Level 3 brings heightened risks for Cyril Ramaphosa and SA

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on May 24 on South Africa’s move to lockdown level 3.
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on May 24 on South Africa’s move to lockdown level 3.
Image: GCIS

The move to lockdown level 3 is pretty much a full opening of the economy. Through negotiations and consultations with almost every social and political group, President Cyril Ramaphosa has arrived at a version of level 3 that, according to the original descriptions of the lockdown levels, is really the old level 2.

Almost everything, with the exception of businesses that involve close contact between people, can open. Construction, one of South Africa’s most vulnerable but labour-intensive sectors, can also reopen. The mystery of the cigarette ban is now the only irrational exception.

This would not have been an easy decision for Ramaphosa. Unlike the professional and amateur epidemiologists and public health experts who have slugged it out in public over the past few weeks with advice on what should happen next, Ramaphosa must bear responsibility for the lives that will be lost. Even though the ministerial advice committee has told him that to continue a hard lockdown at this point will bring minimal benefits, the political risk he has taken is nonetheless a substantial one.

And, unfortunately, it can be expected that many lives will be lost. With the mines just barely back at work and not yet at full capacity, large numbers of infections are already being reported. AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng mine in Merafong has confirmed 164 positive cases, and Impala Platinum’s Marula mine in Limpopo has 13. Most mineworkers live in unhealthy circumstances in informal settlements to maximise their take-home pay. Even if it was possible to prevent workplace infections with the strictest of protocols, which it is not, living conditions will inevitably undermine this effort.

The alternative — to keep the economy locked down — would have reduced Ramaphosa’s exposure to political risk but would have given rise to much bigger social problems and hunger, as well as the risk that losses of economic output could become permanent, with that possibility increasing the longer the lockdown endured.

The tobacco ban remains a puzzle. The health rationale is of little substance. Health damage caused by tobacco is long term; stopping smoking a few weeks or months before contracting Covid-19 cannot be expected to significantly improve the functioning of one’s lungs. The case for banning alcohol — which can do serious short-term damage to lives — was far stronger and a better candidate for a ban. And since most smokers now have their illegal suppliers sorted, the penalty is that they are paying more for unregulated and untaxed products.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been the target of public anger, much of it with heavy undertones of misogyny and racism. But it is not plausible that this is a one-woman crusade. Her views on smoking are well known. We have her to thank for smoke-free workplaces, public places and restaurants. But this decision was not made by her alone and, say people with knowledge of the discussion, was backed by Ramaphosa, too. Whatever his reasons — perhaps not wanting to set the stage for what could be used as a factional battle — Ramaphosa chose to stand with his most senior member of cabinet.

Reopening is going to be difficult and will come in fits and starts that continue to depress economic output, raise labour costs and disrupt supply chains

Reopening is going to be difficult and will come in fits and starts that continue to depress economic output, raise labour costs and disrupt supply chains. Social distancing measures in factories mean production capacity is reduced, with some operations reporting that only 50% output is possible. While wealthier consumers went panic buying in the days before the lockdown, it is now that food and consumer goods will experience supply chain disruptions.

As the number of infections rises, mines, factories and retailers will face periodic shutdowns to test, isolate and clean. Unions are already on edge; employees’ low trust of employers will make this more difficult even where employers comply completely. Ructions in the labour market will be frequent.

Some Western Cape employers have reportedly locked out workers who protested about health and safety. Some workers in the province have gone on unprotected stoppages — most alarmingly in health facilities — as there is confusion over the circumstances under which a workplace can be declared safe after employees test positive for infection. These heightened tensions will be part of our new normal.

A lot has been said about the Western Cape as an outlier in SA’s epidemic. With almost two-thirds of the infections in the country, provincial officials now agree the reason is not so much because of “superior” testing strategies but because there really are more infections. While the Western Cape does have a higher incidence of respiratory illness, it also has a higher incidence of international travellers, which, health officials say, seeded the virus in the community much earlier.

If this is the case it can be expected that in big metropolitan areas the epidemic will follow a similar trajectory. That is a concerning thought; SA will need to steel itself for what is coming.

• Paton is editor at large.