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President Cyril Ramaphosa lifted the state of disaster on Monday. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa lifted the state of disaster on Monday. Picture: GCIS

In a widely anticipated move set to deflect mounting legal pressure and boost business confidence, the government has ended the national state of disaster, brought into effect two years ago to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has drawn heavy criticism from civil liberty groups for using the wide-ranging powers accorded to it by the Disaster Management Act to impose sweeping regulations that were not subject to public consultation or parliamentary oversight. Trade union Solidarity and civil rights group AfriForum launched legal action challenging the continued state of disaster, and the DA threatened last month to follow suit.

In a televised address to the nation on Monday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the restrictions had been necessary to slow infections and limit the strain on the health system, but conceded they came at a price.

“In the context of a free and democratic society, the additional powers that a state of disaster provides are temporary and limited. They should be maintained only as long as they are absolutely necessary.”

SA has now entered a new phase in the pandemic and it is time for the state to step back and for individuals to take greater responsibility for protecting themselves against Covid-19, he said, urging more people to get vaccinated.

“Vaccination is the best weapon we have to reduce the chance of future waves of infection that overwhelm our health facilities and that may require that we once more declare a state of disaster,” he warned.

SA is emerging from its fourth, Omicron-driven wave of infections, which saw relatively few hospitalisations and deaths despite soaring cases.

The seven-day rolling average of new recorded cases was 955 on April 2, a fraction of the December 17 peak of 23,437, according to Our World in Data. The test positivity rate stands at a little over 5%.

“While the pandemic is not over, and while the virus remains among us, these conditions no longer require us to remain in a national state of disaster,” said Ramaphosa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announces the end of the national state of disaster.

The cabinet had agreed to lift the state of disaster with effect from midnight on Monday and repeal all the regulations brought into effect with the Disaster Management Act, with the exception of a few transitional measures that will lapse after 30 days, he said. The government would also maintain the Covid-19 vaccine injury no-fault compensation scheme created in terms of the act.

The development follows the surprise announcement from co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma last week that the government planned to lift the state of disaster as soon as possible and ahead of its slated April 15 deadline. She indicated then that the interim regulations would ensure continuation of the R350 a month social relief of distress grant, key public health interventions such as mask mandates in indoor public spaces, and vaccination and testing requirements for visitors to SA.

The government has been scrambling in recent weeks to devise the legislative tools it needs to replace the lockdown regulations after Ramaphosa promised an imminent end to the state of disaster in his state of the nation address in February. These regulations have been used to control the movement of people and the size of public gatherings, restrict trading hours and impose intermittent curfews and bans on alcohol and tobacco sales, with devastating effects on the economy.

The latest employment figures released last week by Stats SA show more than a quarter of a million jobs were shed in the last quarter of 2021. The unemployment rate rose from 34.9% to 35.3% during the period.

While some of these rules have been relatively simple to replace, the government has run into difficulty with those that require extensive public consultation. Last month it published proposed amendments to three sets of regulations to the National Health Act, as well as regulations to the International Health Regulations Act. These were immediately panned as incoherent by critics, who noted the government would not have enough time to consider comments before April 15.

Update: April 4 2022
This story has been updated with addition information.