On top of last year’s PPE-corruption scandal, the African National Congress (ANC) government has made a complete fiasco of vaccine procurement and roll-out. In general, South African capitalism is proving itself incapable of dealing with the second-wave of the pandemic. There are record-levels of new infections and a rising death toll, now standing at over 33,000.
The ANC government’s priority is clear: the economy must stay open. After reflection, the ruling class has decided that the anticipated 8% collapse in GDP as a result of last year’s strict lockdown was a price too high to pay again. This is especially the case as President Ramaphosa has made it clear that there is no possibility of repeating the stimulus measures used last year, which amounted to around 10% of GDP. The ruling class is now desperately trying to protect the capitalist economy from any further disruptions which would hit their profits and accelerate the government’s sovereign-debt crisis. The stability of the capitalist system – such as it is in South Africa! – will come before the lives and health of the working class and poor majority.
Given this, it would be expected that the ANC government would at least take the question of vaccinating the population – estimated at a total cost of R20 billion – seriously. However, it has been exposed in the media that opportunities to place vaccine orders as far back as July and August last year were missed.
According to the Business Day newspaper, the Treasury was so committed to upholding the ANC government’s austerity programme that the Department of Health was told to “raise the money elsewhere” to pay the R283 million deposit required by the international CoVax programme. The money was eventually released.
Continuing in the same mould, however, when asked to explain why South Africa was months behind with vaccine procurement, the Director General of the Department of Health said that the government was “not keen” on pre-purchase agreements as “it required financial commitments the country was not comfortable making”!
In the so-called “family meeting” on 11 January, President Ramaphosa announced that 20 million vaccine doses have now been secured. However, the only confirmed deals are the 1.5 million doses from India’s Serum Institute, and the 12 million doses from the Covax programme, for which there is no confirmed delivery date. Why can the government not explain where the additional 6.5 million doses are coming from? It is highly likely, that at the time of Ramaphosa’s announcement, there was no signed agreement. In other words, he was trying to disguise the fiasco that he and his government are responsible for. The price of the delays in vaccination will be counted in thousands of additional deaths.
The cold indifference towards the plight of the masses, and the almost fundamentalist determination to protect the interests of the capitalist class, was confirmed in the same “family meeting”. Ramaphosa maintained a deafening silence over the extension of the Social Relief of Distress grant, the last remaining, and most insulting, of the grants introduced under lockdown, which is set to expire this month. The additional Childcare grant and pension top-ups ended months ago, as has the UIF Relief Scheme.
The chaotic and unplanned character of capitalism, being revealed again in the vaccine fiasco, is making the case anew for a democratically-planned world socialist economy. Different companies are producing different vaccines, with different dosages, storage requirements, and hugely varying costs. Governments are being required to sign confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements with pharmaceutical companies so that the prices – and therefore their profit-margins! – remain a secret.
South African pharmaceutical manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare, based in Port Elizabeth, has been contracted by multinational Johnson & Johnson to prepare 300 million vaccine doses. Regardless of whether they are being manufactured, or the vials merely being filled, the fact is that all will be exported. This, while the government negotiates to buy vaccines from Johnson & Johnson! (After this article was completed the Department of Health announced that a deal has been concluded with J&J for 9 million vaccine doses).
Private South African medical schemes will cover the costs of vaccinating their seven million members and have agreed to subsidise the costs of vaccinating a further seven million people. This will cost the private health sector R7 billion. This sounds like a significant contribution until the R80 billions of reserves these companies sit on is noted. These vast reserves, for a minority of the population, contrast sharply with the cuts to the public health sector used by the majority, and the wage-freeze imposed on public sector workers, including health workers.
ANC’s capitalist policies
The ANC’s capitalist policies, especially the neo-liberal Gear programme adopted in 1996, entailed starving the health sector of funding, degrading it to a level close to complete dysfunction today. This included the closure of nursing colleges and the dismantling of the country’s vaccine manufacturing capacity and the further cutting of the health budget on the eve of the pandemic.
This is not due to the “heartlessness” of the ANC government, and will not be solved by appeals for moral repentance directed towards them by the middle class and the labour movement leaders. It derives from the logic of the ANC’s class character – a party committed to the preservation of capitalism. There is no better illustration of the necessity for the abolition of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.
The Marxist Workers Party fights for a publicly-funded, free, accessible, and high-quality national health service as part of a democratically planned socialist economy. We reject the ANC’s National Health Insurance programme that proposes to leave vast swathes of the health sector in the hands of private profit-making companies. We call for the nationalisation of Mediclinic, Netcare, Life Healthcare, the private laboratories, and the big pharmaceutical and health insurance companies under the democratic control of health workers, patients, and communities.
 “AstraZeneca Can’t Sell Covid Vaccines in SA, Despite Government Claims of Being in Talks for Months”, News24 (13 January 2021) and “A Cancelled Meeting, Delays and Secrecy: Inside SA’s Efforts to Procure Covid-19 Vaccine Doses”, News24 (6 January 2021)
 News24 (6 January 2021)