Industry-state tensions will worsen pandemic fallout, warns CDE's Bernstein

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A billboard on an apartment building in Cape Town's CBD. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images)
A billboard on an apartment building in Cape Town's CBD. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images)
  • Executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise Ann Bernstein said government needed to adopt a different attitude towards business.
  • Bernstein said government has not learnt from their mistakes it made at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • She said accessing a vaccine and rolling it out would be the most important priority for government to get the economy back on track.


Executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise Ann Bernstein said on Wednesday that government's handling of lockdown as well as its treatment of business has been weak and costly, despite the fact that business has been willing to assist government as a social partner in responding to the pandemic.

Bernstein was speaking during a virtual panel discussion organised by the Free Market Foundation on Wednesday afternoon. The discussion came as business lobby groups in the alcohol and tobacco sectors have intensified pressure on government to lift the ban on their trade.

In late December last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa adjusted the national lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 to level three. This was in response to the second wave of the pandemic, which saw daily new cases rise by thousands at a time.

Bernstein stressed that while the Centre for Development and Enterprise was not a libertarian organisation, she believed that government needed to adopt a different attitude towards business as the country’s only hope for getting much-needed reforms for the economy.

"In some respects, we need a very different attitude to the private sector. To markets and competitive markets, which are absolutely fundamental to get growth, we have to accept that we can’t be anti-business and pro-growth.

"We have made some progress, but not nearly enough. South Africa wallows at the bottom of all of the tables under countries that are much poorer than us but are doing better than we are when it comes to skills and education," said Bernstein.

Bernstein said the beginning the pandemic was a great shock to everybody and, as such, government handled it reasonably well. However, she said, since then "they have not learnt from their mistakes, especially when it comes to business".

"I don't see why they couldn't sit with business in tobacco and alcohol and tourism, to figure out what to do and consult on how to protect the population from deaths and talk to business.

"We know that tobacco had enormous illicit business flood its market. You can't talk of a solid business-government relationship when there is no discussion about doing what needs to be done," Bernstein said.

She said in the year ahead, accessing a vaccine and rolling it out would be the most important priority for government to get the economy back on track. She said this would be no easy feat, as 40 million must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

"We need to roll out the vaccine as efficiently and as sensibly as possible. It's real money. As a middle-income economy, we could find that money in the budget. I wouldn't put R25 billion into SAA at a time like this, personally," she said.

She said as the recovery from the pandemic, the government would have to focus on getting significant and fast economic growth to spur job creation, ensure energy security and bring about meaningful skills development among South Africans.

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