President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

In the light of an orgy of violent protests this weekend, spurred by the #FreeZumaNow movement, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address on Sunday night felt horribly distant to the events on the ground that have torn through the streets of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Joburg.

“We are building up, not shutting down,” said the president. “We will remain focused on protecting health and saving lives. We will work as never before to ensure everyone is vaccinated. We will rebuild our economy and create jobs.”

Soothing words, maybe, but it was just another lone-man televised address (no questions, folks), in which he extended the current lockdown level 4 to July 25.  

“While there are those who may be hurt and angry at this moment, there can never be any justification for such violent, destructive and disruptive actions. It is a matter of concern to all South Africans that some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilisation,” he said.

Ramaphosa was, of course, referring to the “protests” after the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court last week. Yet, incredibly, he got through his entire scripted address without once mentioning Zuma’s name. 

Or the fact that what was happening was nothing more complex than opportunistic looting by thugs, egged on by members of the radical economic transformation faction of the political party of which he is president.

“The rule of law safeguards against the abuse of power. The rule of law protects the poor and the vulnerable. Since the advent of democracy, institutions like the Constitutional Court have been at the forefront of improving the lives of South Africans. Those who are involved in acts of violence will be arrested and prosecuted,” he said.

Sure — in theory. Even as Ramaphosa spoke, harrowing scenes of anarchy were being shared across social media: looters running amok through uMlazi mall; police shooting back at gangs of thieves in parts of Gauteng; coal trucks burning in Ogies; reports of engineering factories being looted in Alberton; and an SABC news crew robbed of their equipment while covering protests in Alexandra. 

It would appear that these riots have been well orchestrated, and questions must be asked why the mouthpieces of this “ethnic mobilisation” — people like Zuma’s daughter Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, in particular — have been allowed to continue using their social media accounts to incite insurrection. So much for the president’s assertion that “we will not tolerate acts of criminality”.

Ramaphosa’s assurances are likely to ring hollow for the transport firms which own any of the 23 trucks torched on Friday night. And to the owners of liquor stores whose shops have also been looted in this free-for-all.

Equally, the tavern owners, wine farms and restaurateurs, who are still unable to sell liquor legally for another 14 days, will feel just as abandoned by the government since, crucially, there has been scant offer of relief for the fourth such shutdown since last March.

“Alcohol abuse is associated with gatherings and nonadherence to public health regulations,” said Ramaphosa. “At the same time, we know and recognise the vital contribution of the alcohol industry to our economy”.

Well, that’s not the way the alcohol sector sees it.

Instead, the industry says that at no stage during the past 15 months has the government bothered to share any of the “science” behind its reasoning, despite being asked to numerous times. 

Lucky Ntimane, convener of the National Liquor Traders Council, says: “There is an apparent misalignment between the statements made by the president that consultations are taking place with all affected sectors, when in fact it is a monologue, with industry making numerous proposals and sharing research while the government keeps its cards close to its chest.”

You’d think, given how much worse the ban threatens to make SA’s unemployment crisis, Ramaphosa’s government could bother to just speak to this industry.

According to the the SA Liquor Brand Owners Association, this 14-day ban will cost R6.1bn in lost sales revenue, and an estimated R3.6bn in direct tax revenue (excluding excise tax). So far, the ban has put an estimated 4,604 jobs at risk, bringing the total jobs at risk for all bans to date to 233,547 jobs (equivalent to 1.49% of the national total for formal and informal employment for 2020). 

This lockdown has led to the permanent closure of another 1,000 restaurants, says the Restaurant Association of SA — though, mercifully, they have now been allowed to open their doors to sit-down diners again, though at a limit of 50 people per establishment.

It’s a bleak scenario, even if there were fragments of good news amid the platitudes. 

For example, it turns out that more than 4.2-million people have been vaccinated to date, nearly 190,000 people are, on average, being vaccinated each weekday, and the government is working to ensure that vaccination sites are located closer to where people live. And, critically, the government has also finally made funding available to vaccinate over weekends.

SA’s pitiful vaccine stock is also being bulked up and pharmaceutical group Aspen is to deliver over 17-million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to SA and other African countries over the next three months, beginning later this month. 

This was the silver lining. But it was hard to shake the sense of lost opportunity: that if SA’s vaccination rollout hadn’t been as glacial initially, maybe we’d have football stadiums filled with cheering fans, like Wembley last night — rather than thousands of looters trashing what’s left of the economy.

Talevi is the FM's Money & Investing editor.

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