FIRST TAKE: Vague and uncertain Ramaphosa misses chance as lockdown is set to unravel

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

South Africans, weary of the effects of a crippling national lockdown, would have been disappointed in President Cyril Ramaphosa's address on Wednesday night. He made some announcements, but made no firm decisions, nor did he explain the science behind the government's reasoning, argues Pieter du Toit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday night squandered an opportunity to convince a weary nation why stringent lockdown regulations will continue to be enforced and neglected to explain the science behind the government's decisions.

The president was vague and uncertain and although he made some announcements - that most of the country should be at Level 3 lockdown at the end of May, that the economy will be opened up some more and that certain districts will remain at a high level of lockdown - nothing was confirmed. No dates were set, and no firm decisions taken.

FULL SPEECH | Ramaphosa announces Level 3 lockdown

But the most serious oversight was he neglected to show the country that he understands the data which is fed into government structures from a range of sources; data that shows what the state of the spread of the pandemic in the country is.

There was no firm explanation to South Africans what the rate of infection or the reproduction rate nationally or regionally is - or why it is important. He didn't explain whether the reproduction rate is coming down, where it was last week, or where it stood at three weeks or six weeks ago. He didn't speak about the hot spots, nor did he give a breakdown of what the trends in places like Cape Town or Johannesburg tell us.

He didn't offer details about what the science is saying, or what the health professionals are seeing happening in the provinces. Ramaphosa didn't elaborate on the rate of mortality, or contextualise it in relation to countries with a similar profile than ours.  

He didn't explain the difficulty in determining whether these trends and rates and projections are accurate, which numbers and statistics and data sets the government uses or how it has been refined and improved.

Ramaphosa did not stand in front of a screen, or a chalk board or a white board, explaining to the citizenry why X does not equal Y, and what the repercussions are.

READ | How will Covid-19 shape South Africa?

Instead the president said most of the country would be under Level 3 of the lockdown regulations by the end of May, but that metropolitan areas where the infection was at its highest would remain at Level 4.

He didn't say exactly when this would happen, nor did he say which metros will be affected.

Consultations will begin (which means they haven't started) with relevant stakeholders about the lowering of the alert level from four to three. But he didn't say with whom or by when the consultations would be finished. Or what factors would be considered.

The president also said "certain changes" to Level 4 regulations would also be announced "in the coming days" in order to reopen more parts of the economy, including retail and e-commerce.

But there is no clarity or certainty on what those changes will be, or indeed when they will be announced.

Why did the head of state not announce them when he had the podium? Will it again be left to his ministers to make the announcements, which leaves open the possibility of arbitrary changes being made, like Fikile Mbalula (the minister of transport) changing the curfew from 20:00 to 19:00? Without rhyme or reason.

Ramaphosa did not address the crippling effects of this on the economy. He did not seem to acknowledge - even though he mentioned it - what the devastating effect the blunt instrument that is the lockdown is having on our economic prospects and people's livelihoods.

READ | Trevor Manuel slams 'irrational' lockdown regulations

If he did indeed understand it, and if he considered it important enough, surely, he would have announced the changes to Level 4 restrictions and backed it up with hard numbers and data?

What Ramaphosa did do, however, was to acknowledge the government's failings thus far, admirably saying: "Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory, and some have been poorly explained. Implementation has sometimes been slow, and enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent and too harsh."

He continued: "We are determined and committed … to be transparent, to take the nation into confidence and to do so regularly."

But even as he was saying it, his actions were unclear and poorly explained, with no transparency and a failure to take the nation into confidence.

When he delivered his first two, three addresses to the country, Ramaphosa made it clear he was the president and he was in charge. But he has lately reverted to the collective, while regulations have increasingly become irrational and indefensible and with a cadre of belligerent ministers beating the war drums.

The national compact to submit to the government and trust the judgement of the state that Ramaphosa believes was reached in mid-March is set to unravel.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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