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It’s not about sale of smokes

The Western Cape and the national government say they are not at loggerheads in the fight against Covid-19, even though the province has appeared to be out of step with directives from the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

On a daily basis, the Western Cape releases its confirmed Covid-19 cases several hours before the national health department presents its figures. There is often a discrepancy between the two sets of numbers.

The province — the only one not run by the ANC but by the Democratic Alliance — has also sought clarity from the national level regarding lockdown regulations, in particular the sale of products deemed not essential and which industries are allowed to keep working.

Last week the national government’s task team stubbed out the hopes of smokers after the Western Cape government and the City of Cape Town had issued a joint statement saying that cigarettes and tobacco products could be sold, but only along with other essential items such as groceries.

The national government reacted forcefully, saying the province has no power to amend regulations.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize praised the province for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying: “The work that has been done is actually encouraging. It’s important that they continue the way they’ve been doing it.”

And Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said the province was merely seeking clarity on why some products were allowed to be sold, while others were not.

“The Western Cape government does not have the power to change regulations. From the outset, we have shown our full support to President [Cyril] Ramaphosa for the lockdown and we are doing everything we can to help ensure these regulations are enforced. The regulations are, however, at times vague, and residents across the province are confused about what it means for them. We have tried to help with this interpretation, after consulting our legal team, and SAPS [the South African Police Service]. We have done this only to provide the clarity many people need — so that they can abide by regulations properly. Everyone wants to play their part,” he said in a statement.

The three spheres of government are “negotiating” and testing these regulations, according to Cathy Powell of the University of Cape Town’s constitutional law department. But the national government does not have automatic override over provinces or municipalities who question the regulations, she said.

“National, province, and local government are all meant to work together. Section 146 of the Constitution says that if there are conflicts between national and provincial regulations, they must be treated the same way if there is conflict between national and provincial legislation, which on paper would allow the provincial to prevail unless national legislation meets certain criteria.”

A general view of Long Street, usually one of the busiest and most popular entertainment areas with bars, clubs and restaurants in the city, with a billboard reading Stay Home, in Cape Town on April 3, 2020. – South Africa came under a nationwide lockdown on March 27, 2020, joining other African countries imposing strict curfews and shutdowns in an attempt to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus across the continent. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

This would mean the Western Cape government would have been in its rights to seek clarity on the sale of certain products during the lockdown.

Powell says it’s yet to be tested whether the Disaster Management Act is in step with the Constitution.

Winde said a silver lining to the Covid-19 crisis is that there has been an unprecedented level of co-operation between local, provincial and national government, despite some political differences.

“One thing Covid-19 has done is to get civil society [and] all spheres of government to work together better than before. There are areas where you will disagree and areas where you will move ahead or behind. But we try hard that whatever we do we will work well together,” Winde said in a teleconference media briefing.

“There are phone calls on a daily basis between national ministers and myself, and between our MECs and national ministers. There’s a good working relationship,” he said.

On the reason the Western Cape and national governments often report different numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases, the province’s health department said it’s because the national health department has to wait for data from all nine provinces.

The province’s MEC for health, Dr Keith Cloete, said provincial and national numbers eventually align once audited.

“The arrangement we have is that when all laboratory tests — four private laboratory chains and two that are done by the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) — have a positive test they release that data to us. The understanding is that they will release it at the same time to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. What happens is that there is sometimes lag from what numbers we have and what the NHLS gets from other labs across the country,” he said. “We are all working so that that real-time lag disappears. We can give a guarantee that those are all the correct figures,” he said.

The official opposition in the Western Cape — the ANC — has also pressed the provincial government on whether it will allow Cuban doctors to work in the province to help in the battle against the virus.

Mkhize said last week that doctors from Cuba and China will be coming to South Africa.

Cloete said the provincial health department will have a screening process for all doctors who wish to volunteer their services. “We have undertaken that all health professionals in the province can come and help. So we have a desk where any retired doctor, or anybody who wants to work in our system. That will apply to doctors from Cuba or from anywhere else. Our commitment is to enrol any doctors who want to work in our system,” Cloete said.

There have also been tensions between the national government, and the City of Cape Town over the removal last week of about 500 refugees who had occupied the Greenmarket Square Methodist Church.

The police then transferred them to a site identified by the national department of public works, where they would stay in tents for the duration of the lockdown.

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato said the city was disappointed by the move. “Unfortunately, for reasons that are still unknown to me, the removal of the refugees from the church at Green Market Square carried out by [the] SAPS was premature and did not conform to our agreement in this regard.

“The Wingfield site [in Goodwood] was not yet ready for occupation and [so] the church refugees were moved to the Paint City site [in Bellville] by SAPS without the city’s agreement; that site was also not yet ready. The result is that the accommodation of over 500 persons is not compliant with the applicable Covid-19 regulations and this may well result in a further relocation being required in due course,” Plato said in a statement.

In a joint response, Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille and Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi accused the city of dragging its feet over moving the refugees out of the church.

“The conduct of the officials of the city took place when the country was already under lockdown, requiring swift and decisive action. Indeed, the City of Cape Town showed that it is able to provide the necessary service when it hurriedly erected the tents for the homeless people [in Strandfontein],” the statement said. “In the circumstances, the press statement [by the mayor] is clearly intended to mislead the public about the true state of affairs … The attitude of the City of Cape Town deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms possible. What the country needs in this time of crisis is responsible and visionary leadership and not misguided bickering.”

De Lille is Plato’s predecessor. She was the DA mayor of Cape Town before leaving the party after a bitter spat with its leaders. She formed her own Good Party, winning seats in Parliament and was appointed to Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet after the 2019 general elections.

Meanwhile, Mkhize has commended the work done by the province, which has the second-highest infection rate in the country after Gauteng, in mitigating the spread of Covid-19.

This week, the province rolled out mobile testing and screening facilities and has used data location gathering technology to map out the geographical location of positive cases. The technology also screens neighbours and instructs them to go into isolation if necessary.

“I do support the approach that the province is going to be spreading out testing in areas that are earmarked,” Mkhize said. “We are going to be on the ground, find and discover people who may be infected, which is much better in allowing us to create a strategy to contain it,” he said. “The province is on a good course, and I’m very happy and supportive of the strategy they’ve taken.”

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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