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South African business wants virus lockdown ended within weeks

Four million jobs at risk, says Business for South Africa.
Image: Bloomberg

South Africa needs to end a lockdown within weeks or Africa’s most industrialised economy could haemorrhage as many as four million jobs and contract by 16% this year, the nation’s main business group said.

The country lacks the financial resources to withstand the extended closure of companies, said Martin Kingston, head of the economic work group at Business for South Africa, which represents the country’s biggest business organisations. Safety protocols must be put in place and commerce must restart, he said in an interview.

The government compelled most businesses to shut on March 27 in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Restrictions were marginally eased on May 1, with a move to so-called Level 4 from 5, and key industries such as mining are only operating at partial capacity. Borders have been closed except for limited cargo and the number of people queuing for food parcels is growing.

“We are not like the European Union, or the US or China, Japan” and can’t withstand a drawn-out process, Kingston said. “We are talking about weeks, not months, to get through the levels. That is what we aspire to as business.”

South Africa has won praise for limiting known infections, the first of which was confirmed on March 5, to 7 808 so far. The lockdown has helped buy time for the health services to prepare for an expected surge in cases. The government has said its risk-adjustment approach to reopen the economy spans six to eight months.

While the authorities haven’t indicated when they might further loosen controls, Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and chairman of a ministerial advisory group on the outbreak, told reporters on Wednesday that keeping the economy almost completely closed beyond May 1 would have served little purpose.

Government departments will need to align their views and decide how best to steer the economy, Kingston said, adding that business is eager to cooperate and help raise funding. Sacrifices will need to be made, he said in reference to an ongoing debate on whether to try and keep the bankrupt national airline, South African Airways, afloat.

Businesses will also have to tighten their belts and may need to narrow the gap between management and worker salaries, and consider reducing dividend payments to conserve resources, he said.

“We are going to have to embark on a steeper trajectory of inclusive and sustainable growth,” he said. “We can’t expect that people are going to enjoy the lifestyles they’ve had until now in a post Covid-19 era.”

© 2020 Bloomberg

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