President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: WERNER HILLS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: WERNER HILLS

Considering that it was just one day short of three weeks since President Cyril Ramaphosa last addressed the nation, it’s not a surprise that the speech didn’t meet with universal acclaim.

After such a hiatus from the commander-in-chief during what has been presented as an almost war-like environment, it’s not unreasonable that people expected a clearer point of action, rather than being told to wait for yet more consultations among structures that strike most people as opaque.  

Three weeks should have been enough for those consultations to take place. The previous instance when a presidential address was followed by a period of consultations left South Africans scarred, with inexplicable U-turns raising questions about who was in charge.

There was also, though, much to admire in Ramaphosa’s address. In contrast with some of his ministers with their paternalistic attitude, the president did what he does best: be a voice of reason, compassion and solidarity. 

We have made the point before that the ministers Ramaphosa has appointed to front his programme have often let him down badly, and have often achieved the very opposite of building morale and a unity of purpose.

The country needs to see and hear from the president directly more often. If nothing else, regular engagement with the population also reduces the need and expectation of blockbuster announcements each time he speaks.  

What do we know so far? The government believes the lockdown strategy has been correct and has saved lives, while delaying infections enough to enable the country’s health system to build up its capacity to deal with an inevitable surge later.

The latter point sometimes gets lost in the binary and polemic debate that has arisen, leading to a false dichotomy about whether the focus should be on saving lives or the economy.  

While acknowledging the sacrifices, economic and otherwise, made by people, Ramaphosa also recognised government failures, primarily around the imposition of irrational rules that govern everything from the right of internet-based companies to operate to what kind of T-shirts we are allowed to buy.

Thursday’s change to allow more e-commerce is a very welcome sign that logic is finally triumphing and that the voice of the economic cluster in the cabinet will get stronger.

To the millions of small businesses — and their employees — across the country who haven’t had incomes since late March, and who have exhausted what resources they may have had, the president’s reassuring words will mean very little.

Even if the government’s support measures worked as well as Ramaphosa suggested, this would still be as serious situation. As union federation Cosatu said this week, the economy cannot be sustained by government handouts and food parcels.

We need to get as many people back to work as possible and as soon as possible, while taking the necessary steps to make sure they can do so relatively safely, cognisant that whatever the war analogy implies, we are not engaged in a simple fight with an enemy that can be defeated.

There is no 100% safe way to go back to normal and Ramaphosa has already acknowledged that the virus, like others before it, will be with us for some time. The World Health Organisation has gone further and said it may never disappear. In other words, we are going to have to learn to live with it, and keeping the economy closed is therefore not an option.

The government needs to communicate what it thinks is manageable and when it will get there. The emerging consensus among scientists is that the first stage may have achieved its aims. If the government disagrees, then it has to be a lot clearer about when the health system will reach the preferred state of readiness.

That parts of the country will be moving into level 3 of the lockdown in the next couple of weeks is encouraging. But it is tempered by the idea that this will be tiered depending on the concentration of infections.

That gives the impression that key centres that drive SA’s economy, such as Johannesburg and Cape Town, could stay closed. Such a relaxation exercise would be beyond pointless and risk a backlash and breakdown in compliance.