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HomeCOVID-19Covid-19: Ramaphosa convenes urgent command council meeting over Omicron

Covid-19: Ramaphosa convenes urgent command council meeting over Omicron

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for the national coronavirus command council to meet as soon as he returns from a trip to west Africa on Wednesday, amid rapidly rising Covid-19 infections.

The virus loomed large during his trip, with travel bans swiftly being imposed on South Africa and other countries in southern Africa by scores of countries, including in Europe; in the US, the UK and Australia; as well as some countries in Africa, after South African scientists discovered and reported on a mutated variant of Covid-19 – dubbed Omicron – early last month. 

The president’s weeklong tour of four countries in west Africa was primarily intended to canvass support and solidarity from heads of state, as the cost of the travel bans mounted each day.

Increasing intra-African trade was also in sharp focus during the talks, as evidenced by a formidable ministerial delegation and a group of delegates from the business sector who accompanied Ramaphosa.

In every public speech during the trip, his tone was harsh, lambasting African countries for reacting “like former colonisers” by joining those in the developed world in imposing travel bans on South Africa, moves Ramaphosa called “a slap in the face of African excellence”.

In lobbying support from his counterparts in west Africa, Ramaphosa spoke out against what he called “health apartheid”, and said the devastation caused by the ban on the South African tourism sector and economy was unimaginable. 

Yet, as he made the case to end the “discriminatory and unfair” travel bans, new cases of Covid-19 were increasing rapidly back home. 

During the president’s trip, members of his advance security team had to be airlifted home after testing positive for the virus in Abuja, and safety was ramped up around Ramaphosa, with daily polymerase chain reaction tests being taken by his delegation. 

The trip was necessary because Ramaphosa had to strike a balance between lives and livelihoods, said Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele, who was one of the more than eight ministers accompanying the president on the trip to Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal.

Gungubele told journalists on the sidelines of talks in Accra: The biggest threat now is the issue of livelihood. While we have to ensure that lives aren’t lost, as you know, just recently, our labour surveys haven’t been speaking a good language.

He confirmed that the coronavirus command council would be sitting this week. “When we land, we’ll immediately go to a command council meeting to get a report and discuss a way forward,” he said.

Gungubele added that government was monitoring the rapid increase in cases, and was being guided by health experts regarding what the trends in infections indicated. 

“If the clinical manifestations indicate a high rate of hospital admissions, it becomes a red flag. We haven’t been advised in that regard,” he said. 

International relations and cooperation deputy director-general for Africa, ambassador Ndumiso Ntshinga, said the solidarity shown by some African countries was encouraging. 

“They know that tomorrow, the bans could apply to any of them. One shouldn’t think that, if the world bans one African country, they won’t do it to you too,” he said. 

Ntshinga said the four-nation trip was intended to foster greater trade relations. It was evident that dealing with the economic situation as a result of the pandemic was central to Ramaphosa’s agenda on the trip, with his statement that he wanted to “see deals signed”. 

While he undertook a diplomatic charm offensive, private sector deals were at the core of his visit. In Nigeria, he stated frankly that the difficulties facing South African businesses operating in that country were unacceptable.

He raised the matter with his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari, with whom South Africa’s relations had sometimes been strained over the years, due to economic rivalry between the two countries. 

“President Buhari, the solidarity expressed by yourself and the government of Nigeria sends the strongest message. It says that, as African countries, we’re standing united against the imposition of arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions that are not only unscientific, but also counterproductive in the long run,” Ramaphosa said at the conclusion of talks at State House in Abuja.

Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel said the biggest issues facing South African businesses in Nigeria were the ever-changing regulatory environment and inconsistent application of laws.The signing of about 30 agreements was seen as a boost in relations between the two countries, which are regarded as the economic powerhouses of Africa.

In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, during the second leg of the trip, Ramaphosa was given the royal treatment, including being presented with a key to the city and a chieftaincy, and showered with praise by his counterpart, Alassane Ouattara, for bringing a 100-strong business delegation along. 

“From a host of small, fragmented markets, we want to build a large, single African market. In this way, our companies can achieve economies of scale, lower production costs and achieve global competitiveness,” Ramaphosa said during a business forum.

“We have to transform from being only exporters of raw materials, which makes us vulnerable to fluctuating global commodity prices. We need to build industrial and manufacturing capacity in each other’s countries.” 

It was clear that both countries saw value in growing trade, which amounted to $131 million (R2.1 billion) this year. Between diplomatic talks, Ramaphosa visited the growing port of Abidjan.

He also attended a sod-turning ceremony for the building of South African telecommunications giant MTN’s headquarters in the city. He maintained this pace in Accra and was due to do the same in Senegal. 

For the president, reciprocation in trade was important, and he stressed the need for west African countries to invest in South Africa as much as southern African countries were expanding their footprints there.

Patel said South Africa was committed to “breathing life” into the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement. Gungubele said Ramaphosa’s economic recovery plan was specifically centred on boosting intra-African trade.

“Building a sustainable economy means trading among ourselves on the continent, instead of relying on extra-African trade,” he said.

During a state banquet in Abidjan, Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe bemoaned the prevalence of French wines on the tables, saying they indicated the need for greater trade between South Africa and the continent. 

In Accra, Ramaphosa met with Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo. An inaugural session of the Ghana-South Africa Bi-National Commission was held, aimed at facilitating engagement between the two countries under the leadership of the two heads of state. 



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