President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize (L) at a media briefing at OR Tambo International Airport on 10 March 2020. Picture: SUPPLIED
President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize (L) at a media briefing at OR Tambo International Airport on 10 March 2020. Picture: SUPPLIED

Saturday will mark exactly three months since SA went on what was supposed to be a three-week “hard” lockdown of the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

At that time SA had just a handful of cases, mostly imported by travellers, and President Cyril Ramaphosa was rightly praised for his leadership and proactive stance. Compared with what has happened in countries such as Brazil, the US and the UK, SA can count itself lucky to have had the leadership quality shown by Ramaphosa and his health minister, Zweli Mkhize.

It’s a sad spectacle that in the US the act of wearing a face mask has become a polarising political issue despite that country recording close to 2.5-million cases and more than 120,000 deaths. It’s no big surprise that cases in the US are flaring up again. This week, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd of 3,000, most of whom were  not wearing any protective covering.

It says much about how broken the US political system is that a simple act of wearing a mask, which is recommended to reduce the risk of infected people infecting others, should be subject to partisan politics rather than health considerations. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, behaved shamefully from the start and just this month was ordered by a judge to wear a protective mask in public spaces.

While debates about the correct response to the pandemic will rage for as long as it is around, the sight of the president of the country with the highest number of fatalities refusing to take the most basic precautions to protect people he comes into contact with is beyond shameful.

As SA’s numbers of infections and deaths have increased, at least that can’t be blamed on a lack of political leadership.

That is not to say the government has been perfect. Far from it. From the self-harming ban on alcohol exports and e-commerce in the initial weeks of the lockdown to the ridiculous dispute initiated by trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel over the sale of warm cooked food, the government has had many missteps along the way.

It has been contrite at times and shown a willingness to listen to criticism, such as in the decision to reverse the bans on alcohol exports and the sale of goods over the internet. In other cases it has been unreasonably stubborn. It beggars belief that the government insists on the ban on the sale of tobacco products even though the science behind that is inconclusive at best.

What is not inconclusive is that it has robbed the fiscus of much-needed revenue, as highlighted in finance minister Tito Mboweni’s dire budget this week, and has facilitated a thriving illicit market.

In addition to the inconsistency and lack of rationality in some of the regulations, an approach that has at times emphasised enforcement over consensus building has damaged the government’s credibility. Some members of the executive, such as police minister Bheki Cele, have shown disdain for South Africans’ human rights and clear enjoyment at making people’s lives as miserable as possible. The government was shamefully quiet when evidence of abuse by security personnel surfaced.

It has clearly been a mixed bag. Even when it has made steps in the right direction, that has been undermined by an unacceptably large gap between the presidential declaration and informing the public about the timing of its implementation.

A case in point is the fact that more than a week has passed since Ramaphosa said sit-down restaurants would be allowed to trade, yet there has been no updated regulations published to date. In the meantime, tourism, which accounts for close to 10% of GDP, has been left in the lurch.  

Pictures of beachgoers in England this week highlight the risks that will come as SA keeps moving on from regulations to placing trust in individual behaviour. But there can be no turning back from that.

Ramaphosa can take credit for having driven a consistent message on the behavioural changes needed to give the country a fighting chance against the pandemic. The masks that one sees in public spaces are evidence of that.