Don’t Sacrifice the Economy in the Fight Against Coronavirus

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Life or death Lockdown

I’ve said this before: I am privileged as a resident of a township. It has given me a wider perspective on life, and I am forever grateful to be in this position.

My township of Khayelitsha is an interesting space because we have a variety of people residing in it. You will find professionals either working for government or the private sector. We have businesses, formal and informal. In fact, I believe that the informal sector keeps our township going. We have homes, either acquired through the banks, or homes that people have built for themselves. 

We also have informal settlements, sadly. When an economy isn’t growing, the smaller provinces are hardest hit. Add to that incompetence and corruption by government officials, and you get bigger cities having to contend with large volumes of people who are looking for ways to earn a living. That’s why we are having an increase in informal settlements. The Western Cape province is one of those facing this challenge.

At first there was a hot debate about whether the lockdown period of 21 days should have been extended or not. I also weighed in on it. Unfortunately, the side that won was the one that argued in favour of extending the lockdown and sacrificing the economy in the process. 

In my opinion, this is the worst decision that the Ramaphosa administration is embarked on. Government is not even willing to significantly ease the rules of the lockdown to give businesses leeway so they can start operating. The idea that liquor stores, restaurants, and fast food outlets aren’t and won’t be allowed to operate is ludicrous. 

South Africa’s economy has been in the doldrums for the last 10 years. Economic reforms which our government has been advised on are still being ignored. I want to understand how letting the most vulnerable businesses go under during this 5-week lockdown is helping the economy. I want to understand how risking people’s jobs is good for them. 

This morning on my walk, I saw something that will remain etched on my memory for a long time. A municipality-contracted truck passed by. On the back of this truck were portable toilets from the nearest informal settlement. Alongside these toilets were about eight young black men. The image took me back to the 1980s where in the former Transkei we would have middle-aged men working for the municipality and going around emptying bucket toilets in homes. 

Even as a child back then, I thought this had to be the worst job on Earth. Unfortunately, 30 years later, this is where we’re stuck as a country. My heart sank for these young men who could be educated with better jobs, had we had a government that was invested in our youth. Today in South Africa, you will find a lot of graduates, who can’t find jobs. Some have to resort to these dehumanising ways of earning a living. 

For me, it’s simple: We can’t claim to be saving people’s lives while we are killing the economy. You can’t choose one over the other. Freeing the economy right now, during the pandemic, will automatically mean that people remain in jobs and are earning an income. Businesses can and will continue operating while observing the lockdown rules, as we have all seen them doing. I have more faith in private businesses than I will ever have in a centralised government system. Private companies are well-placed at playing a more meaningful role in fighting the coronavirus. In fact, you can see it with private laboratories doing 4/5 of the coronavirus tests in South Africa. 

Government needs to trust the private sector more. They can innovate and come up with the solutions that aren’t so easy to find in government. We are in this together, after all. 

Let’s think outside the box. How can we put our people first by protecting their livelihoods? How can we educate more people in how they protect each other at home and public spaces? Can we trust that people, armed with this knowledge, will always do better in protecting themselves and their families? 

It would be immoral to sacrifice the economy while government claims to be protecting us from coronavirus. How do politicians sleep at night knowing every hour of the lockdown that passes, we have more people facing hunger because they can’t work and therefore cannot earn an income? Does it matter to our lawmakers that each day that passes we’re risking businesses and therefore they will be forced to shut their doors after the lockdown? 

I grapple with these questions in my head every time someone accuses me of wanting people to die from coronavirus if the lockdown rules are eased. I know I could never want people to die. All I plead for is for the President to reconsider his position and ease the rules more substantially. Allow liquor traders, taverns, and fast food outlets to operate freely through takeaway services. Let retailers sell all their goods.

Mr President, this will not mean you are weak, it will mean you are a man of reason and that you can be persuaded to change your mind when you have erred in your judgement. I am making this plea on behalf of millions of South Africans currently facing job losses and failing businesses. We can save our economy and save people’s lives. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

Unathi Kwaza, Businesswoman and Board member of the Free Market Foundation