FIRST TAKE | South Africa rolling, stumbling along as Ramaphosa puts citizens on terms

South Africa is stumbling along, mainly due to a combination of factors. One is certainly, as Ramaphosa pointed out, many people’s refusal to change behaviour. Other factors include an inept state and a brittle healthcare system already showing alarming signs of strain, writes Pieter du Toit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night put the country on terms, sternly rebuking its citizens for organising house parties, drinking too much and not wearing masks.

But the president, in his first public address for weeks, also seemed frustrated at the lack of options on the table. And it was clear that his government must contend with a serious lack of firepower to (a) battle the virus (b) enforce regulations and (c) protect the economy.

Of course, he couldn't be pressed on those matters because he doesn't take questions from journalists, even though he promised to do so when he met the SA Editors' Forum on 31 May this year.

The gist of Ramaphosa's address was this: the wearing of masks will from now on be mandatory, the sale of alcohol is again suspended, and a national curfew will be in force between 21:00 and 04:00.

It was an angry head of state that bemoaned people drinking and socialising, and ignoring regulations about funerals, with some funerals, he said, drawing up to a thousand people. Alcohol is banned because booze-related accidents clogged up emergency wards.

But funerals, which, from the beginning, had special exemption allowing up to 50 people to attend, was left untouched. It doesn't make sense, especially since we are now seeing up to 500 infections per hour, according to the president.

We're allowing super-spreader events to happen.

Ramaphosa spoke of the fact that "the storm is upon us" and that the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng remain the provinces with the highest rates of infection. And if we thought we were tested up until now, he said, the real examination is yet to come.  It will get "significantly harder" from here on in, and we face one of "the greatest tests of our nationhood".

"The coronavirus storm is far fiercer and more destructive than any we have known before. It is stretching our resources and our resolve to their limits," Ramaphosa said.

It was, however, disconcerting to hear him - again - explaining what's being done to expand the capacity of critical care hospital beds; and attempts to procure and build more ventilators and ensure a supply of oxygen. South Africans heard about these efforts back in March, we are now in July - surely the intervening period was put to good use? If so, tell us.

And while people are losing jobs in their thousands, productivity is tanking, consumer confidence is at its lowest in 35 years and GDP nosediving, the president only mentioned the economy twice in his monologue. And this, days after his own party and organised business each presented proposals for economic recovery.

While the health response remains the primary concern, the economic response shouldn't be too far behind. A country with official unemployment numbers breaching 30% cannot afford to clear 40% or, heaven forbid, 50%.

Ramaphosa needs to show he has a clear plan to prevent this and he needs to use every opportunity to demonstrate that there is a plan to keep South Africans employed. On Sunday night that did not seem to be the case.

There was no mention of Eskom, which remains one of the country's biggest crises. The power utility is unable to keep the lights on during a weekend and in a period of rapidly declining economic activity. And that in the middle of one of the coldest winters in recent memory. It will certainly not go unnoticed and does not inspire confidence.

The taxi industry must be rejoicing, however.

After government attempted to prevent the spread of the virus by regulating the number of passengers every taxi is allowed to transport, and the subsequent conflict between taxi bosses and the Department of Transport, they will now be permitted to carry at 100% capacity.

And in a province like Gauteng, where most working-class people are dependant on taxis, but also the province where the rate of infection is the highest in the country, it will almost certainly help the spread of the virus.

South Africa is stumbling along, mainly due to a combination of factors. One is certainly, as Ramaphosa pointed out, many people's refusal to change their behaviour. Other factors include an inept state and a brittle healthcare system already showing alarming signs of strain.

Ramaphosa stands at the apex of a government and state constrained by poor decision-making, a bureaucracy of byzantine proportions and a governing party ill-equipped to deal with a complex crisis such as Covid-19.

Our period of discontent looks set to last well beyond the winter.

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