interprovincial travel has not been banned outright, but travel to and from Gauteng will be restricted to work and commercial trips. Nevertheless, Ramaphosa’s’2.0 version’ of the Level 4 restrictions stops short of 2020’s highly restrictive “Level 4” and “5” lockdowns. At the time, large parts of the economy were effectively shut down. This time, the main economic losers will be the hospitality sector, as well as beverage producers and retailers.

Politicized pandemic management

Politically, there is little acceptance of fresh lockdown measures. The government is increasingly considered to have squandered valuable time in the much-needed vaccine rollout, which faces scrutiny for lacking speed, coherence, and transparency. For instance, the government is accused of prevaricating too long over its vaccine strategy and orders. Initially relying entirely on COVAX, it pivoted away from the scheme over concerns regarding the efficacy of the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine in the context of the then-dominant Beta variant, delaying the start of the rollout. It later ordered 31mn Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and 30mn Pfizer vaccines, but the J&J rollout has faced fresh delays over US regulatory findings, which have forced South Africa to destroy 2mn delivery-ready vaccine doses. Pfizer volumes are arriving in large quantities, but the biggest volumes will only be available in Q3/4.

In response to the delays and shortages, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have staged a large march to criticize the government for failing to contract additional vaccines from Russia and China, and to pressure the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAPHRA) into authorizing the Sputnik V and Sinovac vaccines. The EFF’s stunt was undoubtedly an attempt to position the party ahead of the 27 October municipal elections, though its bully tactics towards SAPHRA and the march’s complete contravention of pandemic protocols may backfire.

Beyond supply, organizational challenges have also hampered the vaccine rollout. While the vaccination rate is increasing, with an average 83,000 shots now applied per day (still far below target), the total vaccination rate had only reached 4.49% of the population as of 25 June. The Electronic Vaccine Data System (EVDS) has had hiccups regarding registration and vaccine allocation; an initial aim of vaccinating people with comorbidities alongside the over-60s was quickly abandoned given verification challenges. Moreover, short opening hours at many public vaccination sites pose added obstacles to vaccination. The Democratic Alliance (DA)-run Western Cape government has also complained that available vaccines could be allocated in higher quantities at the provincial level and thus rolled out more quickly. Although the inoculation of over 60s is far from complete, the government is now fast- tracking the inoculation of teachers, to be followed by police, raising questions about whether public-sector workers are being politically prioritized over the elderly.

Leadership flux at the Department of Health is hardly helping matters. Following the suspension of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize over corruption allegations, the third Covid-19 wave, severe strain on health services, and growing criticism of the delayed vaccine rollout provide the worst possible backdrop to prolong uncertainty at the DoH’s helm. Acting Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane (who also serves as tourism minister) is likely to be a stop- gap appointment, making Ramaphosa’s long-expected cabinet reshuffle all the more urgent.

Reform momentum

While a further tightening of pandemic restrictions will deepen concerns about South Africa’s fragile economic recovery, the Ramaphosa administration has provided the first real reform signals via three major announcements this month. The reform signals are being attributed to Ramaphosa consolidating his position within the ANC, combined with the ever-growing economic necessity. On 11 June, Ramaphosa announced the lifting of the licensing exemption for companies to generate their own power from 1MW to 100MW in a bid to ease South Africa’s crippling power shortages over the medium term. On 12 June, the government announced the sale of a 51% stake in South African Airways (SAA). While financing questions around the deal still seem unresolved, the decision to sell a majority stake is a significant step for a ruling party which has shied away from parastatal privatizations for two decades. Thirdly, on 22 June, Ramaphosa announced that the National Ports Authority (NPA) would become operationally independent of state-owned logistics parastatal Transnet, in a bid to modernize major ports like Durban and concede more terminals to private operators.

Although the announcements are all steps in the right direction, the details of each initiative may be contested. The extent and sustainability of progress will hinge on the details of the forthcoming regulatory exemptions for power producers, the financing of the SAA deal and the details and speed of Transnet’s planned unbundling.

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