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We can and must open more of the economy

The government has a small window of opportunity to win back public trust by adopting a more rational, reasonable approach to the crisis

03 May 2020 - 00:00 By JOHN STEENHUISEN
It should be up to each business to decide whether it can meet this safety threshold and open its doors.
It should be up to each business to decide whether it can meet this safety threshold and open its doors.
Image: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

The government should urgently reconsider its approach to opening up the economy. The National Treasury on Thursday released a briefing on the impact of Covid-19 in which it estimates that between 3-million and 7-million jobs will be lost.

It also predicts a fall of about 30% in government revenue this year. This is an economic crisis.

SA needs far more business activity to resume under level 4 to avert catastrophic social and economic damage. The lifting of restrictions that came into effect on May 1 doesn't go nearly far enough, and there is in fact very little that distinguishes level 4 from level 5.

The DA's Smart Lockdown proposal sets out in detail how we can open more of our economy without compromising public safety.

Quite simply, the only criterion for assessing whether a business can reopen should be if it can achieve an appropriate level of safety - that is, if it can do enough to reduce the risk of transmission. All the other criteria amount to little more than authoritarian meddling.

Every business in every sector is essential - not only to that business owner, but also to the employees, their families and our economy. Level 4 indicates a high level of risk, so the government should specify rules that ensure a high level of safety.

It should then be up to each business to decide whether it can meet this safety threshold and open its doors.

Many businesses will choose to invest in the measures necessary to achieve this - measures such as temperature screening of staff and customers, sanitising the workplace and enlisting private transport for staff. If they can achieve the required level of safety, they should be able to get on with providing jobs and generating tax revenue.

The DA approach empowers employers, employees and customers within a reasonable set of safety rules. It gives people more control over their own lives and livelihoods within a safe environment.

It is aligned with natural incentives. People want to earn a living to provide for themselves and their families. They also want to keep themselves and their families safe.

Under the current level 4, many of those businesses will instead remain closed.

The government's approach is unnecessarily blunt and restrictive, with simply no justification for many of the arbitrary rules and restrictions. Reasonableness and compliance go hand in hand. As hunger and hardship set in, people will grow resentful and rebellious. We are already seeing signs of this.

The government's inflexible, irrational approach may undermine the whole Covid-19 response by fostering mass noncompliance. Many businesses will have to choose between breaking the law or going bankrupt. Once businesses start operating illegally, they stop paying tax and they stop adhering to safety protocols. SA cannot afford this outcome.

The government has built up goodwill since the pandemic hit, but it will lose the people's confidence with this unreasonable approach. It now has a small window of opportunity to change tack and adopt a more flexible, sustainable approach and win back the trust and co-operation of citizens.

The absence of common sense in bans such as those on smoking and the sale of hot food only leads to resentment and rebelliousness.

That the cigarette ban's champion, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was reported to have been close to known illicit cigarette smugglers further erodes the legitimacy of the government's approach.

The restriction on unfettered e-commerce (online shopping with delivery) is incomprehensible. Other countries are looking to e-commerce to keep small businesses afloat, save jobs and service customers. Here we've chosen arbitrary ministerial diktat over harnessing individual creativity and decision-making.

Trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel's claim that allowing unfettered e-commerce would be "unfair" makes no sense in the context of this crisis. Very little is fair right now, but we must make the most of every opportunity to keep our economy ticking over.

But the most objectionable and irrational decision of all is surely the application of race-based criteria in the provision of emergency government relief.

A month ago, when it first emerged in a leaked document that the department of small business development was planning on using broad-based BEE (BBBEE) as a qualifying criterion for relief, there was a public outcry.

The department quickly moved to quell this anger by denying that this would be the case.

But subsequently both the department of small business development and the department of tourism have confirmed that they will indeed use race to determine who qualifies for government help. It is clear that this was the intention all along.

Withholding emergency assistance because of the colour of someone's skin is unconscionable.

SA needs far more business activity to resume under level 4 to avert catastrophic social and economic damage

All South Africans are affected by this virus. And the bitter irony is that most of these white-owned businesses that the government refuses to help have black employees with families to support.

That is who the ANC is hurting by playing race politics in a crisis.

The DA has instructed its lawyers to file an application to challenge this matter in the high court.

We will be asking for it to be declared impermissible and unlawful for the government to use BBBEE status, race, gender, age or disability as criteria for determining who will receive relief and who won't.

We cannot have the president on television twice a week calling for solidarity and urging all South Africans to dig deep to help fund the government's relief efforts, only for some South Africans to then be told they don't qualify for help.

We are all in this together, and we need to stand united. All contributions must be welcomed, whether this is in the form of a donation, a service or the ability to keep a business viable and keep people in jobs.

Every single job saved is precious, and every business must be considered essential, regardless of the industry, the size or the race of the owner.

The DA will not stand by and watch as the ANC's heavy-handed response to Covid-19 inflicts irreparable damage to our economy and society. We will not stop putting forward clear and rational solutions for the safe opening of the economy, and we will not stop fighting against regulations that are irrational or immoral.

Steenhuisen is leader of the DA


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