Clearly drawing from former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech about fear in 1933, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered arguably his best address to the country on Sunday night, attempting to calm frayed nerves and calling on a sense of national unity to combat the dreaded Covid-19 coronavirus, writes Pieter du Toit.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night delivered perhaps the best and most eloquent speech of his presidency when he implored South Africans to resist fear and panic while declaring the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus a national disaster.
Cleary drawing from former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, Ramaphosa addressed head-on the almost apocalyptic sense of fear which seems to be encroaching on many South Africans in the face of the spread of the deadly virus.
South Africans, confronted with news from first world, developed countries struggling to contain and manage the spread of the virus, needed clarity of leadership and considered inspiration to partially restore faith in a government beset by corruption, inefficiency and political strife.
They have seen many world leaders – most notably US president Donald Trump – flailing about while the virus is spreading – and feared the worst for themselves.
But Ramaphosa delivered his evening address with poise, gravitas and intelligence, announcing the raft of measures to control the spread of the virus with stoic determination.
Covid-19, he said, presents “a medical emergency far greater than we have experienced in recent times”.
“Given the scale and the speed at which the virus is spreading, it is now clear that no country is immune from the disease or will be spared its severe impact. Never before in the history of our democracy has our country been confronted with such a severe situation,” he said.
It was a sombre speech, delivered after days of consultation and a series of briefings and information sessions at the Union Buildings, concluding with an emergency meeting of Cabinet which lasted the better part of Sunday.
And Ramaphosa simply had to get the content, tone and delivery right. Politics, apart from being the art of the possible, is also about the art of oratory. And on Sunday Ramaphosa got it right.
When Roosevelt delivered his inauguration address on 4 March 1933, America and the world were still gripped by the effects of the Great Depression. More than half of that country’s workforce was unemployed, property prices were at rockbottom and industry was declining.
Fear gripped the nation.
But Roosevelt, in a rousing speech, implored his countrymen to embrace “the warm courage of national unity”.
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is dear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to to convert retreat into advance,” he said.
Ramaphosa, facing an unknown threat, but one which has crept into the national consciousness, one which threatens an already fragile economy and one which could still lead to the death of many, had to steel South Africans for the arduous road ahead.
“While we are battling a contagious virus, perhaps the greatest dangers to our country at this time are fear and ignorance. We must appreciate the extent of the threat that this disease presents, we must accept the anxiety that it causes, but we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear and panic,” he said.
It is a call to rationality and calm.
President Cyril Ramaphosa: “We cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear and panic.” (Felix Dlangamandla, Netwerk24)
The first half of Ramphosa’s speech contains the clinical and technical detail of government’s sweeping measures.
Besides the declaration of a national disaster, he announced travel bans, the closing of land and seaports, the closing of schools, the consideration of a fiscal relief package and the implementation of a tracking and tracing system.
The latter part of his speech however sought to reassure increasingly concerned South Africans.
He told the public that the country has the resolve to confront the virus, and that it possesses the knowledge, means and resources to fight the disease.
And, just like Roosevelt did 87 years ago, he called on a sense of national unity, with those who have means helping those who do not.
“If we act swiftly, with purpose and collectively we can limit the effects of the coronavirus on our people and our country. Although we may be limiting physical contact, this epidemic has the potential to bring us closer together.
“We are responding as a united nation to a common threat. This national emergency demands cooperation, collaboration and common action. More than that, it requires solidarity, understanding and compassion.
“Those who have resources, those who are healthy, need to assist those who are in need and who are vulnerable,” the president said.
The country is facing “a grave emergency”, but if everyone acts together, acts now and acts decisively, Covid-19 will be overcome.
On Sunday night Ramaphosa gave a speech which becalmed frayed nerves and sought to inspire a national effort.
And although it was delivered two-and-a-half hours after it was originally scheduled, it was a success.
But the black swan which has now cruised into our collective view – and which Ramaphosa can ill-afford – will prove to be this government’s harshest test.
It has on many levels been grossly ineffective, corrupt and incompetent.
Many departments are failing to execute their mandates, national funds have been squandered and lost and much expertise has dissipated.
Ramaphosa’s entreaty to discard fear and panic was statesmanlike.
His true test however will be to rouse the slumbering state.