Johannesburg, South Africa – The government of South Africa has unveiled plans for a partial reopening of the economy on May 1, after implementing one of the most stringent coronavirus-related lockdowns on the continent.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Thursday that the country would lift COVID-19 restrictions in phases, with only certain industries allowed to operate at each stage under a five-level risk system.
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“Every business will have to adhere to detailed health and safety protocols to protect their employees, and workplace plans will be put in place to enable disease surveillance and prevent the spread of infection,” Ramaphosa said in a televised address.
On March 27, just as South Africa announced its first coronavirus deaths, the government enforced a strict lockdown for an initial period of three weeks. All sectors of the economy deemed inessential were shut down as part of a series of drastic containment measures that even saw the sales of tobacco and alcohol being banned.
The lockdown was then extended until the end of April, with the number of confirmed infections beginning to plateau as the country stayed at home.
In his speech on Thursday, Ramaphosa said the lockdown would be lowered from its current level five – the most severe, with only essential services permitted – to level four next Friday. This will see only a partial opening of industries such as mining and manufacturing, while the agriculture, financial and telecoms sectors will be allowed to resume activities in full.
The country then plans to gradually continue opening up its economy, but restrictions on restaurants, bars, conference facilities along with sporting, cultural and religious events will remain in place, even when the country moves to level 1, the most relaxed alert stage.
As of Friday, South Africa has 3,953 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 75 deaths and 1,473 recoveries.
“We must not give up now,” Ramaphosa said in his televised address, urging South Africans to continue self-isolating at home unless absolutely necessary.
“I am asking you to stay strong. I am asking you to remain united. Stay home, stay safe.”
The announcement came after significant pressure from the country’s private sector who argued the lockdown was threatening the survival of many businesses in an economy struggling with recession even before the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 has forced the economy into a reform cycle. Just by the very nature of this crisis, things are going to change locally and abroad,” said Thabi Leoka, an economist.
“For instance, business globally will be embracing mechanisation over labour. This presents unique challenges for an unequal society like South Africa.”
Ramaphosa’s statement came two days after he announced a $26bn stimulus package that analysts have described as unprecedented in a society that has more welfare recipients than taxpayers.
Existing child support grants will be effectively doubled to $50 until the end of the year while unemployed South Africans who are not supported otherwise will be granted $18 a month.
The latter measure is essentially an income support grant for those without work – before the coronavirus crisis, unemployment in the country stood at almost 30 percent.
The measure will be implemented alongside direct cash injections into businesses through a public and private partnership that has raised $300m.
“We’ve seen coordinated governance on an unprecedented scale. Government is addressing many of the societal challenges South Africa faces,” Leoka said.
“Its impressive to see how the coronavirus has removed many of the political blockages usually associated with the state.”
For Brian Lekgethi, an unemployed Soweto resident, the measures are welcome – but only go so far.
“This money will do something but I want a job,” he told Al Jazeera. “Forever I have been trying to get a job but I never get one.”
The package meanwhile does not provide any direct support to a large part of the informal sector: Foreign nationals who have largely entered the country irregularly.
“I can’t clean in the house I usually do because of the lockdown. I have no money now and I am starving here in South Africa and my family have nothing to eat back home either,” said one such domestic worker from Zimbabwe, who did not want to be identified.
“I am trying to sell at least some vegetables without being caught by police to make money. We are stuck here in this country. We can not go back and now we can’t even make a living.”
Expatriate rights groups have also warned the situation could lead to a spike in crime as people try to survive and may have a knock-on effect of xenophobic sentiment.
“People are struggling and now is not the time for government to exclude people that have been in South Africa for a very long time,” said Nqabutho Mabhena, chairman of the Zimbabwean Community in South Africa.
Earlier this week, the government announced that it planned to mobilise some 73,000 additional troops to help implement the nationwide lockdown – the largest military deployment in South Africa’s democratic era.
“They aren’t deployed as of yet, but they are preparing the entire defence in order to deploy whatever elements as and when needed,” Helmoed Heitman, a military analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“It won’t only be security deployment but their capabilities to deliver medical, logistical and infrastructure maintenance services may also be called on.”
Meanwhile, the country’s military ombudsman says it has received dozens of complaints since the start of the lockdown, the majority of whom involved alleged that soldiers were using excessive force during lockdown patrols.
Civil society and opposition parties have condemned footage surfacing online of people being forced to do physical exercise such as push-ups by gun-wielding soldiers as they return from grocery shopping in the country’s townships.
“Soldiers don’t have experience policing civilians,” Heitman said. “But there is absolutely no excuse for instances of excessive force.”
However, in spite of the serious challenges, South Africa has been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its approach to handling the virus.
In a nationwide effort, the country has sent out some 28,000 healthcare workers, trained in detection and surveillance, along with 67 mobile lab units to carry out screenings and tests.
To date, more than 130,000 people have been tested and some two million screened for the virus.
“It is interesting how South Africa is bringing the disease under control and how some African countries are showing the way,” Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergency programme, said in Geneva on Wednesday evening.
“We need to leverage the capacity that exist in Africa – the innovation and the science.”