President Cyril Ramaphosa’s fourth address to South Africa
since the start of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday night was one in which
he asked battered citizens to prepare themselves for more pain and sacrifice as
the country attempts to ward off both a health and economic disaster.
His choice was impossible and the chances of a suspension of
the national lockdown negligible.
Scientists, led by the National Institute of Communicable
Diseases (NICD) and supported by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS),
could not give the president the guarantee that the virus was under control.
The Department of Health simply does not know enough about its prevalence and
spread to phase out the lockdown.
Economists, however, led by the National Treasury and
supported by the business sector, could with great certainty predict what the
impact on the economy, livelihoods, unemployment and inequality will be.
The SA Reserve Bank earlier this week said it expected GDP
to contract between 2 and 4%, with hundreds of thousands of job losses.
Economists Dawie Roodt and Mike Schussler on Thursday night said this would in
all probability be worse.
Ramaphosa was faced with an impossible choice. Lift the
lockdown and jumpstart the dying economy – but risk the spread of the virus and
the possibility of many deaths. Or enforce a prolonged lockdown in order to
throttle the virus and save lives – but kill off thousands of more jobs.
He chose the latter.
“We did not take this decision to extend the lockdown
lightly. As your president, I am mindful of the great and heavy burden this
will impose on you. I am keenly aware of the impact this will have on our
“But I know, as you do, that unless we take these
difficult measures now, unless we hold to this course for a little longer, the
coronavirus pandemic will engulf, and ultimately consume, our country,” he
Ramaphosa’s fourth address about the pandemic was probably
the toughest. His first address alerted the nation to an unfolding crisis,
while the second bound everyone together in aid of a national effort. His third
speech was about keeping in touch with citizens – this one, however, had to
dash nascent hopes of a return to normality, chart a way forward and unite the
In the opening minutes, Ramaphosa made 12 references to
“you” to South Africans. He acknowledged the sacrifices being made
and the lives being upended, and thanked the citizenry for its co-operation,
commitment and patience.
He explained the global and domestic proliferation of the
virus, and indicated how and why the lockdown has had a dampening effect on its
spread (since the lockdown the daily increase in new cases was around 4%, as
opposed to 42% prior to the lockdown).
And he admitted we simply do not know what the true state of
the pandemic in the country is, saying testing needed to be expanded “to
gain a better picture of the infection rate”.
“In the coming weeks and months, we must massively
increase the extent of our response and expand the reach of our interventions.
We are learning both from the experiences of other countries and from the
evidence we now have about the development of the pandemic in South Africa.
“Both make a clear and compelling case to proceed in a
manner that is cautious and properly calibrated. Simply put, if we end the
lockdown too soon or too abruptly, we risk a massive and uncontrollable
resurgence of the disease,” he said.
Ramaphosa laid out the framework of the government’s
response, which rests on strengthening the public health sector, supporting the
economy and addressing urgent social needs.
It is clear he is deeply concerned about the growing, and
possibly permanent, damage to the economy. He has recruited the business
sector, as well as labour, to help him formulate a response, and behind the
scenes plans are furiously being hammered out to ensure the viability of
specific sectors of the economy after the second lockdown.
Not too long ago, Ramaphosa was under pressure to enact deep
and important structural reforms to the economy. The national fiscus has been
decimated due to a decade of mismanagement and weak governance under Jacob
Zuma, and Ramaphosa – constrained by ANC politics and a seeming reluctance to
wield executive power – was criticised for moving too slowly.
His enemies within, including many in his own party, is
trying to block reforms at every turn.
READ | Ramaphosa takes pay cut, calls on MPs, public officials and execs to do the same
But this crisis, arguably the most serious since 1994, has
given Ramaphosa the opportunity to enact emergency reform measures, it has
freed him to make structural and governance changes and released him from the
dead hand of outdated party structures and debates.
“As we emerge from this crisis, our country will need
to undergo a process of fundamental reconstruction.
“Much is being asked of you, far more than should ever
be asked. But we know that this is a matter of survival, and we dare not
fail,” he said.
Much hardship lies ahead, and disaster beckons. But this
will be the making of a president and a country, whatever happens.