South Africa has not had many moments during democracy where the head of state was required to bind the nation together in order to confront a common enemy.
Since 1994, we have never been involved in any war or had to deal with disasters, man-made or natural, which did or could have laid waste to the country, killed thousands or laid waste to the economy.
Indeed, even before the advent of democracy there have been very few instances of a head of government or state having to address the nation in order to steel it for painful imminent national trials.
South Africa’s entry into the Second World War was one, when Jan Smuts had to topple the government of General Barry Hertzog before he could take the country into the global conflict on the side of the Allies. After 1990 Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary moment of statesmanship after the murder of Chris Hani stands out.
Apartheid premiers and presidents used national addresses to buttress their political and ideological positions, rarely having (or wanting) to unite a whole country around a common cause. Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had to confront nation-building and HIV/Aids, to varying degrees of success, and Jacob Zuma had no awareness of (or need for) statements to galvanise a whole people.
EDITORIAL | A bit late, but Ramaphosa’s coronavirus response was on point
Cyril Ramaphosa, in power since February 2018, accused by many of being an absent head of state who is reluctant to lead, is now facing a moment where his leadership and resolve will be tested by a faceless and formless enemy. It will be a severe test for his leadership, his government’s efficiency and his colleagues’ accuracy.
His televised address on Sunday evening, delivered almost two and a half hours after the country was told he would, was a comprehensive, succinct and clear statement of his government’s intent to defeat the Covid-19 coronavirus. South Africans, increasingly nervous as the uptick in local infections gather pace while the global spread dominates news headlines, needed reassurance that Ramaphosa understands the breadth and depth of the problem, and that there is a plan to deal with it.
This he delivered with grim determination on his face, telling the country that his government has declared the virus a national emergency, which will unlock certain emergency measures and funds under the relevant pieces of legislation. A range of decisive steps were also announced, including a travel ban on visitors from a number of countries, including South Africa’s major trade partners Britain, China and the United States. It couldn’t have been easy.
READ | Covid-19 has been declared a national disaster in SA – here’s what that means
But Ramaphosa, as is expected of statesmen during times of national trauma, spoke in prose which sought to comfort and reassure. He told millions of viewers that he will take charge of a national command council which will coordinate the country’s response to the global pandemic.
Stressing the gravity of the situation, he acknowledged – apocalyptically – that Covid-19 presented a “grave medical emergency”, but that “if we act now, if we act together and if we act decisively”, the virus can be overcome.
“We have never been defeated by anything or any event when we were united. Because, united we are strong, but when we are divided, we are weak, and can be defeated,” he said, before he signed off by paying tribute to South Africans’ collective “strength and courage”.
Ramaphosa’s statement to a scared and spooked country was delivered with strength, intelligence and poise. He signalled his determination to take command of a situation which a couple of weeks ago never seemed as dangerous as it is turning out to be. And he announced a range of interventions which other countries neglected to do until it was too late.
The president has now set this country’s course for the foreseeable future. Let’s trust the state can follow through on his promises.