Mr President: You too need to do better to restore our social contract and overcome COVID-19

Dear Mr President,

I do not envy you. As someone who has shouldered the burden of government, I have a deep appreciation for the fact that your job cannot be an easy one, let alone in a year such as the one we have just endured. As Shakespeare famously noted, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

None the less, that burden is currently yours to bear by virtue of the oath you swore. As a citizen of the Republic, I have an obligation to hold you to account for your actions, and those of your government.

I do not say this from an oppositional mindset, or with a view simply to criticise. Indeed, some would say that now is not the time for pointing fingers, especially in an environment where many of your failures, and those of the party you lead, are self-evident.

I agree, in part. Now is the time for all South Africans to take action in the interest of our collective health and work together to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But, I do not believe that the present need for cooperation absolves your government of its failures over the past year.

When you first addressed the nation in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, you asked us to endure restrictions on our freedoms to allow your government time to prepare for the imminent wave of infections. We endured these restrictions in good faith, in the belief that they would be used to prepare our hospitals and equip our frontline workers.

We have now been under lockdown (in varying degrees) for over nine months. During this time, your government did exactly what I warned you against in April after you announced your R500 billion so-called ‘stimulus package’.

Your government failed to prepare our healthcare system, instead using the opportunity to loot COVID-19 relief funding. I warned you – many of us warned you – but still you failed to prevent our worst fears from realising.

More recently, you informed us that South Africa would only be receiving a vaccine in the second quarter of 2021, after your government missed international payment deadlines. It is worth nothing that across the world, including in countries in a similar economic position as ours, the vaccine is already being rolled out.

It is for this reason that when I saw you become emotional on Monday evening and shed a tear, I became angry.

You addressed us as a father scolding his children. I tried to understand your frustration. Like many South Africans, I admit to being lax at times when it came to wearing a mask or practicing social distancing. I did not do so because I question the need for such measures, but simply because the lockdown has been long, and fatigue has settled in. We all long for normality.

I became angry, however, because your tears were not the first to be shed during the lockdown. Many tears have been shed out of despair and desperation by the tens of thousands who have lost loved ones, or the millions more who have lost their livelihoods.

I became angry, because while you were effectively asking us to do better, there appeared to be little recognition of the fact that you too can do better. Seeing your tears, I wondered whether you had similarly shed a tear when members of your party were looting the COVID billions, or when our fellow South Africans were dying because of the near collapse of our public health system after decades of neglect?

As a constitutional democracy, our society depends on a delicate social contract between the government and the public. In exchange for us respecting the rule of law and abiding by the (at times irrational) regulations you impose, we expect you to ensure that public resources are used to the betterment of the many, and not the few.

We expect you to ensure that we have a functional healthcare system, and to procure protective gear for frontline workers, medicines, and the vaccine efficiently and without corruption. In all these aspects you have failed.

When you scolded the nation on Monday night, you effectively accused us of breaching this social contract. You did so, however, without the admission that you too are in the wrong. Fortunately, next year will give voters the opportunity to hold you to account, whether you are willing to admit your faults or not.

Mr President, myself and ActionSA – the party I lead – stand ready to play our part in restoring the social contract. We stand ready to abide by your regulations, even where we don’t necessarily agree with them. We stand ready to serve the public good in the interest of our collective health.

In exchange, I am asking the same of you. Admit where you have erred and work to rectify this. Prosecute the corrupt, recover the looted billions, procure a vaccine without delay, and give our healthcare workers the tools they need to overcome this virus.

Tomorrow marks the last day of 2020. I am personally looking forward to putting this year behind me, and I know that I am not alone in this feeling. I look forward to 2021 in the hope that it will see us emerge from this pandemic. This will only be possible if we both play our parts. I reiterate my commitment, and that of ActionSA, to doing better. I hope for our collective good that you will do the same. If not, let the voters have the final word.

Yours sincerely,

Herman Mashaba