President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

Most of the country may see a further relaxation of one of the most stringent lockdown regulations in the world by the end of May, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a late-night speech that otherwise offered few details.

Parts of the country with the highest rate of infection would remain on level 4, he said, meaning that major economic centres, such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay could stay virtually closed.

The address, his first in 20 days, is likely to disappoint business leaders and others who have called for greater urgency in freeing up economic activity to avert a health and humanitarian catastrophe.

SA has been in a Covid-19 nationwide lockdown for almost seven weeks, causing economists to forecast the worst economic contraction in at least a century.

Ramaphosa's strategy, which has been centred on an almost complete lockdown since late March, has also come under intense scrutiny for inconsistent regulations, some of which ANC stalwart and former finance minister Trevor Manuel described this week as “irrational”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa gave the country an update on the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic from the Union Buildings in Pretoria on May 13 2020.

In his speech, the president sounded a conciliatory tone, acknowledging that mistakes had been made, that some regulations were poorly communicated and enforcement was too harsh.

He said the government would provide details in coming days after consulting roleplayers. He flagged changes in some of the most unpopular regulations, such as those restricting personal exercise and e-commerce, a source of promoting economic activity in other countries.

Ramaphosa, addressing the nation on Wednesday, said consultations about the further easing of the lockdown by the end of May would begin immediately.

“The transition to the next phase of the coronavirus response will in many ways be more difficult than the present one. The risk of infection outbreaks will increase as more people return to work. This calls for vigilance, responsibility and discipline from all of us,” Ramaphosa said.

Further announcements will be made after consultations. Ramaphosa reiterated that despite the duration and severity of the lockdown, it was absolutely necessary. Without it the number of coronavirus infections would have soared uncontrollably, health facilities would have been overwhelmed and many more South Africans would have died.

The death toll stood at 219 on Wednesday evening, with 12,074 reported cases of Covid-19. Ramaphosa said the best current estimate was that, without the lockdown and the other measures taken, at least 80,000 South Africans could have been infected by now, and the death toll could have been at least eight times higher than it is.

The level of confirmed infections in SA was about 181 people per million of the population, he said. This was in contrast to countries such as the US, the UK, Spain and Italy as well as Singapore, which have between 2,400 and 4,600 coronavirus cases per million people.

Ramaphosa said that in the coming days the government would be announcing changes to level 4 regulations, which would see the expansion of business activities in retail and e-commerce and the reduced restrictions on exercise.

He said the cabinet was seized with the third phase of the country’s economic response to the coronavirus crisis, which would be announced when the work had been completed.

There has been widespread criticism and unhappiness about some of the stringent regulations put in place and the way the government has conducted itself and communicated.

Ramaphosa acknowledged that there may have been times when the government had “fallen short of your expectations”.

“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,” the president said.

He said the government would ensure decisions were taken in good faith, that they were reasonable and based on empirical evidence, and that they did not cause more harm than good. He also said that they would be transparent and would take the nation into its confidence regularly.

quintalg@businesslive.co.za