Via Financial Times

South Africa plans to keep its major cities under tight lockdown but is preparing to ease national restrictions further this month in order to stem heavy damage to its economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised national address on Wednesday that “we are now preparing for a further easing of the lockdown and a gradual opening of the economy” at the end of May.

But Mr Ramaphosa, who is facing rising public frustration over the slow pace of reopening after nearly two months of restrictions, said that his government also planned to consult on measures to keep areas with high rates of infection under stricter measures.

South Africa, which is Africa’s most industrialised nation, has reported more than 12,000 cases and 219 deaths to date. There has been a sharp uptick in reported cases in some regions in recent days, particularly the Western Cape, the home of Cape Town, as testing has revealed clusters of outbreaks. Infection rates are high in other cities.

Like other African leaders, Mr Ramaphosa is having to juggle exit from lockdowns with an acceleration in infections as the continent is still early to the global pandemic. He has warned South Africans to expect cases to surge as restrictions end, although he has argued that “valuable time” was bought to slow the epidemic early on.

“The best current estimate is that without the lockdown . . . at least 80,000 South Africans could have been infected by now and the death toll could have been at least eight times higher,” Mr Ramaphosa said. The country’s health system was now better prepared, he added.

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South Africa has a five-level virus alert system and is currently at its second-most strict level nationwide. While most of the country could soon move down a notch and reopen more businesses, other areas could stay behind, Mr Ramaphosa said.

“It is important that we maintain stringent restrictions in these areas and restrict travel out of these areas to parts of the country with lower rates of infection,” he said.

Mr Ramaphosa also issued a mea culpa faced with increasing public discontent over enforcement of the lockdown, including serious police abuses, worrying levels of destitution among the poorest, and rules on economic activity that are widely seen as petty and arbitrary.

“Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory and some have been poorly explained . . . implementation has sometimes been slow and enforcement has sometimes been inconsistent and too harsh,” he said. A detailed government list of clothes allowed for sale in lockdown has been the latest measure to baffle South Africans.

Localised lockdowns will add to the social pressures. Cities such as Johannesburg, the financial hub, and Cape Town dominate South Africa’s GDP, and business groups have grown more vocal about speeding up reopening of the economy in recent days.

Business for South Africa, one group, has warned of a double-digit drop in GDP and millions being added to the jobless total in a country where unemployment is already close to 30 per cent.

Analysts have said that region-focused lockdowns will also be politically difficult to impose. Mr Ramaphosa’s African National Congress governs nationally and in many cities, but South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance has its base in Cape Town. The party has attacked continued lockdowns.

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While South Africa has used mass screening and the continent’s highest number of tests to track outbreaks so far, “we now need a screening and testing programme that is targeted at areas where people are more likely to be infected,” Mr Ramaphosa said.