Recovering from COVID-19: economic scenarios for South Africa

As the South African economy emerges from the downturn induced by COVID-19, policy makers are concerned with recovery, reconstruction, and transformation. This paper focuses on the recovery from the severely depressed levels of economic activity that occurred in April 2020. However, before considering the period after the economic trough of April 2020, a mention of economic conditions prior to the pandemic is worthwhile. In brief, economic performance was terrible by almost any metric. Furthermore, economic performance had been poor since 2008, with evidence pointing to ongoing deterioration culminating in the fourth quarter of 2019, when per capita GDP contracted, unemployment ticked upwards to its highest level since 1994, productivity declined, and inequality worsened. The striking difficulties of the South African economy in avoiding/absorbing shocks-whether internally generated, such as shocks to electricity supply, or externally generated, such as changes in terms of trade or investor sentiment in relation to emerging markets-have been an integral part of this disappointing economic performance over time. In short, the situation prevailing prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was one of economic weakness. Beginning from this position of weakness, the economic shock related to COVID-19 was enormous, likely the largest single economic shock in the history of South Africa.