/ 23 April 2020

Ramaphosa announces gradual easing of Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa

Safrica Health Virus
Enforcing the lockdown: Soldiers and police in the Cape Flats. There are concerns that some members of the security forces are abusing their authority (Pieter Bauermeister/AFP)

On Thursday night President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an easing of the nationwide lockdown in response to the Covid-19 outbreak in South Africa. He said a phased reopening of the economy will begin on May 1. Ramaphosa noted that although a lockdown remains the most effective way to limit the spread of the virus, the prosperity of South Africans would be at risk with a continued lockdown. 

“Nationwide lockdown cannot be sustained indefinitely,” he said. “People need to eat, earn a living and companies need to be able to produce and trade, need to generate revenue and keep people employed.” 

The president, however, noted that the lockdown has worked and the need to save lives and prevent the country’s health system becoming overwhelmed remains paramount. In consultation with scientists and other experts, the government has introduced a tiered system of response to the virus — South Africans may find some echos in the tiered system to that used for load-shedding, with level five signalling the most strict response. 

Ramaphosa said the National Command Council had developed an approach that determines measures we should have in place based on the direction of pandemic in the country.  

There will be five alert levels:

  • Level 5 – drastic measures required to contain spread of virus to save lives
  • Level 4 – Some activity allowed, subject to extreme caution 
  • Level 3 – Easing of some restrictions including on work and social activities 
  • Level 2  – Further easing of restrictions but maintenance of physical distancing and restrictions on leisure
  • Level 1 – Most normal activity can resume with precautions and health guidelines followed at all times

On Friday May 1, South Africa will enter alert level four.

This means that some activity will be allowed, but with extreme caution. Further details will be provided in the coming days. The president, however, highlighted that some businesses would resume operations only under specific health and safety protocols to protect the workplace and employees.

Plans to prevent further infections

Businesses will be allowed to resume activity in a phased manner, but only after preparing the workplace for the return to operation. Only a third of the workforce would be allowed to return during level four, with the result that some businesses would not be able to reach full production.

Businesses were encouraged to adopt a work-from-home strategy where possible.

Ministers will provide details of phased reopening of schools and other educational institutions. 

Ramaphosa also said that sectors would still be able to negotiate with the relevant departments on opening. 

Borders will remain closed to international travel, except for the continued repatriation of South African nationals and foreign citizens. No travel between provinces will be allowed, except for funerals, the transportation of goods and in exceptional circumstances. Public transport can continue to operate, with a limit on the number of passengers and extreme hygiene requirements. 

Although the new level meant a relaxation of regulations, Ramaphosa did not compromise on activity that would foster people gathering, saying in no uncertain terms that, with the exception of funerals and for work purposes, gathering remained prohibited. 

He said the public is encouraged to stay at home, other than for essential personal movement, essential work, or work in sectors under controlled opening.

Exercising will also be allowed, but under strict conditions. The elderly and people with underlying health conditions are urged to remain at home. 

“If people do not travel, the virus does not travel,” Ramaphosa said.  

“We know, for example, that just one funeral in Port St Johns, and one religious gathering in Mangaung contributed to a spate of infections in their respective provinces … It is therefore essential that we do everything in our means to restrict the movement of people — although it runs counter to our very nature — to reduce the contact that each of us has with each other.”

Given the amount of public pressure regarding the sale of cigarettes, it was not surprising that Ramaphosa specifically mentioned lifting this ban, and that the range of goods permitted to be sold will also be extended, with further details expected from addresses by ministers.

Several restrictions will remain in place — bars and shebeens will remain closed. Conferences, events, concerts, cinemas, sporting events, and religious and social gatherings will also not be allowed. 

Details of SANDF role

Ramaphosa confirmed that he had employed more than 70 000 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel to assist in combating the pandemic, but said that their role would go further than supporting the police. Although the army would continue to support the police, troops would also focus on providing assistance in other areas — such as the provision of water, infrastructure maintenance and health services. 

This is in line with the letter sent to Parliament this week, which referred to section 18 of the Defence Act, which provides for the employment of troops to preserve life and health in an emergency and to provide humanitarian relief, to ensure essential services, to support economic upliftment and for border control. 

This is different to section 19, which provides for joint operations with the police for maintaining law and order and combating crime. The letter to Parliament indicated that this employment would last until June 26.

Read the president’s address here.

Watch the president’s address again:

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