South Africa

Should South African companies welcome a vaccine mandate?

Dr John Wentzel 1
Chief Executive Officer
Adcorp Group
4 mins

With the new Omicron variant, South Africa firmly heading into a 4th wave and vaccination levels still too low, it is not surprising that President Ramaphosa addressed the nation to warn of a potential vaccine mandate. Business associations are also in support of a mandate, with current evidence suggesting that mandates are associated with higher levels of vaccination.

Of course, this has sparked a debate about whether mandates are lawful and if a vaccine mandate is even necessary. I personally am in favour of a vaccine mandate and have begun the process of working with Adcorp’s executive body to understand the complexities of how we would introduce a vaccine mandate to our own business. Here’s why I think it’s the right – and lawful – choice.

South Africa’s vaccination levels remain low

Interestingly, conditions in South Africa and Australia (where we also have offices) are not identical. In South Africa, we have put a lot of energy into encouraging all of our staff to get vaccinated. We’ve created incentives, asked our people to record their vaccination status on our intranet and provided as much education and support as possible. Despite these efforts, less than 30% of our employees have been fully vaccinated or recorded their status. This is slightly higher than the national average reported by Reuters of 24.4% of South Africans who are fully vaccinated, but it is nowhere near enough.

In Australia, where it is not legal for employer to request that employees disclose their vaccination status, 73.2% of the adult population is fully vaccinated. We have not taken the same measures in Australia and yet we know that overall people are responding far more favourably to the vaccine which makes workplaces safer.

So, why are we in this position in South Africa?

The scourge of misinformation

At Adcorp – and we have seen a similar strategy across corporate South Africa – our strategy has been to share information and encourage people to get vaccinated. 

Unfortunately, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a torrent of misinformation shared online, first about the virus itself, which one political leader likened to nothing more than a flu from China that would soon go away, then about how the virus could be treated, and finally about the vaccines. That a vaccinated person attracts 5G waves and becomes magnetic are just some of the more popular myths that continue to perpetuate online. Unfortunately, some role models have publicly declared that they will not be vaccinated either, which further enforces the narrative that vaccines are unsafe, despite no scientific evidence to back these claims. 

Confusion is the natural result. People don’t know what to believe and so they do nothing, an action that is now known as vaccine hesitancy.

As a business, our position at any point in time is based on the facts, and guidance from medical professionals and governments both here and in Australia. If the facts or guidance change, we change our position accordingly. This is normal. From the beginning of this pandemic, we have needed to adjust to new information. We have learnt from each new wave and variant as the pandemic has progressed. Scientists have also collected valuable data points as billions of vaccines have been administered. Our knowledge has increased exponentially. 

We have gone from having no idea how to treat this virus (other than knowing that drinking bleach is always a bad idea), to having good protocols in place that are saving lives. And yet the one thing that can make the biggest difference – getting vaccinated – remains a contentious issue thanks to insidious misinformation. 

The case for vaccine mandates

Like many business leaders, I am passionate about this. Almost all of us know someone who has become seriously ill or died from Covid-19. We have lost colleagues to this pandemic. I’ve seen too many I know die from this disease to not do everything in my power to prevent another death and I believe many leadership teams feel the same way.

Unfortunately, education and encouragement have not resulted in the levels of vaccination that we know are needed to end the lockdowns and to make the pandemic more manageable. New information has not swayed the general public.

As a result, we’ve seen clients introduce vaccine mandates in their operations and they are understandably demanding that anyone on their sites is fully vaccinated. Business associations support these decisions.

As CEO, I have both a fiduciary duty as a director of a listed company and a legislative duty to ensure a safe working environment for the employees of Adcorp. This is an obligation I cannot and will not shirk. If enforcing a mandate is the best way to ensure a safe workplace, I believe Adcorp is duty bound to implement one. This may be the only way to finally put this virus behind us.

The legal implications

Which brings us to the question of whether vaccine mandates are constitutional. We know this is a complex landscape and that not every Adcorp employee will want to adhere to a mandate should we implement one. We have also seen a flood of cries online stating that a mandate would be unconstitutional. To address these complexities, we have received guidance from constitutional experts. 

Their opinion is clear. The South African constitution is silent on vaccines. This means that anyone who states that vaccine mandates are unconstitutional is probably referring to Chapter 2, the Bill of Rights, which many believes gives individuals the right to choose for their own bodies. This is not entirely accurate. Section 12.2B of the Bill of Rights addresses body integrity and security and control over the body. There is no reason to believe that vaccinations violate this. In fact, vaccinations in general have been part of healthcare forever in South Africa and it is hard to imagine how they now infringe on these rights when historically they have not.

This must also be viewed within the context of Section 36, which also places limitations on our rights. There is a purpose and importance behind these limitations, particularly as they pertain the health and safety of others. 

Based on all of this, in our view, a vaccine mandate in South Africa is legal, does not infringe on a person’s rights and is therefore constitutional.

Choose to do the right thing

Unfortunately, the fact remains that social media gives anyone the opportunity to spread lies and misinformation in the public domain. Ad Adcorp, we base our decisions on science. But the facts are unambiguous. Instead of researching Covid-19 and vaccines online and ending up on sites filled with lies, speak to a medical expert. Trust the data that has been collected on vaccines rather than hearsay. Vaccines save lives. Vaccinated people are far less likely to get seriously ill, die or spread the virus. On the other hand, vaccine hesitancy kills. Do the right thing. Protect yourself, your family and your community. Get vaccinated.

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Chief Executive Officer
Adcorp Group

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