NOMPU SIZIBA: President Cyril Ramaphosa held the highly anticipated Family Meeting on June 27 2021, when he announced that the country was backtracking to Adjusted Level 4 of the lockdown. He cited the rapid spread of the Coronavirus, specifically the Delta variant, which was first found in India. The worry remains that if too many people become sick the country’s health facilities will become too overwhelmed, which could then lead to even more deaths. The case of balancing the cause of saving lives and livelihoods was uppermost in the minds of many. So – did the government make the right calls in the various decisions it announced yesterday?
Well, to get Business Unity South Africa’s view on things I’m joined on the line by Martin Kingston, the vice-president at Busa. Thanks very much for joining us, Martin. There were a lot of restrictions that kicked in: no leisure travel into Gauteng, no gatherings whatsoever; the alcohol ban, of course; restaurants can do only take-aways or deliveries; and other issues. Did the president overshoot your expectations with the restrictions in terms of balancing lives with livelihoods?
MARTIN KINGSTON: Well, good evening Nompu and your listeners. Not at all. The president, we believe, took the right decision and it was in line with the engagements that we’ve had as business, and the advice and input that we’d given. The third wave that we’re currently experiencing, not just in Gauteng but in four other provinces so far, we believe will spread, if it hasn’t already, to the rest of the country – and is extremely pernicious. We have to take every measure that we can as a country to make sure that we can protect people’s health and indeed their lives, and that we stop the health system from being overwhelmed while minimising the impact as you’ve indicated on the economy.
In that respect we’ve had lots of experience as a consequence of the last 15 months since we went into hard lockdown to make sure that we minimise those impacts, recognising as you’ve said that there are many individuals and businesses – particularly small and medium-sized enterprises – across the economy that are going to suffer over the next two weeks and longer if the adjusted Level 4 lockdown is going to be extended.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. Now the problem, Martin, as you say with people going to suffer over the next two weeks, is that those two weeks – or even a month if it’s extended – could have long-term impacts such that people who had a job yesterday may not be able to return to one after the restrictions have been eased.
MARTIN KINGSTON: That is exactly correct. And we have said – and have already reached out to government – that we need to look at what measures can be taken by way of intervention and relief that can be offered. Obviously last year we saw a very successful UIF Ters programme. It took much longer to get off the ground, but it was extensive and it was able to assist millions of people. We need to see whether we can reactivate that.
We need to look at what level of tax relief and other forms of financial assistance can be given to individuals, and indeed companies because, as you rightly point out, it’s optimistic to assume that we’re only going to have to suffer this lockdown over the next two weeks. The President has indicated at the end of that period of time we will review the situation, either maintain it relax it, or indeed impose more aggressive restrictions.
But if we look back at where we were 12 months ago at then Level 4, Level 5, I think as a country we are in a much better place. We understand what we need to do. We’ve become acclimatised to the need to adjust our working behaviour to ensure that we can limit the transmission of the virus and the ramifications that flow from that to the extent that’s possible. That needs to be as a country our number one priority right now.
NOMPU SIZIBA: In the interim, Martin, how satisfied are you around the issues of structural reform that need to take place? No matter what’s happening right now, we need to be doing the work so that we can get the economy on the right trajectory, because we know that even before Covid the economy was not doing well at all.
MARTIN KINGSTON: Well, that’s exactly the right question. Nompu. In fact, you’ll remember that before Covid we were already in a recession, about to be downgraded into junk or sub-investment grade status. We know that it’s going to take us at least three years to return to pre-Covid levels of real GDP if we implement those structural reforms. In July of last year, Business for South Africa, which was formed by Business Unity South Africa and the BBC (Black Business Council), tabled an accelerated economic reform plan to government, and indeed to our social partners. Much of that has found its way through to the recovery and reconstruction plan that’s now being worked on. But it’s not being worked on fast enough or the measures are not being aggressively implemented – although we need to single out, for example, the decision by the President to lift the cap on [electricity] generation to a hundred megawatts only a couple of weeks ago. That I think heralds a sea change, but there need to be many such interventions if we’re going to be able to lift competence levels, particularly in the middle of the pandemic when we’re confronted with the third wave, and we need to demonstrate that we’re not going to act as we have in the past, that we’re going to conduct ourselves as a country in partnership, by the way, between the public and the private sector in a very different way going forward.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. Of course, vaccines are really critical at this stage, and people have not been happy with our vaccine rollout. Are you satisfied that government is now beginning to get on top of that, and that we can accelerate that process sooner rather than later?
MARTIN KINGSTON: Yes, I am. It did take longer than all of us would have liked. Many of us are frustrated and anxious in equal measure. We started Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout programme on May 17. When I say ‘we’, that’s the country as a whole. It really is a partnership between business and government, with government obviously leading the overall architecture and implementation.
We’ve scaled up very rapidly over the past six weeks. Last week we were vaccinating a 100 000 people a day; this week by the end we hope to be vaccinating 150 000 and by the end of July 250 000 a day. The President has challenged us to get to 300 000 a day. We need to ensure that we have as many people as possible who not only are registering – only 50% of those above the age of 60 have registered to date – but registering and then turning up to be vaccinated. We’ve opened up registration as a country to those over 50 on July 1. They’ll start being vaccinated from mid-July. I’m confident that in a couple of weeks’ time, we will see a very significant increase in the breadth and the spread of people being vaccinated, using all of the delivery mechanisms that are at the country’s disposal to ensure that it’s as efficient and rapid as possible.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Martin, thank you very much for your time, sir. That was Martin Kingston, the vice-president at Business Unity South Africa.