An improvement in daily new Covid-19 cases and falling deaths for two consecutive weeks are expected to allow the government to ease lockdown restrictions to “Level 2.” President Cyril Ramaphosa could make an announcement to this effect as early as Thursday, 13 August, as the government scrambles to boost the economy.
On the back of a decrease in daily national new Covid-19 cases – with 2,511 new cases reported on 11 August, down from a peak of nearly 14,000 cases on 24 July – cabinet is looking to ease lockdown restrictions to “Level 2.” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said today, 12 August, that cases were declining in South Africa’s four most populous provinces. This marks an significant improvement on the government’s prior worst-case scenario for August, when Mkhize had warned that hospital capacity could be breached in both the public and private sectors.
The current state of disaster expires on 15 August, which means that Ramaphosa’s National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) is in the process of deciding whether to extend or end the declaration. The NCCC is expected to extend the state of disaster, but announce a reduction to risk level “2,” which will likely allow big industry to resume operating at 100% capacity and reopen most of the economy, albeit under strict social distancing and hygiene prescriptions. This is the approach that the more technocratic layer of government, the forum of directors-general of national departments (Fosad), has recommended to the NCCC.
Political haggling and lobbying over which restrictions will be eased and to what extent may continue until the last minute. Nevertheless, for the first time expectations are growing that the Ramaphosa administration will finally ease unpopular and inconsistent bans on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products, and relax some (domestic) travel restrictions. This could be a shot in the arm for several sectors brought to their knees by the lockdown, including the alcohol industry, restaurants and tourism, which have been devastated by heavy restrictions in force since South Africa entered a strict lockdown in late March.
Until now, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who has enjoyed enhanced powers under the Disaster Management Act, has staunchly opposed any changes to the tobacco and alcohol bans, to the point of contradicting Ramaphosa and providing the impression that the president is not in charge of his freelancing ministers.
The president’s position has not strengthened markedly, but he is now under growing pressure to assert himself, both in relation to the economically costly and increasingly incoherent lockdown restrictions, and a new wave of corruption. Economic activity remains lackluster and the South African Revenue Service has reported an under-recovery of ZAR 82bn (USD 4.8bn) for the fiscal year through 15 July. With a bleak medium-term budget (MTBPS) looming in two months’ time, the government’s scramble to provide even small boosts to the economy, employment and revenue collection should intensify.