Maybe Mthembu was on to something when he said vibrators instead of ventilators

South Africans had a good belly laugh this week when Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu had an unfortunate malapropism, mixing up vibrators with ventilators. He had been addressing a press briefing on Sunday the government’s preparedness to deal with the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic, when he got the two confused.

Mthembu has had his ups and downs, in the House as the party’s Chief Whip and outside, but he seems a thoroughly decent human being – especially in these trying times. It wasn’t long after that he issued his own sincere apology for the gaffe, without having to be forced to, unlike many of his colleagues. Mzansi understood, Mzansi forgave. Sourcing vibrators could well be part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s stimulus package – literally.

On Freedom Day, the Cuban Health Brigade touched down, at Waterkloof Airforce Base. The Radical Economic Transformationists were orgasmic in their welcome. Cuba has a huge role in the South African liberation story because they actually fought in the Border War. After the advent of democracy, Cuba played a more direct role in South Africa providing doctors and training some of our own aspirant medics who could not be otherwise accommodated at medical schools here.

When the Coronavirus hit the island, we sent supplies. Now, in our hour of need, Cuba was sending us her doctors. It’s a story of great international solidarity, revolutionary even.

Except we are paying for it – handsomely.  

What could end up being half a billion rands buys a lot of altruism. Some say we could have fully funded the training of 200 of our own doctors from scratch for that amount – and paid them a handsome stipend while we were doing that. We could have employed more nurses. We could have done a lot.

That’s the problem when you monetise charity.

It’s like food parcels; the Gift of the Givers can feed a family of five for a month on R350, some government departments can feed a couple and a kid for a night on R1 200 – and then there are the ‘social entrepreneurs’, people who make a very fine living out of giving, along with the obligatory selfies and retweets, who seem to price themselves about midway in the market.

It’s wonderful that the Cubans are here, it would have been even nicer if they’d come of their own free will as volunteers. Instead there are huge unanswered questions, like whether this was the best way to spend this amount of money on a public health intervention when our own front-line medical staff are contracting COVID-19 for lack of sufficient PPE. Or why an act of entrepreneurial opportunism in a time of global crisis had to be dressed up as an act of charity that we should be unquestioningly grateful for.

Maybe it wasn’t a Freudian slip by Mthembu after all, maybe a good session with a vibrator will be just what the doctor ordered to soften the thrust when it comes to ultimately paying for all this on top of slashed salaries and rampant joblessness.

As they say in the Eastern Cape; Andidikwe!

Originally published on 2 May 2020 in the Saturday Star