Reacting to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on 12 July, Matthew Charlesworth comments that the President could have done more to foster popular good will in pursuing the common good. Nevertheless, he urges citizens to continue to support the authorities by doing all they can to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed us again on 12 July. In his previous addresses, he spoke with a measure of reassurance. This time it felt like a real scolding — evidently because many South African needed to be scolded!

Everyone should be wearing a mask in public. It is an act of courtesy and respect for the lives of other people. Your mask protects me, my mask protects you.

Unfortunately, many people will not grasp this key message, which the President repeated several times during his address. Instead, everyone is talking about the reinstatement of the alcohol restriction without prior warning or apparent consultation with the Industry. It is not fair but forfeiting some of our freedoms directly frees up resources for the care of COVID-19 patients.

Restricting alcohol use is one “easy fix” to help ensure that there are as many beds as possible for COVID-19 patients.

We know that South Africa’s health system was broken long before COVID-19, but the hard lockdown earlier this year made it very clear that injuries due to the abuse and misuse of alcohol escalated when the sale of alcohol resumed on 1 June. The collapse of the health system requires an overhaul. There is no time for that now. Restricting alcohol use is one “easy fix” to help ensure that there are as many beds as possible for COVID-19 patients and those who are really sick.

Criticism is good but engagement is better

It was good to hear the President criticise the government’s progress on certain actions, and to hear his pledge to augment medical resources and infrastructure to ensure the maximum care possible for the escalating number of COVID-19 cases.

However, it was disappointing that once again, the President did not take questions from the press. By engaging with the press, he would have had the opportunity to explain the rationale for some decisions, such as 100% occupancy on taxis or the 9pm curfew, which on the surface, do seem to be inconsistent with his other announcements. Instead, he made announcements that sounded like commands, which based on media reaction in the last 24 hours, will increasingly be received with less generosity.

He made announcements that sound like commands, which … will increasingly be received with less generosity.

The addressed was filled with admonishments and regulations, mostly seen from a narrow medical lens. What was missing was the government’s progress in supporting the economy, the unemployed and the measures to combat corruption and the illicit economies that are thriving at the moment, as well as a broader understanding of health (mental, emotional, etc.) Anxiety about the economy is a risk to health too.

The President should have used the address to once again remind the country’s security forces of their mandate to protect and safeguard human life, especially at a time when we are fighting a deadly pandemic. The police need to be seen to be serving the people, and not being a force against the people.

The social compact is under strain, and it would really help if we could see police crackdown on corruption rather than pulling poor people from their shacks in the middle of their baths.

Need for prayer and support

Despite the lacunas in Ramaphosa’s latest address to the nation, he often finds himself in an impossible situation, caught in the middle of conflicting political and economic interests.

Our leaders need our prayer and support. Let us continue to pray for them and that they continue to act in the interest of the common good. We also give thanks that we have Cyril Ramaphosa in charge, instead of someone else (Just imagine how bad it could be!?).

The President’s closing remarks echo sentiment but are short on details, but they are worth repeating because they remind us of our shared responsibility to minimise the impact of the pandemic and if we heed these words, we are showing our support for him and for one another:

As we work together to preserve life, we must begin to rebuild our economy and deepen measures to protect those whose livelihoods have been so badly impacted by the lockdown. The days, weeks and months to come will present some of the greatest tests of our nationhood.

Let us remember that we share a collective responsibility to bring down the rate of infections. Let us remember that every individual action we undertake can and does make a difference. Let us remember that whether we are a family with an infected member, a business owner worried for their staff or a parent concerned for the safety of their children, that none of us stands alone.

Now, more than ever, we are responsible for the lives of those around us. We will weather this storm. We will restore our country to health and to prosperity. We shall overcome.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

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