The South African president said coronavirus infections appeared to have peaked in the country as he announced a drastic easing of lockdown measures.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said almost all restrictions on the country’s economy will be eased from Monday.
A controversial ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco will be lifted.
Domestic travel, small family reunions and reopening of businesses will all be allowed.
In a televised speech on Saturday, Ramaphosa said the easing of restrictions would help revive the country’s declining economy after a period of great difficulty for the country.
However, he called on South Africans not to let their guard down against Covid-19 despite “signs of hope”, warning of difficult times ahead.
The country has recorded more than half of coronavirus infections in Africa, with more than 570,000 cases and 11,500 deaths so far.
South Africa also has the fifth highest number of cases in the world after the United States, Brazil, Russia and India, but infections have started to decline in recent days.
Mr Ramaphosa said the number of new confirmed cases per day had risen from a peak of more than 12,000 to an average of 5,000 over the past week.
The number of active cases has fallen to around 105,000 and the recovery rate has risen to 80%, the president said.
“As we look at the past five months, everything indicates that South Africa has peaked and moved past the inflection point of the curve,” Mr Ramaphosa said.
How has South Africa handled its coronavirus outbreak?
In March, the South African government introduced some of the toughest lockdown restrictions in the world. Borders have been closed to international travelers, schools have been closed, alcohol banned and people have been urged to stay at home.
These measures have been credited with slowing the initial spread of Covid-19, giving the healthcare sector precious time to prepare to welcome more patients.
Meanwhile, the economy weakened as businesses struggled to stay afloat during the lockdown.
To ease economic hardship, the government began a phased reopening in June, but restrictions were reintroduced last month as infection rates started to rise again. The state of emergency was declared effective until August 15.
A large proportion of coronavirus infections in South Africa have been reported in Gauteng, the country’s financial center.
The influx of patients has put incredible pressure on South African hospitals. A BBC investigation revealed a series of systematic failures that had exhausted medical professionals and brought the health service in some areas on the brink of collapse.
A great moment for South Africa
It’s a great moment for South Africa.
Praising his government’s response to the pandemic, President Ramaphosa spoke of a new phase and signs of hope.
And he has a point. The official death toll here is 11,000. But a swift and aggressive response allowed most hospitals and provinces to contain an outbreak that many feared could overwhelm the country.
The economic price was devastating, however. President Ramaphosa spoke of the hardships and hunger for millions of people, and warned that it would take years to rebuild the economy.
There are still great concerns about a second wave of infections which, Mr Ramphosa warned, could be worse than the first.
But many South Africans – who still wear face masks in public – will be relieved to see the lockdown fade.
What lockout restrictions have been lifted?
Mr Ramaphosa said that from midnight August 17, South Africa will upgrade to level two of its five-step coronavirus alert system.
“The move to level two means that we can remove almost all restrictions on the resumption of economic activity in most industries,” said Ramaphosa.
Mr Ramaphosa said his government would end the ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco.
Coronavirus cases confirmed daily
South Africa – March to August
Alcohol sales have been banned to ease pressure on hospitals, and tobacco products have been curtailed due to the risk of the spread of Covid-19 through the sharing of cigarettes. The restrictions were unpopular, with bar and restaurant owners protesting the ban on the sale of alcohol.
- South Africa’s crime rate drops during lockdown
Mr Ramaphosa said travel between provinces would now be allowed, but restrictions on international arrivals would remain in place.
He said other restrictions would also remain in place, including banning gatherings of more than 50 people and crowds at sporting events.