This 21-day lockdown is quite obviously a solution that has been cooked up for a very different context to the one prevailing in South Africa. It is surely best suited to a setting where all citizens have access to decent houses or apartments that are constantly supplied with water, sanitation, electricity, data, telecommunications and refuse removal. Homes equipped with decently sized fridges and places to store food, as well as some form of entertainment and a window on life outside, such as a garden or a balcony. Households within walking distance to grocery stores, pharmacies and medical facilities. Houses built alongside roads and public amenities that are easy to monitor using close-circuit television and police foot patrols.
To be fair, a South Africa-specific solution would have been impossible to develop in the response-time provided. Therefore, this unfit-for-purpose solution that has been served up now must be consumed, albeit with a bit of local flavour.
There is some good news about the timing of the lockdown: it overlaps somewhat with scheduled school and university breaks; it coincides with monthly salary and social-grant payments, meaning that most households will not experience immediate cashflow problems; and, because South Africa is behind the Covid-19-spread curve, there is a general acceptance of the need for decisive action across political parties, business, labour and community groupings.
The bad news is that it coincides with what is South Africa’s worst economic slump and fiscal crisis since the end of apartheid. If we thought the figures outlined by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in the February Budget were bad, one can only imagine how much worse they will be by the time the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement is released. With industrial and mining output to be scaled down and with other businesses either shut entirely or limping along remotely, the growth and fiscal outlook will deteriorate markedly. For government, and most businesses, it’s going to be a case of money out and very little coming back in.
That does not mean these weeks should be lost entirely. What is within our control must be controlled, including abiding by the lockdown rules. Those in the fortunate position to be able to work remotely must do precisely that. Public and private resources must be found to support and strengthen essential services. Preparations for the post-lockdown period should be made, particularly in areas that could provide a much-needed economic stimulus, such as electricity procurement, spectrum release and a reignition of tourism. The lockdown is also a once-in-a century opportunity to forge social cohesion by uniting the country in the fight against a common enemy.
In all cases, the key to making virtue of this necessity lies in leadership. South Africa can be grateful for the initial leadership provided not only by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet colleagues, but also by opposition political leaders, as well as labour, business, educational and, especially, health leaders. The challenge is to extend this unity to the post-lockdown economic revival and social development effort.