OPINION | John Steenhuisen: Level 3 decision hurts SA but suits ANC

John Steenhuisen, interim DA leader.
John Steenhuisen, interim DA leader.
Felix Dlangamandala

The president has to stop smashing the economy to death with the "blunt instrument" of lockdown and start putting his country ahead of his party, writes DA leader John Steenhuisen.


It is unconscionable that the ANC government opted to move South Africa to Level 3, even as scientists advised a move to Level 1 and called lockdown a "blunt instrument", as President Cyril Ramaphosa has now revealed.

The ANC's hard lockdown is world-record-breaking in both duration and scale of economic devastation, yet millions of workers and schoolchildren and thousands of businesses are being forced to remain in it against the advice of local experts. And the threat of returning to Level 4 or 5 still hangs over the country, making it hard for businesses to plan or invest for the future.

Either deep naivety or outright dishonesty is behind Ramaphosa's claim that Level 3 is a middle road between the advice of South African scientists and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO's advice is that lockdowns should only be eased as infections rates go down.

This cannot possibly pertain to South Africa, since infections here have risen steeply during the lockdown. If the government is to follow the WHO's advice, we could be in lockdown for many more months, since the peak of infections is only expected to be between August and October for most of South Africa.

READ | Lockdown Level 3: Here's what's allowed

The sooner we admit that our lockdown was a tragic mistake, the sooner we can start to make better decisions. South Africa's lockdown failed to stop the exponential growth of the virus. And the government failed to mitigate the economic fallout from lockdown. So the ANC's lockdown failed on both health and economic terms.

All we gained was to delay the peak by a few weeks. For that, millions of people have lost their livelihoods, thousands of businesses have been bankrupted, 12 million schoolchildren have lost out on an entire term of schooling, and billions of rand have been lost to the fiscus.

This outcome is an intergenerational injustice of epic proportions. The costs will be borne by young people, who bore the brunt of ANC policies even before the party wielded its "blunt instrument".

President Ramaphosa seems unlikely to acknowledge, let alone apologise, as Norway's prime minister has done, for the needless devastation wrought. Were he to do so, it would mark a distinct turning point for a party which is yet to express remorse for 300 000 Aids deaths the last time the government opted to disregard scientific advice.

Clearly, the Level 3 decision has nothing to do with saving lives, or with WHO opinions, and everything to do with ANC internal politics and outdated ideology. President Ramaphosa has again chosen ANC unity over national well-being.

Level 3 is a political compromise between the warring factions of the ANC alliance. Key ANC clients, the public sector unions, have little incentive to get back to work, since they are on full pay anyway, while the communists in the ANC are revelling in the opportunities for "class suicide" and national democratic revolution.

Indeed, an ANC document leaked over the weekend specifically proposes for the first time the amendment of regulations to prescribe pension fund assets. This suggests the ANC has gained no insights from the lockdown as to the limits of its own capabilities, and is going to double down on its vision of a state-controlled economy.

Another leaked document reveals the ANC has approved a R21 billion loan to SAA, even as Comair, which was a profitable business before lockdown, is in business rescue.

Comments of several ANC politicians over the past weeks suggest a more sanitised version of the EFF's vision of collapsing the "white economy". This reflects a poor understanding of how an economy functions - as a web of interconnectedness - and a disregard for the hunger and hopelessness plaguing millions of households.

The appropriate response now is to protect the high-risk group and let the vast majority of South Africans get back to work with a reasonable set of safety protocols in place, to produce the tax revenue necessary to fund health, education and social grants.

This disregard was already on full display, with every aspect of the promised economic relief programme in a shambles, including a failure to make good on UIF, TERS and Covid grant payments. And with the DA having to go to court to enable NGOs to continue feeding the hungry.

The past six weeks of hard lockdown have already been irrational. The ANC government failed to adjust its response to new information that has come available over this time, in particular (1) falling fatality projections and (2) mounting evidence that Covid is not a major threat to healthy 0- to 70-year-olds.

The appropriate response now is to protect the high-risk group and let the vast majority of South Africans get back to work with a reasonable set of safety protocols in place, to produce the tax revenue necessary to fund health, education and social grants.

As if the last six weeks haven't already wrought enough unnecessary destruction, the ANC is using people's lives and livelihoods as pawns in their internal chess games.

There is only one economy. It is the precious lifeblood of our society. I urge President Ramaphosa to stop smashing it to death with the "blunt instrument" lockdown and start putting his country ahead of his party.

- John Steenhuisen is the interim leader of the DA

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