COVID-19 and South Africa: Dissonance between national and provincial strategies

Lungisile Ntsebeza is Emeritus Professor of African Studies and Sociology, Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. Prof. Ntsebeza received an honorary doctorate from Leiden University on 7 February 2020.


South Africa’s strategy to bring the coronavirus under control continues to be hailed as world class. According to Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, it is based on preparations, primary prevention, lockdown and enhanced surveillance. However, recent events involving patients infected with the coronavirus in the Chris Hani District municipality area of the Eastern Cape Province raise worrying questions about the ability of this province to deal effectively with the pandemic.
Key to the problem is a lack of transparency and the marginalization of citizens in decision-making processes, against a backdrop of corruption allegations in both the provincial and local government spheres. Decisive and urgent action is needed at the highest level of government to ensure that the achievements made under the formidable leadership of the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, and his team are not undermined.
Controversy in Cala
On 15 April, the citizens of the small town of Cala and Cala Reserve, a village on the outskirts of Cala, learned that patients who were infected with the coronavirus were accommodated at Mioca Lodge in the village. Both the town and village fall under the Sakhisizwe Municipality in the Eastern Cape. Some residents had formed the Sakhisizwe Civil Society Structures Forum (the Forum) in mid-2018 to scrutinize the municipality on issues of transparency and to ensure the involvement of civil society in the municipality’s decision-making process.

The news about the lodge was met with immediate concern. It turned out that the citizens of Cala Reserve and Cala had not been consulted about these plans. Consequently, members of the Forum wrote a letter to the Eastern Cape Province Executive expressing their concerns. The key issue raised in the letter was the lack of involvement of residents in the decision-making process that led to the transfer of patients to the Mioca Lodge. The Forum also raised questions about the suitability of the lodge to hold patients and the readiness of the Sakhisizwe Municipality to control the disease in the event of an outbreak.

By noon on 16 April, the letter had been unanimously endorsed by affiliates of the Forum. It was emailed to the Eastern Cape Executive and targeted local, provincial, and national government departments. The letter was also posted on the website and Facebook page of CALUSA, a key affiliate of the Forum.

A political tweet
The letter was picked up by General Bantu Holomisa, the leader of the United Democratic Movement (UDM). He tweeted in the evening of 16 April:

#ComradesInCorruption are at it again. Sakhisizwe Civil Society Structures Forum gravely concerned about the EC Provincial Executive’s decision to quarantine 18 suspected #COVID-19 patients in #MiocaLodge, #Cala. This lodge is owned by MEC Weziwe Tikana-Gxhotiwe. Makagxothwe!
By linking the lodge to the Member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Transport in the Eastern Cape Province and Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC Women’s League, Mrs Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, Holomisa politicized the letter, using it to expose corruption within the ANC, and made clear that the MEC must be fired for corruption.

“Brazen corruption”
In fact, Mioca Lodge is widely known to be owned by Tikana, although the official documents are registered in the name of her daughter, Kwakhanya. This did not stop Holomisa from pointing out the conflict of interest - that Tikana would receive government money for the lodge being requisitioned for corona patients. He referred to the whole saga as “brazen corruption”.

The villagers of Cala Reserve and neighbouring settlements were mobilized and went to the police station on 17 April to register their objection to patients being brought to the lodge without their consultation and consent. The upshot of these actions was that by the afternoon of 17 April, two days after the patients were brought to Mioca Lodge, they were hastily moved to Glen Grey Hospital in the neighbouring town of Lady Frere. 

The Eastern Cape government’s response to this fiasco revealed two things. First, that the province was ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic and, secondly, that the leadership of the province is still committed to its familiar practice of covering-up rather than investigating allegations made against “comrades”.

Ill-prepared for a pandemic?
As the first case of coronavirus was reported in KwaZulu Natal in early March 2020, the Daily Dispatch of 6 March reported that the Eastern Cape Department of Health “activated provincial and district outbreak response teams to deal with any further spread of the virus.” The Department spokesperson, Sizwe Kupelo, gave assurances that these teams would monitor the situation closely and respond where required, urging people not to panic. “We are ready to deal with this situation”, he stated.

But it became clear during a press conference with the MEC for Health, Ms Sindiswa Gomba, that the province was far from prepared to deal with the pandemic. A reporter wanted to know why a lodge associated with a politically connected person was chosen as a quarantine site. MEC Gomba’s response was shocking: “As the Department of Health, we heard the story equally as you heard it”. She told journalists that she had been completely unaware of the quarantine site.

All the MEC could say was that Ntombizanele Koni, the mayor of Emahlahleni Municipality, another of the Chris Hani District municipalities, had raised concerns about people “who had tested positive” and needed “a quarantine site”. The MEC told Mayor Koni that people “who are quarantined are those you want to test”, implying that those who were already positive did not need to be quarantined. She then explained that she later “found out there was a gap in terms of understanding in that district as to how they would deal with such an issue”. She never elaborated what the gap was other than to state: “The next I know is that people have already been put up”.

In what sounded like an attempt to absolve herself and her department, the MEC mentioned that President Ramaphosa had directed that the Department of Public Works should deal with issues of accommodation and ensure that there was enough space outside of hospital. Mayor Koni pointed out that the MEC of Public Works, Babalo Madikizela, had given approval for the patients be quarantined at Mioca “after several B&Bs in the area refused to quarantine coronavirus patients”.

It is clear from the above that the claim made in early March that the Eastern Cape Province was ready for the pandemic was a publicity stunt, not matched by the reality on the ground. Residents of Cala Reserve remain in the dark as to whether those who were in contact with and treated the patients were ever tested. They fear an outbreak of the virus in their area is inevitable.

Cover-up at the top?
On the same day as the MEC for Health was put in the spotlight, journalists posed similar questions to the Premier of Eastern Cape, Oscar Mabuyane. The premier was on the offensive and openly defended and protected his MEC for Transport, Mrs Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe. In a Daily Dispatch article dated 17 April, the premier accused some B&B owners of refusing to have their establishments used as quarantine sites. He said this resulted in those who had tested positive for COVID-19 being stigmatized. He is reported as having called on business owners and residents in general to be patriotic as South Africa worked towards “flattening the curve”. Indeed, Mabuyane used the controversy as a platform from which to sing the praises of the owner of Mioca Lodge for her willingness to accommodate the patients.

The premier went on to disclose that the lodge accommodated the patients “at no cost to government, until government was able to find an alternative venue for them”. It was the first time that both the issue of free accommodation and the fact that the accommodation was temporary were addressed.

This statement, however, seems to be in conflict with what the registered owner of the Lodge, Kwakhanya Tikana, told journalists. When asked about how much she would be paid, she refused to disclose the amount merely pointing out that the deal was done above board. She told journalists that they should “check with the state”, that she was “running a business and the contract I have with my client is between me and the client”.

On the question of the ownership of the lodge and possible conflict of interest on the part of MEC Tikana-Gxothiwe, the premier reiterated that the lodge was not legally owned by the MEC and absolved her of any blame. He issued a stern warning, that people “must guard against making unfounded and baseless accusations against any individual with no proof and evidence to support such claims”.

It is noteworthy that General Bantu Holomisa had earlier argued that “Bhisho” (the seat of government in the Eastern Cape) should not have appointed Tikana as it was “a clear conflict of interest for the MEC and her family to benefit from doing business with the state”.

Ducking the issue
In none of his responses did the Premier address the issues that were raised in the letter sent by the Sakhisizwe Civil Society Structures Forum. On 19 April, the Forum wrote again to the premier and his Executive, registering their concern that “the statements of the premier and the MEC for Health” did not address the issues and that the Forum “sought clarity” on their letter of 16 April. Apart from the issue of transparency on the processes that led to the transfer of patients to the Mioca Lodge, the Forum reiterated their demand for “an adequate healthcare plan to prevent the spread of the virus”, proof of the readiness of the Sakhisizwe Municipality’s public healthcare system, and sufficient workers to adequately care for COVID-19 patients. They also wanted reassurances that COVID-19 would not spread from the lodge to the surrounding communities.

There is a clear dissonance between the commitment of the National Command Structure monitoring the spread of the virus to transparency, building partnerships, rising above petty party politics and political action that respects and is guided by scientific evidence, on the one hand, and the business as usual approach of the leadership of the Eastern Cape Province, on the other hand. The province appears set on its course of lack of transparency, cover-ups, and sectarianism, in the sense of refusing to work with those not associated with “the movement”. If left unchecked, this attitude could be as infectious as the virus and undermine the important achievements to date in fighting the pandemic.

Watch the webinar 'Citizens’ Action against Corruption in Times of Coronavirus', organised on 27 May 2020 by 'Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation' of Stellenbosch University, in which Prof. Ntsebeza is one of the panelists. 

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.

Also read the blog post by Lungisile Ntsebeza about COVID-19 and its implications for South Africa’s democracy, published on 9 April. Or read the other blog posts dealing with the impact of corona in Africa on the ASCL Africanist Blog.

Photo credits
Top photo: The village of Cala. Photo: Calusa.
Photo left: Isolation Unit Ambulance In Durban South Africa. By Khethukuthula Mbonambi, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Eastern Cape
South Africa

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