We need the collaboration of a new majority to shield SA from COVID-19

Note to Editors: Please find attached soundbite and video by John Steenhuisen MP.

Fellow South Africans

Today, as we celebrate our hard-fought human rights, our country stands before one of its greatest tests ever. The spread of COVID-19 through our cities, towns and villages will stretch, to the very limit, the ability of our state to safeguard these human rights. And it will test our resolve and resourcefulness, as a nation, in containing and mitigating this spread, in treating those who require care and in rebuilding our shattered economy.

In our Bill of Rights, in Section 27 of the Constitution, it is written that everyone has the right to have access to health care services, and that no one may be refused emergency medical treatment. Under normal circumstances, upholding these rights has proven hard enough. But the coming months will place our public and private healthcare services under the kind of strain that no one could have foreseen or properly planned for.

This is a time for all South Africans to work together. We cannot afford the distraction of blaming and political point-scoring. Solutions to this crisis – whether financial, logistical or medical – will come from individuals, from the private sector and from right across the political spectrum. It is imperative that we put aside our differences and “park our egos” so that every good idea can be heard and considered.

It is early days yet, but so far my engagements with the President, with my fellow parliamentarians and with many others in business and civil society have been hugely encouraging. Across the board I have seen a genuine desire to stand united as we focus on our common enemy: the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of the emergency measures announced by the President may seem drastic – and indeed, these measures will undoubtedly have a profound effect on our economy and particularly small businesses – but I have no doubt that this was the right call. If you look at what has happened in countries where the spread of the virus wasn’t slowed down soon enough, you realise that tough, bold action is the only option. We simply have to give our healthcare workers every possible chance to treat those who need emergency care, and this means slowing down the rate of infection as much as we can. We can rebuild what we lost in our economy, but we can’t bring back lives that were lost.

I am very proud of the response of my colleagues in the DA and in DA-led governments across the country to this crisis. This is a distressing time for everyone, but they have stepped up with courage and resolve, and have come forward with a host of measures to help combat the spread of the virus, and to mitigate the effects. Premier Alan Winde has convened a Joint Operations Centre focused on mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the economy of the Western Cape. They have met daily as they seek to find ways to support the key sectors in the province: Tourism and Travel, Conference & Events, Agriculture, Exports, Manufacturing and the Services Sector.

The Province, working with Wesgro, the City of Cape Town and other partners, has also established the COVID-19 Centre for Business. This is a team of 24 staff members who will provide virtual advice and support to businesses, focusing on containment of the virus, adaptation of businesses to make them more resilient, and the recovery of businesses once the pandemic has been contained.

Throughout the province, people from all sectors are rolling up their sleeves and working together. Buses and taxis are being disinfected daily, retailers have redoubled their efforts to keep shelves stocked – and, in some cases, make shopping hours available exclusively to the elderly – and healthcare staff are working around the clock to prepare hospitals and put protocols in place to help deal with the unfolding crisis. This truly is an “all hands on deck” situation.

Each member of our Shadow Cabinet has also written to his or her counterpart in National Government offering the DA’s assistance in this fight. It is encouraging that government seems prepared to put aside differences to work with good ideas, regardless where they may come from. The decision to put UIF payments on hold for the coming months was one of the measures put forward by the DA, and this will undoubtedly buy some leeway for businesses to survive this uncertain period.

But there is much more we can and must do. Government’s response in terms of containment of the virus has been good. Now it needs to do the same to protect our economy and the livelihoods of thousands of business owners and their employees. Small businesses, in particular, do not have the reserves to withstand this crisis on their own, and they will need government’s help.

We need a comprehensive Economic Support Package to see our country through this time, and this package must put the people of South Africa front and centre. We simply cannot go ahead with spending precious money on failed SOEs while this pandemic crushes our economy and plunges millions of South Africans even further into hardship. We have to cancel the R16 billion bailout of SAA and immediately redirect this money to the Economic Support Package.

What we can also do – and these steps have already been put forward by the DA – is put loan and rental payments for small businesses on hold for four months and hit pause on Worker’s Compensation Fund payments (as has been done for UIF), as well as raising the VAT threshold for small businesses from R1 million to R2 million.

I know that some of these ideas will be met with resistance by certain groups within the ruling party but, importantly, not by all of them. There are enough people on both sides of the House who will be prepared to do the right thing to save our country from a post-COVID-19 disaster. And that is why reaching across the aisle and working together has never been more important.

Our country is extremely vulnerable right now, and 59 million South Africans have no choice but to trust that their leaders will do what needs to be done to protect them and safeguard their future. We have no choice but to find each other – to build a new majority that puts our people first. This new majority was always going to be the way forward for our country, but suddenly the timeline has dramatically shortened. We have to do it now.