In a historic sitting of the National Assembly, Ramaphosa became the first South African president to conduct a parliamentary question-and-answer session through video conferencing.
Because of the coronavirus lockdown, only a minimum number of MPs are allowed into the 400-seat National Assembly chamber. The rest have to dial in.
Ramaphosa told MPs that although the lockdown restriction of business and the slowing down of economic activity was meant to save lives, the economic effects had dawned early on his government.
“Towards the end of April, we realised this pandemic was having a much deeper negative effect. It led us to embark on the second response. It was economic as well as social,” the president told MPs.
This response included a R500-billion support package to stabilise the economy. The president said this was to save jobs and to support South Africans who were no longer earning an income. This included temporary increases to social welfare grants and a R350 grant for people who are not registered for social welfare and who are unemployed.
Emergency budget provisions have also had to be made to equip public health facilities for the peak of the Covid-19 storm. Billions of rand have already been spent on personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses, more than 100 quarantine sites in public and private buildings have been set up, and money has also been made available to hire more medical personnel to assist with people needing treatment.
This, the president said, has been a significant financial burden on the public purse.
Next week Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will table a revised budget in Parliament. It will be a reset of the government’s economic policy with Ramaphosa confirming that zero-based budgeting will be the order of the day. This means that all government department expenses will have to be justified for each financial year.
On Thursday, the South African Reserve Bank governor, Lesetja Kganyago, said the bank expects the local economy to contract 7% this year after “the great lockdown”. It anticipates the worst economic downturn in a century.
On Wednesday, the president announced a further slow and gradual reopening of the economy, with restaurants, personal grooming salons, conferences and some local travel being allowed.
“As much as Covid-19 is a dark cloud that is hanging over us, it does have a silver lining. And that is it gives us an opportunity to look at the way we’ve been doing things. Our policies, processes and institutions, and to see whether they are still fit to deal with the devastation that Covid-19 is going to bring about,” the president said.
The interim leader of the opposition, the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen, asked the president details on what scientific modelling was used to institute a hard lockdown.
In response, Ramaphosa said the government relied on a range of scientific and epidemiological data. He said the South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium had predicted there would be 3.4-million to 3.7-million cases by November this year.
“This pointed to the need to act decisively before the epidemic curve reached an inflection point. This is when the curve changes from a slow, steady increase in cases to exponential, explosive growth. South Africa had an opportunity to act early before its inflexion point had been reached,” he said.
Pressed on whether the hard lockdown was justified at the expense of millions of people losing their jobs, the president said, based on Covid-19 projections, his government had acted in good faith.
“We have not been short on information that should be made available. I’m one of those who would say that whatever information there is needs to be put out in the public,” he said. “The South African government has led this process with honesty and integrity and without seeking to hide anything with the people of South Africa.”
In what is usually a robust engagement between the president and opposition MPs — with many often playing to TV cameras in the chamber — the first virtual Q&A session was far more subdued. This is helped by the fact that the speaker holds the power to mute heckling MPs.
This didn’t stop Economic Freedom Fighters MPs from complaining about issues such as the fact that Ramaphosa was seated next to a roaring fireplace, and that he was using the presidential seal in his video.
The president later reframed the shot to include only his face and the South African flag.
Deputy speaker Lechesa Tsenoli reminded MPs that the president is not an MP and is not subject to parliamentary rules.
Tsenoli then muted EFF MPs’ online mics, allowing the president to continue.