Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAYTIMES
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAYTIMES

President Cyril Ramaphosa certainly took his time to confirm last week’s reports that South Africans will be able to, legally, enjoy a drink at a bar, travel between provinces and puff on a cigarette.

But the decision — in which he juggled downward trends in confirmed Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions over the last few weeks and the economic destruction due to the lockdown — to further roll back restrictions on businesses and human rights is certainly most welcome.

In his much-awaited televised address on Saturday night, when he extended the state of national disaster by a month hours before it was due to expire, he rightly acknowledged the huge toll the lockdown has taken on the economy while shifting much of the responsibility to contain the virus to individuals and businesses.  

It’s been a long time coming for the economy, which Investec says shrunk about 60% in the second quarter. For the full year, the central bank expects the economy to contract more than 7%, one of the largest contractions in generations and risking setting off cascading corporate failures, especially in the tourism, airline and hotel industries, which have been forced into hibernation since end-March.

The alcohol and cigarette sales ban could not have continued much longer, with business — on which the president has staked his reputation to lead an economic recovery, the prospects of which had already been fragile before the pandemic — cancelling or rethinking investment spending.  

On the other hand, the ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco has robbed the SA Revenue Service of much-needed money to plug holes in the national budget while encouraging a thriving black market. Something had to give.

For some in the tourism industry, which contributes almost 9% to the economy and accounts for about 10% of all jobs, the lifting of the restrictions may have come a little too late. The industry has been running on fumes for much of the last five months, triggering a fight for survival even among heavyweight players such as Sun International and Tsogo Sun.  

It’s not difficult to imagine that smaller establishments such as bed-and-breakfast joints have permanently shut their doors, especially with international travel restrictions set to keep SA walled off from tourists from the northern hemisphere, which is heading into winter.

Given the important role the industry plays in the economy, it would not have been a bad idea for Ramaphosa to take a flexible approach in which visitors from countries on an infection trajectory similar to ours are allowed in to ensure SA does not fall off completely from holidaymakers’ radars.

In the speech, the president was rightly eager to emphasise that we should not let our guard down even with a recovery rate of almost 80%. 

“As we continue to ease restrictions, the risk of infection does not diminish. In fact, the risk of infection becomes greater as more people return to work, as they move about more and as there are more opportunities to interact,” Ramaphosa said.

Those words are an implicit recognition of the hard-to-swallow truth that South Africans will have to cope with the virus, until at least a vaccine is found, meaning citizens and businesses will have to make their own risk calculations.

It is a good thing to shift much of the responsibility of containing the virus to citizens and businesses as most have accepted social-distancing, basic hygiene and mask-wearing guidelines, and it would make no sense, commercially or otherwise, for companies to put their employees in danger of contracting the virus.

In other words, restoring people’s rights to travel between provinces or relish their first drink at a bar after five months cooped up indoors does not necessarily mean they will do so irresponsibly or even exercise that right at all based on individual risk calculations. Most of us should know better.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announces that SA will be moving to lockdown alert level 2 from August 18 2020.

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