The Ministers of the departments of Women, Children and People with Disabilities; Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs; Basic Education; and Health appeared before the Members of the National Assembly (NA) to answer questions to determine the effectiveness of their departments’ responses to challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.     

Questions to the Minister of Women in the Presidency, Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, included a question on whether alternative measures were considered by the department during the lockdown to ensure that women don’t fall victim to gender-based violence. In response to that, Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said they work with women who go door to door in the communities to assist vulnerable women to report cases of abuse. The department started doing this when her department realised that some of the lockdown regulations inadvertently subjected women to abuse.

Ms Nkoana-Mashabane was also asked to elaborate on what her department is doing to inform the victims of gender-based violence about the assistance available to them to improve their plight. She said that, apart from the publication of the regulations, the department uses various forms of communication, including radio, to communicate with the public in their languages to explain the department’s interventions to curb gender-based violence. “We also have a command centre where we share resources with the Department of Social Development as a means to alleviate their plight,” she explained.

 The lockdown has also contributed to a rise in hunger and poverty. In response to a question about how many women have been assisted by the department to combat this, Ms Nkoana-Mashabane explained that her department is working with other departments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). “As of last week, we donated valuable goods to women who are victims of gender-based violence. Women in distress need more than food. We also assisted them with emotional and moral support. We have since formed a council that includes NGOs, the South African Police Service, and the departments of Justice, Public Service and Social Development to come up with a coordinated intervention to fight this scourge.”

 Questions to the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, included one on how the department intends to mitigate possible civil claims against local authorities who wrongly prevented businesses from obtaining permits to operate.

“There are clear guidelines of what kind of businesses will be allowed to operate in which stage of a lockdown,” she responded. “These are gazetted regulations. If there was a confusion regarding that, please bring it to the relevant authorities. It’s the first time we experience this situation. If there are problems, they must be brought to our attention.”

She was also asked about the High Court ruling against municipalities that may be introducing their own permitting systems for NGOs and businesses distributing food to communities during the pandemic. Ms Dlamini-Zuma was asked if the court order has been brought to the relevant municipalities. This responsibility does not reside with her department, she responded. However, if there are such occurrences and court rulings, the department would bring them to municipalities’ attention.

To Dr Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Health, questions focussed on the modelling and data regime used in his department to determine responses to the pandemic. “There is an optimistic and a pessimistic model that we use,” the Minister responded. “They are not all cast in stone. They are guides on how to deal with various scenarios. Generally speaking, different models have different projections. These projections are being challenged and are open for debate. We look at them to get a sense of the problem at hand and to take aspects we think are significant, but we believe that the models’ accuracy will improve as time goes by.”

On the question of increasing the rate of testing for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, Dr Mkhize said a protracted protocol governs diagnostic testing equipment. “This involves their licensing and validation, but the current lack of diagnostic equipment is a global problem. This equipment is critical in assessing the rate of positivity. Lack of internal capacity to manufacture our own diagnostic equipment is something we must as a country start focussing on.” 

On what his department intends to do to curb the spike of infections in hotspots around the country, he said full-time teams of health experts have been sent to these hotpots, accompanied by Cuban doctors. “Twenty-eight of them will be deployed in the Western Cape. They will be focussing on the eight zones currently identified in the Western Cape and they have been seamlessly integrated there now.” 

Clarity was sought from the Minister of Health on whether the entire country will move to level three, irrespective of some places remaining hotspots. In response, he said: “The entire country will move to level three. I apologise for any confusion caused by any information that implied the opposite. I have already mentioned the department’s strategic intervention in identified hotspots.”  

Dr Mkhize was also asked why the government cannot meet the target of 17 000 to 30 000 tests. “This has been hampered by the decrease of the global supply of testing kits. This is coupled by the constraints to import them due to current regulations. But besides that, if people look at how many tests we have conducted thus far, one would see that we have done what we could to fast-track testing, because it is critical to our diagnostic interventions.”

Questions to the Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, included a request for her comment on the claim by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union that schools are not ready to meet health requirements needed to make schools safe. Ms Motshekga said there would be daily testing at schools. “If the school does not, for instance, have thermometer, it will not operate. There are clear protocols of how schools should operate. If they don’t meet the stipulated requirements, such a school will not be allowed to operate.”

 She was also questioned about the readiness of schools to reopen in four days’ time, in light of reports that some schools have no personal protection equipment (PPEs) as yet. In response she said schools are ready to reopen. “PPEs will be available to teachers and school learners on their arrival or incrementally. Some PPEs have not yet been delivered to schools because there have been incidents of break-ins where we delivered PPEs in advance.”  

On a question about what will constitute PPEs for learners and what would happen if learners forget their PPEs at home, she said: “Learners will be given two masks and hand sanitisers in every classroom. Depending of the spread of the virus, where there is high intensity of infection we will intensify the measures. According protocol, no child will be allowed to enter school premises without a mask.”

Some teachers in the Western Cape are infected and Ms Motshekga was asked what the department is doing to ensure that learners do not take the virus home with them. She answered by saying that the department will go to the Western Cape to see how it can manage cases of infections in schools.  

She was also asked how the department plans to managed the situation in line with new health requirements due to the pandemic, given that many schools lack basis things, such as running water and sanitation. Such schools will not be operational, she said. “Their learners we be accommodated temporarily at other nearby schools.”

Abel Mputing
28 May 2020