President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday evening. (GCIS)

Adriaan Basson: Ramaphosa wins the day but it's up to us to keep the economy open

On Sunday night, Ramaphosa took charge of the crisis and showed the authoritarians in Cabinet that he is still the boss.

On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered one of his strongest speeches yet since the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa.

Starting almost exactly on time, a determined Ramaphosa took charge of the direction of the country's approach after a few turbulent weeks.

It's been nine weeks since Ramaphosa imposed a lockdown on the South African society and economy. Despite his best intentions and advice, the lockdown has damaged the country's vitals.

Thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods. The tourism industry, once seen as the jewel in the crown of economic growth, has been all but gutted. Brutality by overzealous police officers and soldiers led to a loss of life.

On top of that, Covid-19 has taken away 429 compatriots and counting. Our infections are rising at an all time high.

In terms of the original criteria of the government's risk-adjusted approach, the country should not have been "downgraded" to alert Level 3.

Infections are rising. Deaths are increasing. Hospitals are filling up.

But Ramaphosa has realised the severity of the hunger pandemic and that he can no longer starve South Africans and businesses to protect them from the virus.

Our early lockdown has saved many lives, but we had to open-up the economy to prevent a total breakdown of society. Without saying it, Ramaphosa has effectively done away with the criteria for the levels system.

Certain industries will remain closed and freedom of movement is not yet fully restored. From next Monday, you will be allowed to return to work, exercise when you want and purchase alcohol to consume at home.

According to Ramaphosa, our move to Level 3 will see eight-million South Africans returning to work. Most of them will be overjoyed by this. Many people have not earned a cent in two months.

But, and this is a big BUT, the president has issued a stern warning that we may have to go back to a hard lockdown if infections get out of control and hospital beds are unavailable for those in need.

The only way to prevent spreading Covid-19 at work or when you travel is, in the president's words, the "simplest" way: wash your hands regularly, wear your face mask, keep a 1.5m physical distance, don't touch your face and clear surfaces regularly.

Business owners, including those in charge of taxis and transport, must heed this call to ensure they stay open. All health protocols and procedures will have to be followed when you open your office, factory or shop.

Ramaphosa was correct when he said, "this is now in your hands".

The president's announcement of a "downgrade" to Level 3 for the entire country - including the Western Cape and hotspot metros - is a welcome sign that he is still in charge of the executive.

There were legitimate fears that the authoritarians in his Cabinet had the upper hand to use the lockdown for reasons other than preventing the spreading of the coronavirus.

He may have had to give up the fight on bringing back tobacco under Level 3, but Ramaphosa won the day on the big stuff - the opening-up of the economy being numero uno.

The tobacco fight will play itself out in the courts in the next couple of weeks. Suffice to say I am looking forward to hearing Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma presenting her research on the link between smoking and Covid-19 to the court.

Ramaphosa further put to bed the vindictive actions of the health department when, without naming her, he thanked Professor Glenda Gray and all the scientists serving on the Ministerial Advisory Committee for their advice.

In a considered and presidential fashion, he acknowledged the "diverse and sometimes challenging views of the scientists and health professionals in our country, which stimulate public debate and enrich our response".

I trust that a withdrawal of acting health director general Anban Pillay's letter to the Medical Research Council, asking for an investigation into Gray's views, will follow suit.

- Adriaan Basson is editor-in-chief of News24