News analysis

No drinking
(Getty)
  • As of Thursday, the government is publicly looking at "necessary response measures" to what it describes as a small uptick in coronavirus infections.
  • Privately, officials are talking about a likely third wave of Covid-19, though that does not appear in official assessments.
  • Industry organisations have relaunched lobbying efforts – which previously largely failed – against bans on alcohol and cigarettes, and a longer curfew.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

On Thursday, the South African government very gently floated the idea that lockdown restrictions may be tightened in the not-too-distant future.

The Cabinet, said a standard post-meeting summary of its activities, had been "briefed about the slight increase in Covid-19 infections in the country and the application of necessary response measures to curb the spread."

That short reference saw a flurry of activity across various industries, as lobbying efforts were either restarted or kicked into high gear. Because some read that as an indication that bans on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes, and a curfew that will bite into night-time entertainment, are not only possibilities, but under active discussion.

Internal communication shows that health officials are fearful of a third wave of coronavirus infections, with the spectre of an India-style calamity looming, perhaps driven by the same variant that tore through that country. But while the official line remained – until as recently as Wednesday – that there is only risk and a need for vigilance, industry players had nothing to push back against. They were, said one, told to await a call for consultation on new restrictions, if such were deemed necessary, rather than trying to pre-empt the process.

Now, with official notice that some sort of "measures" are on the table, things are both more urgent and slightly easier.

The approaches adopted by the private sector differ. Business Leadership South Africa has taken the line that South Africa is wiser for the experience of two previous waves of coronavirus infection, and need not use the same restrictions as before.

"Since the pandemic was first detected 18 months ago, we have learned a great deal about what works in managing it," BLSA said in a statement on Thursday – which it cast as a declaration of willingness to help in a third-wave scenario, rather than a confrontation with government policies it fears will be ruinous to livelihoods. 

Meanwhile, the South African Liquor Brandowners Association (Salba) and wine-producer representative organisation Vinpro more heavily stressed the need to rely on scientific evidence to inform policy-making. Advisories from the Ministerial Advisory Council, subsequently released, suggest that politicians rather than scientists pushed for previous alcohol and cigarette bans.

A legal challenge by Vinpro to a previous alcohol ban was pushed out to August. Despite occasional victories in legal challenges to a range of specific restrictions, the courts have been unwilling to interdict restrictions before their commencement, or deal with them on the kind of extremely urgent timelines that would actually make a difference while bans are in place.

Parliament has likewise proven, as a whole, unwilling to challenge the ongoing rule by decree from the national executive under disaster regulations, which has seen the legislature locked out of decisions that would usually fall in its domain for the past year.

The executive's power to make rules by announcing them were on Friday formally extended for at least another month.

That leaves those who rely on alcohol sales and night-time entertainment with no other option but lobbying Cabinet ministers – something which has previously failed them – while considering how to limit what some see as inevitable damage to come.

That attitude can be seen in the likes of BLSA calling for "clear end dates" in cases where "restrictions in economic activity are required".

It is also showing up pointed private references to the scheduled local government elections, at the end of October.

"This time we can tell them they should know it will cost them votes," said one industry lobbyist of how government is being approached.

That, at least, gives his industry a little hope that things will be different this time.

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