President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Siyabulela Duda/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Siyabulela Duda/GCIS

Last night President Cyril Ramaphosa detailed the high-level elements of the partial lifting of the lockdown.

First, the positives. It’s clear the president has taken global health advice and wants everyone, especially public transport users, to wear cloth masks, as is now expected in places like Germany. Ramaphosa also announced relaxing the ban on outdoor exercise, saying it would be under strict conditions, though he gave few details.

But on the negative side, restrictions that serve little purpose remain. Though Ramaphosa recognised that people need to work and the hungry need to eat, the economy remains largely closed.

A leaked government document suggests that it’s only at the next stage of the lockdown, stage three, that shoppers will be able to buy more goods they need in stores, as well as alcohol, that take-away restaurants will be permitted to open and that online commerce can begin again. Yet there is no clear reason why Pick n Pay can’t sell a kettle today or why a smoker shouldn’t get a cigarette tomorrow.

After Ramaphosa’s speech, the opposition DA welcomed the gradual lifting of the lockdown, but called for shops to be allowed to sell what people require immediately.

Said DA interim leader John Steenhuisen: “All stores selling essential items should be permitted to sell all items in their stores, including electronics, stationery, books, beauty products and cigarettes. Restaurants and fast-food outlets should be able to open their kitchens for home delivery. All e-commerce stores should be allowed to operate.”

The other problem with Ramaphosa’s plan lies in the fact that government departments need to make regulations specifying which companies can reopen, when and how this will happen, and even how people will be allowed to do exercise. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare, and creates huge centralised control over the economy. The same ministers who decided we can’t have cooked chicken will now decide how hundreds of thousands of businesses can begin to operate.

On this point, Steenhuisen argues: “It is important to establish absolute certainty around this new phased approach, and so the details must be clear and unambiguous. We cannot have the issue muddied by conflicting statements from various ministers.”

Blanket, wide-ranging decisions, such as allowing only a third of staff back at work, may be too restrictive. For example, if an optometrist employs only a receptionist and a cleaner, can only one of them work, no matter how large the space?

Rather than trusting South Africans to make the right decisions on social distancing, this puts the decisions in the hands of the bureaucrats, who haven’t exactly excelled in recent weeks – banning wine exports and hot food in grocery stores, for example.

Armed with proper health information, South Africans can make good choices, even if the government doesn’t seem to think so.

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