The government’s catastrophic handling of the HIV/Aids pandemic in the 1990s cost the country thousands of lives, inflicted enormous pain and suffering, and caused immense harm to the country’s international reputation.
It is now well documented that the actions of then President Thabo Mbeki and his administration’s failure to accept the efficacy of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in mitigating the impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic heaped serious pain on the people of this country.
Fast forward to the controversy over the government’s procrastination and bungling of the Covid-19 vaccine project, it seems no lessons were learnt from the HIV/Aids saga.
Ironically, at the height of the HIV/ Aids controversy, it was the current Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, who chose the side of the people and defied the then national administration’s refusal to roll out a comprehensive ARV programme.
In his position as Premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Mkhize partnered with organs of civil society and international donors to roll out an ARV programme which no doubt saved many lives and triggered a national campaign of defiance.
Today, Mkhize finds himself on the other side of the coin, as he comes under intense pressure and scrutiny over the Covid-19 vaccine project.
Attempts by Mkhize and his slew of advisers to spin the government out of the current predicament has been met with damning criticism.
Central to this criticism is the lack of decisive leadership, transparency and poor communication.
Given the fact that the government had many months to put into place a comprehensive plan for the acquisition of a vaccine and its rollout, the current criticism is well-founded.
However, those critics who are singling out Mkhize and his team for the bungling are being less than economical with the truth. On March 23 last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa put the country into a three-week nationwide lockdown accompanied by severe restrictions.
As the restrictions, in particular the alcohol and tobacco bans, took root, Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and, to some extent, Mkhize became the villains of the nation and were accused of autocratic behaviour and acting unilaterally on the lockdown regulations implemented at that time.
Throughout this unsavoury episode there was a concerted effort to drive a wedge between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ministers. A similar scenario is playing itself out now.
The fact of the matter is that the buck must stop with Ramaphosa.
The bungling associated with the vaccine project cannot simply be put at the doorstep of Mkhize and his team. The decisions made by him would, no doubt, have been done in consultation with Ramaphosa, other members of the Cabinet and the National Coronavirus Command Council.
Ramaphosa is the Commander-in-Chief and must take full responsibility for the current controversy.
Now is the time for Ramaphosa to display the leadership expected from him, rather than allowing Mkhize to face the music alone.
The first step will be to take the nation into his confidence and be completely transparent about the mechanics of the vaccine project. Rather than hiding behind Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) and procurement costs, Ramaphosa needs to put the nation at ease that under his leadership the government does indeed have the interests of its people at heart, rather any other political or commercial agenda.
Anything less will no doubt continue to accelerate speculation of a hidden agenda. The trust deficit between the government and its people is not misplaced.
Until now, the government’s handling of the pandemic has been plagued by mismanagement, the looting of Covid-19 funds, scientific rivalries, and political in-fighting. This, at the expense of the ongoing heroic sacrifices by front-line health workers, teachers, security forces and ordinary citizens.
South Africans have played their own significant role in the development of some of the vaccines.
Consequently, the expectations that South Africa will be high up in the pecking order for the roll-out of such a vaccine were justified.
Participation in these trials should have come with some guaranteed benefits for the people of this country, including preferential pricing and priority access.
As the Covid-19 deaths and infection rates mount, the government has a moral obligation to give the nation a clear direction on its procurement and rollout plan for a vaccine.
Part of this process requires the government to move beyond the closed door engagements with Pharma companies, elite business groupings, and other organisations with vested interests.
History has proven that this country has strong and credible organs of civil society. Until now they have been largely isolated from the decision-making processes related to the government’s response to the pandemic.
The vaccine project is a golden opportunity for the government to correct this major omission. Building trust and confidence among ordinary people about the efficacy of a vaccine as part of the compendium of measures to defeat Covid-19 will require a Herculean effort.
Based on the current trust deficit between the government and its people, organs of civil society have a crucial role to play in any successful rollout of the vaccine project. For the government to succeed in its mission, the inclusion of organs of civil society is non-negotiable.
As the current turbulence is navigated, Ramaphosa must act without fear or favour, and make saving lives his single most important task.
His failure to do so will no doubt saddle him with a tarnished legacy similar to Mbeki’s failure to act in the interest of the people in the fight against HIV/Aids.
* Dr Iqbal Survé is chairman of Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and executive chairman of Independent Media.