Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

It might be a good idea for President Cyril Ramaphosa to resume talking to the nation directly.

The ministers he has put in charge, with the exception, thankfully, of health minister Zweli Mkhize, are clearly not up to the task. And that is threatening to derail the president’s approach to taking the nation along on this uncertain and perilous journey as we deal with the Covid-19 disaster.

While the president has from day one projected a sense of togetherness and unity, the approach of someone such as the police minister, Bheki Cele, could not be more different, with utterances that display an “us against them” attitude.

To the police minister, SA is almost like a little dictatorship in which he is free to give and take back privileges.

When the government announced that as part of the second stage of the lockdown SA citizens would, after five weeks, be entitled to exercise outside, it should have been clear to anyone what would happen when that was restricted to a short, three-hour window. And of course people flocked out at the same time.

Instead of seeing the error of its ways and trying to meet citizens halfway, the government acted in a way that is becoming only too familiar to South Africans. As if he was a parent talking about misbehaving, he is reported to have stated that perhaps South Africans did not “deserve” their freedom to walk. 

As with the debacle about cooked food at supermarkets, rules on the sale of cigarettes were made and then reversed with nothing that resembled an honest explanation. To expect the people of SA to believe that this reversal was due to 2,000 people having made submissions is to insult our collective intelligence. And never mind the many thousands who would have made submissions on any number of issues.

It does not reflect well on the government that as we enter the new phase of the lockdown the conversation is dominated by talk of lawsuits

And in any case, we can support that in a situation of national crisis as we are facing now, not every regulation needs to be popular or be subject to a national referendum. If co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a qualified medical doctor, had simply cited evidence from experts in Mkhize’s department, it would have been good enough for us.

It would still have been disappointing to see that a government that is supposedly keen on evidence-based policymaking chose to ignore warnings from finance minister Tito Mboweni about the cost to the fiscus. As the government has access to better intelligence than any member of the public, it will have been in a position to judge the accuracy of the anecdotal evidence that an illicit market in tobacco products is thriving.

It does not reflect well on the government that as we enter the new phase of the lockdown the conversation is dominated by talk of lawsuits. Those businesses that are not taking that route, such as those that are involved in e-commerce, feel let down by a lack of engagement.

Trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel’s comments on Friday signalling that the government is looking at accelerating the expansion of allowed activities are encouraging, though it doesn’t make sense why those restrictions were there in the first place.

We will need assured communications as we carry on. The government will need to be clear on its calculations regarding the health and economic trade-offs it will make as it determines how quickly we go into the next stages of opening.

As we are in a relatively early stage regarding infections and, depending on who you listen to, will not reach a peak possibly until September, it’s clear that a reduction in infections can’t be the standard.

The numbers will get worse, but it’s inconceivable that this economy can withstand a prolonged lockdown, so choices will have to be made about the levels of infections we can live with and the level of readiness of the health system.

Success will depend on a unity of purpose and legitimacy of government decisions. The president needs to step in and restore the latter before it’s irretrievably broken.  

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