Zorro Ramaphosa frees you up, but just a little

A masked President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on measures the country continues to undertake to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. (Photo: GCIS)

The coronavirus still trumps the economy as President Cyril Ramaphosa introduces a system of load shedding-like levels to restart the economy.

At the end of his fourth national address on Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa dropped the serious to engage in some mask modelling – except that his covering, in beautiful cloth, got stuck around his eyes. He looked like a coronavirus-era Zorro: where even the most heroic leaders are being blindsided by the pesky ball of RNA with pointy bits.

The economy is in a tailspin and one million jobs (and climbing) are likely to go to the wall as the viral slump hits. All industry associations have reported to Ramaphosa and the picture is already dire. In marathon Nedlac meetings over the past week, the president has heard that 15% of large firms in agriculture, the chemical sector, construction and global business services, and 25% of retailers could shut up shop as South Africa enters a depression.

The numbers for small and medium-sized enterprises he heard were even more dispiriting.

Sector pundits showed him the economic death spiral that Covid-19 was dragging in its wake, and that in tourism (75% of SMEs), transport (65%), clothing retail (55%), mining (45%), and film, business closures could be economically ruinous. 

Levelling with us 

At the same time, as mass screening and testing ramp up, the virus is tightening its grip on South Africa. Just two hours before Ramaphosa made his announcements, the latest stats arrived. They are brutal. The total confirmed cases (on Thursday, April 23) stood at 3,953 people and 75 people had died. 

“We are observing a steady increase in the number of positive cases,” said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. But he also said this is because screening and testing are going at speed now. Mkhize revealed that 3.6 million people have been screened and 24,174 of those sent for testing. 

SA is now on 143,000 tests, not yet up to the daily target levels but getting there. Soon, scientists will be able to make a finding to inform models that will tell us whether or not the curve is sufficiently flattened to begin the long road back from the harsh time of Covid-19. 

The latest suggestions are that the peak will only come in September but it will be a lower peak than the first worst-case scenarios had predicted as the country’s 400 public health institutions and the private health sector will have had sufficient time to prepare, like this

The balancing act 

So Ramaphosa and the National Coronavirus Command Council had a tightrope to walk as they balanced a deteriorating economy against the death and sickening of larger and larger numbers of people. 

He erred on the side of caution, introducing a new lexicon into South African life – The Level. Our lives will now be governed by which level of risk the country is deemed to be in. This level will determine how much or how little of the economy can be opened. 

This is how it will work: we are currently at Level 5, the hard lockdown, and from May 1, we will move into Level 4, when limited activity will be allowed. Level 3 eases restrictions further, Level 2 loosens further and Level 1 is almost back to normal but not quite. 

What does life and the economy look like at Level 4? 

We will know for sure in the following days, but Level 4 will mean you can exercise (yay!) with restrictions and buy cigarettes. Schools will be reopened in phases.

Ramaphosa did not say anything about booze, but a document on Opening the SA Economy by the Presidency provides some guidance. 

From May 1, food retail stores will be able to open their full stores, and agriculture is being opened too (horticulture, wool and wine exports, floriculture and related processing). That sounds like flowers and booze. 

Mines will open (open cast mines at 100% capacity, all others at 50%). Also opening will be financial and professional services, posts and telecoms, fibre optic and IT services, formal waste recycling as well as global business services for exports.

That’s quite a chunk of the economy, but there’s a proviso: only one-third of employees can return at any time to keep to the laws of physical distancing. “Businesses to be encouraged to adopt work from home [practices] where possible staff who can work remotely must be allowed to do so,” said Ramaphosa. 

Beyond that, life’s still not a party and you still can’t go anywhere. 

At Level 4, the borders stay closed and there is still no travel between provinces allowed. Transport will be limited. 

“The public is encouraged to stay home,” said Ramaphosa, who added the caveat that some exercise will be allowed. All gatherings are still prohibited (except for funerals which will be monitored more closely), and that means no restaurants, cafés, shebeens, hotels, events, sports, conferences, theatre or anything that gives colour to life. The elderly are advised to stay at home as are those who are at particular risk from Covid-19 (diabetics, people with cancer or respiratory ailments). 

“There will be a gradual and phased recovery of economic activity. [This is a] risk-adjusted strategy through which we take a deliberate and cautious approach,” said Ramaphosa.

“Abrupt uncontrolled action will cause a massive resurgence of infections. It risks a spread [of a second wave of infections] and another hard lockdown [Level 5, which we are now at].” 

Who sets the levels? 

The levels of alert will be determined by the National Command Council after recommendations of the minister of health and the minister of trade and industry. This suggests that Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel hold equal power over the level of alerts, a balancing of power between health policy and economic policy. Presumably, Ramaphosa holds the casting vote and this time he has cast for cautious opening in favour of a high-risk health weighting. This is the opposite of US President Donald Trump and other hardline, business-biased leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro.

“A single national alert level may be determined, or an alert level may be determined by each province,” says the document which guided Ramaphosa. 

The epicentre provinces are Gauteng (1,252 cases at April 23) and the Western Cape (1,279 cases at April 23) and within those, Johannesburg and Cape Town have the highest rates of infection. The difficulty of imposing stricter levels of restriction in the two cities is that they both drive the economy. 

“As we slowly ease the lockdown restrictions, we are substantially and rapidly increasing our public health response,” said Ramaphosa in reference to screening and testing. 

The virus peak is still months away, which suggests that South Africa could move between levels three and five as the epidemic surge arrives in winter and hopefully works its way out by September. 

It wasn’t quite the mask of Zorro that Ramaphosa donned as he sought to model the behaviour now required of South Africans as home prison-like conditions are slightly lifted, but it was a symbol of a leader trying his level best to perform what at times feels like an impossible balancing act. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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