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An open letter to Ministers Dlamini Zuma, Patel and Cele 

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By Mike Abel
03 May 2020 0

Mike Abel is regarded as one of South Africa's leading marketing and advertising practitioners. He is the Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and the M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in Africa. He is the former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader in South Africa by both the Financial Mail and Finweek : and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. Married to Sara and with 3 young sons, Mike is a regular speaker, writer and is passionate about politics and contemporary African art. His company is proudly also the home of the phenomenon called The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless. It has gone on to become a global movement providing a free shopping experience for hundreds of thousands of homeless people around the world.

I am desperate for the poorest of our country. They need to return to work so that the horror of poverty and starvation doesn’t dramatically eclipse the potential death toll of Covid-19. At this rate, we may indeed end up with both – as opposed to one. 

(cc President Ramaphosa, Dr Mkhize and all South Africans) 

I write this letter as a committed patriot and someone exponentially more concerned about the plight of the poor, than about myself.

Sadly, some will deliberately choose to judge this letter based purely on the fact that I am a 53-year-old, white male who has done quite well in business. 

The first two I clearly had no choice in, and the last was achieved through nothing other than extremely hard work throughout my 30-year career.

It’s an unfortunate and deeply sad reality that I need to write this paragraph above, but anyone remotely au fait with social media in South Africa knows the huge prejudice that still comes with the demographics of whomever the author is – without weighing up their proven behaviour, actions and bona fides.

So, let me now get to the purpose of this letter, and I ask for the basic right for it to be received as intended – from someone extremely worried about our country and her people. Especially our poorest.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa asked the country to go into a three-week lockdown, we heeded his call. When he asked for another two weeks, we again heeded his call.

This lockdown had only one purpose. To keep people at home while our health services prepared for an onslaught of what this virus may bring in terms of illness and death.

I urge you to reread this purpose because it seems to have been forgotten along the way. Whether deliberately or not, is unclear. But as my mom taught me, “behaviour is truth” and yours is now speaking volumes.

We did not go into a 3+2 week lockdown for it to be extended beyond that point, but just in a different guise. We went into it with the agreement of giving our health services time to prepare. No more. No less.

And yet here we find ourselves, somehow being treated like naughty children and yourselves being our self-appointed parents. You have determined what we can and can’t buy, you have threatened to take us back to Level 5 if we don’t behave and you have overreached in terms of your controls.

Any successful democracy relies on a compact of trust between the government and its citizens. Before Covid, there was very little of this.

The country had endured over 10 years of State Capture and as yet, not one of the perpetrators had gone to jail, yet an entire nation volunteered immediately for lockdown.

Throughout these 10 years, you all protected Jacob Zuma, 100% through every single vote of no confidence to stop this State Capture that has seen over R1-trillion stolen out of our economy, and has led to unprecedented levels of crumbling infrastructure, decimated SOEs and crushing unemployment. 

And yet this virus, and the State of Disaster has somehow given you a sense of moral authority and absolution? Not so. Not remotely. All it has given you is the right to collaborate with the citizens of this democracy to “flatten the curve” over a five-week period.

As of Saturday 2 May, according to Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, South Africa had an infection rate of 0.01% of which 98.1% of those infected are currently surviving the virus. Now, I am not saying this virus cannot be deadly. It certainly can be if you look at the actual (not inaccurate and far higher) projected numbers.

Many, many people have tragically died. Globally, 239,000 so far (116 people in South Africa), and more than 3.3 million people have had the virus of whom 1.05 million are currently on the recovered list. These are the facts.

Now we have a question to ask about the only reason behind the lockdown.

Has our health department successfully used the five weeks of lockdown (at a cost of tens of billions of rand daily to our country and resulting in millions more being unemployed) to prepare for the possible onslaught of Covid-19? And that is in addition to the planeload of Cuban doctors you have brought here?

You have told us what we are and aren’t allowed to buy. Just yesterday a friend of mine was told to put a bra he bought his teenage daughter back on the shelf as it was not approved for purchase. Unfettered E-commerce is the easiest way to have people stay at home and get stuff, but for some illogical and unfathomable reason you have constrained it too.

Our esteemed finance minister (whom I greatly respect) has confessed he supported the freeing up of alcohol and legal cigarette sales, but lost the  argument. Even after our president said cigarettes would be available (I am not a smoker nor are any of my family) you overruled him. Why? What was your motive, Minister Dlamini Zuma?

As regards exercise from 6-9am: another illogical decision. Fifty percent of that time is in darkness as we approach winter. So, instead of thinning the herd over 10 hours of daylight, to enable social distancing, you have shoehorned the country into 90 minutes and then you get angry when there are inevitably big crowds. And of course people, as individuals, will congregate at the popular walking and running spots where they naturally and automatically go. These outcomes are a direct result of the confines and constraints you have deliberately imposed.

Now, I have stated time and time again that I fully supported the five-week lockdown. I have been one of President Ramaphosa’s greatest cheerleaders, I fully support Dr Mkhize and Professor Karim and their teams trying to curb this virus. But let’s not confuse this with an opportunity to change your compact with the citizens of a democratic South Africa. You are not the “ruling party”, but an elected party answerable to the citizens, as governed by our Constitution.

I had great admiration for the giants of the ANC and the moral authority they truly had. The sad passing of Denis Goldberg this past week reminds us. Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs and many others. They held this authority.

You need to use this moment to rebuild trust in the party through impeccable behaviour. Through listening to the citizenry and understanding realities. Through keeping an open mind. Through being approachable and caring.

We are not your naughty children. In fact, quite the reverse. It is us who have paid our taxes and tried our level best to keep the wheels of our country turning over the years the Zupta forces tried to loot it blind. It is you who have to regain our trust – not vice versa.

I am desperate for the poorest of our country. They need to return to work so that the horror of poverty and starvation doesn’t dramatically eclipse the potential death toll of Covid. At this rate, we may indeed end up with both – as opposed to one.

In closing, I repeat, this five-week lockdown was purely to give our health services time to prepare. No more. No less. Understand that fact and work with us to create the best situation, not the worst. DM 

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