/ 21 May 2020

Covid-19 levels a political football in the Western Cape

Safrica Health Virus Islam Ramadan
Safety first: Public gatherings, including for religious purposes, are not allowed under levels 4 and 5. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)


The decision on whether the Western Cape moves to level three lockdown from June 1 may become a battle between the province’s governing party, the Democratic Alliance, and the provincial opposition, the ANC.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced last week that he was preparing to take the country to level three. Local districts and municipalities will be assessed and those found to have high numbers of Covid-19 cases could remain on level four.

The Western Cape has the highest number of cases nationally —  11262 out of 18003 cases as of Wednesday.

The day after Ramaphosa’s announcement, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said the province was ready to move to level three.

“Our task has been to make sure that we ‘flatten the curve’ as much as possible, and that our healthcare system is ready to respond at the peak of the pandemic.”

At the president’s coordinating council, which consists of the president, provincial premiers and the mayors of the largest metro, he presented the Western Cape’s plan. The province had adequate medical resources to deal with the peak in the number of cases, which is expected in July, while also gradually opening sectors of the economy, “thereby preventing a severe humanitarian crisis from unfolding at the same time”, he said. “This is not a zero-sum game. We can care for sick people and save lives now, and we can do it in a way that saves lives in the future too.”

But the opposition ANC in the province said it would not allow the Western Cape to go to level three. In a statement to a virtual sitting of the provincial legislature this week, ANC caucus leader Cameron Dugmore said the premier’s plan would put people’s lives at risk. “The premier’s call is reckless and is clearly driven by a DA agenda. An agenda of exceptionalism. An agenda which places economic recovery at the expense of people’s lives. This call by Premier Winde and the DA is not in the best interests of our province.”

The ANC alliance in the province has vehemently opposed Winde’s plan. “If this anti-humanity, the pro-business-for-profit call is allowed, it will undo the good work of the lockdown in the Western Cape. If fact, due to the unpreparedness of the province, the Western Cape should remain at stage 4, if not returned back to stage 5,” said a statement by labour federation Cosatu, the South African Communist Party, the South African National Civics Organisation and the ANC.

It said they would call on its mother body to press Ramaphosa and the National Corona Command Council to reject plans by the Western Cape to move to level three.

As the only province not governed by the ANC, the Western Cape is an outlier in South African politics. The same applies to the City of Cape Town. Between 2006 and 2016 it was the only metro governed by the national opposition. Political goodwill and non-partisanship during the first few weeks of lockdown is being eroded. The provincial ANC is using the Western Cape’s high rate of infection as an example of the DA’s failure. “The spread of the virus in the Western Cape is largely due to the structure of the public health systems in the province, hence the uncontrollable increase in both new infections and fatalities,” said the ANC-alliance statement.

But DA provincial leader Bonginkosi Madikizela said the picture in the province is not unique. “The premier of Gauteng announced that there are emerging hotspots in his province too. What we are seeing in the Western Cape will soon be happening in other provinces like Gauteng. It’s not a reflection of incompetence, as the ANC suggests, it is an inevitable upsurge of the virus.”

The DA has put forward an economic argument for reopening businesses, which is not dissimilar from the plan set out by the president.

The party has applauded how the president has tackled the coronavirus outbreak. But it has also challenged the strategy under the state of disaster. The DA has four court cases, including one launched in the Constitutional Court, challenging aspects of the lockdown.