Cyril Ramaphosa told us he is under 'great pressure' to open the economy, say opposition leaders

Insiders at the meeting say the president told them business wants the country to skip level 3 and go straight to level 2

21 May 2020 - 16:27 By Andisiwe Makinana and Aphiwe Deklerk
President Cyril Ramaphosa consulted with leaders of opposition parties represented in parliament about the easing of lockdown restrictions.
President Cyril Ramaphosa consulted with leaders of opposition parties represented in parliament about the easing of lockdown restrictions.
Image: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa is said to have told leaders of opposition parties he was under “great pressure” from business and organised labour to open up the economy and move as quickly as possible to lower levels of the lockdown regulations.

Two party leaders who were part of the virtual meeting with Ramaphosa on Wednesday said the president told them about pressure from the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) to open up the economy, and business leaders apparently proposing the country should move directly to lockdown level two as the economy was taking a huge beating.

“He said there is pressure at Nedlac to move to level two and level three, but business was saying you have to open up beyond level three, and unions are also putting on pressure to open the economy,” said an opposition leader who asked not to be named.

The insider said the president did not make any commitment and did not give any timeline.

“But it sounded like we may move sooner rather than later,” said the leader.

Co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma briefed the party leaders on what level three would entail.

This included opening up of retail, malls and construction, and lifting the 8pm to 5am curfew imposed at the beginning of level four.

Dlamini-Zuma allegedly said shebeens, taverns, gyms and other areas where people congregate in large numbers would remain closed.

“She was adamant about [the] cigarette ban, explaining the relationship between smoking and Covid-19,” said the source.

Apparently, the meeting grew heated over a proposal that metropolitan municipalities should remain on level four. The source said there was a proposal that metros could be divided into sub-regions, and there could be different levels within the metros.

The DA's John Steenhuisen apparently spoke out vehemently against this, questioning how the government could say it was opening up the economy but still keep the metros shut down as most of the country's economic activity was focused in the metros.

Steenhuisen did not respond to requests for comment.

Ramaphosa had allegedly said he would take the discussions with party leaders to the Covid-19 National Command Council (NCC).

According to Al Jama-aha's Ganief Hendricks, Ramaphosa did not reply to all the questions raised by the senior MPs in the virtual meeting about the pressure from business to reopen the economy, but indicated he would leave it to trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel to address.

“In the next two days they will take further advice, but he did say he values the input and contribution of Nedlac,” he said.

Hendricks said he expected in the next Nedlac meeting, big business would flex its muscles, while trade unions would be muted because of concerns about job losses.

Another leader, who didn't want to be named, said the meeting was more about getting parties' wishlists, which would be considered along with those of other sectors before the NCC makes a decision.

The MP said there was not much clarity from the meeting as the president spoke about how the 21-day lockdown paid dividends, but would not commit to new impetus to ease the restrictions.

“He said he was still consulting.”

President of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, Mary Kluk, said there was constructive engagement around issues of concern among religious leaders, and they felt  the president listened attentively to input from the various faith groups. 

Kluk said Ramaphosa assured them he would take cognisance of concerns from religious leaders about the resumption of activities.

"But he expressed his concern about the instances of spread at religious services, which happened in South Korea and in our own country in Mangaung, when religious gatherings resulted in rapid and widespread spread of the coronavirus," she said.

Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko confirmed Ramaphosa had discussed with political parties and other stakeholders issues that were coming "from other discussions".

This, she said, was to appraise society in general of the very real divergent views among different stakeholders on the direction the nation should take.

"Metropolitan municipalities are not being targeted for a particular view. Government is rather considering hotspots across the country," she said, explaining that a hotspot was defined by the number of infections, the rate of transmission in that geographic area and the public health capacity to respond adequately to the outbreak.

Diko said the president and government were considering all submissions made during the consultation process, and would announce decisions made in due course.