17 May 2020
of a Centrist
It has become customary to mock President Cyril Ramaphosa’s handling of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the republic.
And Wednesday was no different. Much ink and airtime were spent criticising his consultative approach to reopening the economy. But it is tosh to have expected the president just 13 days into level 4 to summarily announce a move to level 3, when there are economic implications to ponder over.
Consultations close room for miscommunication and the eroding of confidence in public institutions. We as a people decided that we will have a president and not a king. Even a concession by Ramaphosa that the government has had missteps in its efforts to ward off the deadly virus drew scorn.
It boggles the mind why would people expect a government fighting a novel virus not to make mistakes. One of the best ways to minimise mistakes when facing an unknown enemy is to consult as broadly as possible before recklessly taking decisions.
In all the mud thrown at government’s admitted missteps – data and facts have become a distant cousin. But perspective matters. A great deal. The concentration of economic activity in the provinces of Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and their metros has laid bare the challenges facing Ramaphosa in deciding which areas to assign level 3 and which ones to retain at level 4. It cannot be an emotional decision, but a practical one with eyes set firmly on what will be good for the economy.
Data produced by Statistics SA (Stats SA) show the complexity of the decision-making and consultation Ramaphosa has to undertake as he navigates this tightrope. For example, Gauteng contributed just over a third to South Africa’s economic output in 2016.
If it were a country, it would be the seventh-biggest economy on the continent. Northern Cape by comparison contributed just 2% to national gross domestic product, making it the smallest provincial economy.
Looking at the same 2016 data, the stats agency found that KwaZulu-Natal produced a level of economic output that was bigger than Ghana and Tunisia – the coastal province would be the 12th-largest economy if it were a country. The Western Cape would be the 16th-biggest economy in Africa, generating about the same level of economic activity as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The three provinces are also the biggest employers. According to the latest jobs data from Stats SA, Gauteng has a workforce of 5-million people, and KZN has a workforce of 2.6-million. When we talk about reopening the economy – surely by relaxing regulations in my home province of the Free State and keeping stricter regulations in
Gauteng – will be a folly.
The discussions to move most of the country to level 3 must take the impact on the economy into consideration while also minimising the risk of a second wave of the spread of COVID-19. That is a decision that cannot be rushed into.