Most parts of South Africa could downgrade to level 3 lockdown by the end of May, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his address to the nation on Wednesday evening.
The country has been under level 4 lockdown since 1 May and was at level 5 from late March, leading to growing pressure on the government to open up the economy more rapidly.
However, Ramaphosa reiterated his warning that lifting the lockdown too abruptly and quickly could result in “a rapid and unmanageable surge in infections.”
He added, “Our goal is to steadily increase economic activity while putting measures in place to reduce the transmission of the virus and provide adequate care for those who become infected and need treatment.
“For now, infections are mostly concentrated in a few metropolitan municipalities and districts in the country.
“It is important that we maintain stringent restrictions in these areas and restrict travel out of these areas to parts of the country with lower rates of infection.
“We will immediately begin a process of consultation with relevant stakeholders on a proposal that by the end of May, most of the country be placed on alert level 3, but that those parts of the country with the highest rates of infection remain on level 4.”
Changes to level 4 regulations
Ramaphosa also said in the next few days, the government will announce changes to level 4 regulations “to expand permitted business activities in the retail space and e-commerce and reduce restrictions on exercise.”
This follows pressure, particularly from the Democratic Alliance (DA), on Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel to further ease restrictions on e-commerce.
The President further addressed growing doubts in some quarters about the efficacy of the lockdown, insisting that according to data projections, it has saved lives.
“The best current estimate is that, without the lockdown and the other measures we have taken, at least 80,000 South Africans could have been infected by now. And the death toll could have been at least eight times higher than it is,” he said.
Acknowledgement of mistakes
Ramaphosa acknowledged that the government had “fallen short of your expectations” in some instances.
He explained, “Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory and some have been poorly explained. Implementation has sometimes been slow and enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent and too harsh.
“As your President, as this government, we are firmly committed to meeting the expectations you rightly have of us. Where we have disappointed, we will continue to make amends. Where we make mistakes, we will continue to correct them.”
Cabinet is also developing a strategy for economic recovery – the third phase of the response to the pandemic – and will make announcements once “the work has been completed,” Ramaphosa said.