/ 1 February 2021

Do the ‘lies of the ANC drown out its honesty’? A Covid-19 case study

Anc Conference
The past weekend’s ANC conferences proved a major boost for Ramaphosa presidency of the party


The belief that the national lockdown regulations brought on by Covid-19 do not apply to the ANC governing elite has been gaining momentum among South African citizens. 

From breaking funeral-attendance regulations to hosting rallies, and now booking family members out from Covid-19 facilities and prominent politicians not wearing masks, the past nearly 12 months have been riddled with ANC gaffes.

Political analysts have told the Mail & Guardian that the ANC’s errant behaviour, which seems to draw no or pitiful consequences, will encourage citizens to follow suit, and will further cement a growing mistrust among once ardent followers of the party.

This thinking was first reignited last week when Snenhlanhla Ntuli, the wife of the late former KwaZulu-Natal MEC for transport and community safety Bheki Ntuli, was booked out of the Covid-19 designated Clairwood Hospital, a public facility, in Durban on a “day pass” to attend her late husband’s funeral.

On Sunday, Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane then pranced about without wearing a mask in full view of Deputy President David Mabuza and senior police brass, at the funeral of former minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu

Despite calls for an investigation into the incident by Police Minister Bheki Cele, after sustained media and public pressure, Mtsweni-Tsipane accepted guilt and reported to the Vosman police station in Emalahleni, and paid a fine.

And despite an initial public outcry over how Bheki Ntuli’s wife was allowed out on a day pass to attend his funeral, even though she was in the hospital, there has been no clear public pronouncement as to how this was possible.

Video footage showed Snenhlanhla Ntuli inside an ambulance with its back doors wide open at the funeral last Thursday. She appeared to be on oxygen, with paramedics on hand in full personal protective equipment, which is usually reserved to be worn when treating infectious Covid-19 patients.

Several doctors in the public and private sector who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity agreed that if Snenhlanhla Ntuli were not a Covid-19 patient, she could have been booked out, but that they had yet to hear of such a case occurring in the era of Covid-19, with one senior doctor saying the decision to grant a day pass was on “shaky ground”.

Closing their ears

Political analyst Lukhona Mnguni told the M&G that political leaders still appeared to be desensitised about how their actions and poor communication affected public perceptions.

“What the elites don’t get is that whatever they do appears to deviate from the rules and conventions others are expected to follow in this crisis. People then have no incentive to uphold the regulations. As a result, the appetite to listen to the elite diminishes, and when that happens, you have another crisis because then you are talking to people who have closed their ears,” said Mnguni.

He said that even if it were permissible for Snenhlanhla Ntuli to attend the funeral, it was not necessarily prudent.

“It may have been permissible, but it comes across as though an exception has been made for the MEC’s wife. Even if it is permitted, people will still think it is a special preference. Many people had not experienced the luxury of being able to do that, particularly those who have lost loved ones,” said Mnguni.

ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary, Mdumiseni Ntuli, who is also a distant relative of Bheki Ntuli, told the M&G that the couple had been admitted to Clairwood public hospital about 10 to 12 days before the funeral.

He said although Bheki Ntuli was moved to King Edward public hospital as his condition deteriorated, and then to Inkosi Albert Luthuli central hospital, Snenhlanhla Ntuli remained at Clairwood, because her condition had not been nearly as severe as her husband’s. “We could still talk to her on the phone,” he said.

Mdumiseni Ntuli said Snenhlanhla Ntuli was expected to be discharged from hospital either on the day of her husband’s death or the day after that. But the shock of his death led to a rapid deterioration of her health, which was unrelated to Covid-19 — by this stage she was not presenting with any signs of the virus.

Mdumiseni Ntuli said the doctors treating Snenhlanhla Ntuli confirmed that the anxiety brought on by the death of her husband “could have happened to anyone, you didn’t have to be a Covid patient”, and that, after requests from the family, the doctors agreed to a day pass for to attend the funeral.

“That’s when the family decided to hire a private ambulance to transport her safely,” Mdumiseni Ntuli said. The trip from Clairwood hospital to eSikhaweni, the location of Bheki Ntuli’s funeral, is about 163km.

‘Nothing out of the ordinary’ 

KwaZulu-Natal department of health spokesperson, Ntokozo Maphisa, told the M&G that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the grieving widow’s day pass.

“The decision to grant a patient a (temporary) exit from a healthcare facility may be discretionary, based on a clinical assessment,” she said, meaning it would be up to the doctor or doctors treating the patient.  

Maphisa made it clear that she was not referring to “any particular case” and said that “in terms of established Covid-19 infection and prevention control and management guidelines, the duration of the isolation is 10 days”. 

“The reason behind this is that it has been proven that after 10 days, patients are not infectious,” she added.

Maphisa said there was no obligation for Snenhlanhla Ntuli to be tested again for Covid-19 before she attended the funeral, which was one of the questions members of the public and media had raised.  

“There has never been any obligation to conduct a second polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Even if a repeat PCR came out positive, this may not be from a  ‘viable’ virus. Hence, it is not repeated,” Mahpisa said. 

The doctors who spoke to the M&G agreed that a second test was unnecessary, but they questioned the wisdom of booking out a patient who was visibly not well. 

In what could be viewed as a concession, Mdumiseni Ntuli admitted that, in hindsight, the family (and by extension the ANC) did not communicate the issues around Sinenhlanhla’s Ntuli’s release appropriately.

 “I think that impression was created by the storyline [from the media], without us at some point intervening [early enough] to give our own side of events.”

Communication failure

However, Xolani Dube, a senior researcher at political think-tank the Xubera Institute for Research and Development, agreed that the issue was exacerbated by the governing party’s inability to communicate clearly, and by the public expecting the governing elite to lie because they frequently did so. 

“There is very little currency left in the ANC when it comes to trust, and I think that deficit is irreparable. The ANC does not communicate honestly: they flip-flop, so it is difficult for the public to trust them,” Dube said.

“This trust deficit has affected their communications when it comes to Covid-19. You cannot separate Covid-19 from the ANC and government’s failures in service delivery, and its disdain for the constitution.” 

Dube said that even in a case such as Bheki Ntuli’s funeral, when it may have been legitimate to bring Snenhlanhla Ntuli in an ambulance to mourn her husband, the public would react because the “lies of the ANC drown out its honesty”.

“The public is encouraged to not visit with those outside their immediate circles or only to keep funerals to close family members, but politicians go to funerals of those they are not related to,” Dube said.

“As for the funeral of Bheki Ntuli, and his wife being transported to the funeral in an ambulance, most of the public won’t understand why she was allowed to go despite having been in hospital as a Covid-19 patient, because it had not been explained or communicated. Most people did not know that that could be done under certain circumstances.”