Here’s the kind of leadership SA actually needs from Cyril

Ideas

Here’s the kind of leadership SA actually needs from Cyril

When the president spoke on Wednesday night, South Africans hoped to hear a speech more like this

Columnist
Be a leader, Cyril, that's all we ask.
AWOL Be a leader, Cyril, that's all we ask.
Image: Simphiwe Nkwali

This is what we would have wanted to hear from the president: 

My fellow South Africans

I begin with an apology for being missing in action. This is not good for public confidence. From now on I will address you every Monday and Friday evening at 8pm sharp, until such time as the worst of the pandemic is behind us. On Wednesdays, I will sit down at the same time (8pm), but there will be no speech. You will be able to send me questions to answer and I will ensure that the voices of the rural poor are also heard in these indabas.

I wish to begin by sharing my heart with you. I feel so sad for the families of the more than 200 South Africans who have lost their lives due to Covid-19. I have instructed my cabinet ministers (and deputies) to share the duty of calling each and every one of those families to assure you of our thoughts and prayers, and to assure you that arrangements will be made to assist with the funeral expenses of those who cannot afford to bury their loved ones. This is my duty towards you.

For those who are infected with coronavirus, I want you to know that I have instructed the minister of health and his provincial colleagues to provide me with daily reports on your individual progress. You are not simply a number. You are precious souls and I want to rejoice with those of you who recover and pray with those of you still in need.

These are difficult times and I will not lie to you, even I sometimes struggle with the loneliness of lockdown and not being able to break bread with friends and family. But I promise you one thing — this will end and when it is all over, we will celebrate that we stood together during these difficult times. This, too, shall pass.

This pandemic has revealed the best of us (giving has increased), but also the worst of us. It showed up the inequalities in our health system and in our school system. It proved that we are still deeply authoritarian in our policing, using tactics from the days of “law and order”. It revealed the ugly face of racism when we made distinctions between schools and companies in determining who gets help and who does not. It threw a sharp light (again) on corruption, even among political leaders — how do you steal from the poor in the middle of a pandemic? It showed up the hypocrisy of us telling you what to do and then my cabinet ministers do the opposite. And it exposed how the reckless use of power transformed the pandemic lockdown to little more than a petty clampdown on things like cigarettes, alcohol and — wait for it — open-toe shoes.

I ask for your forgiveness, but now we need to change things.

The first thing I am going to change is to include social scientists in the National Command Council. It is dominated by politicians and epidemiologists. This was a mistake. I desperately need the wisdom of psychologists to advise on the mental-health strain exacted on our people, of sociologists to inform us about how people live as groups in overcrowded settlements and how we might reframe middle-class notions of social distancing, and spiritual leaders to teach us about the epidemic of fear that has flattened the human spirit while we blabber on about flattening an exponential curve.

The second thing I am going to change is how we think about the future of education. Please forget what I said in the last two Sonas about robotics and coding; those promises are in any case redundant in this historic moment. The crisis demands that we prepare high-quality and self-guided learning materials for every subject and for every grade for the full academic year. What this means is that when there is a lockdown again, for any reason, every child can take home a full package of learning materials in every subject, for which further guidance will be offered on a scheduled basis on dedicated radio and television channels every day. If we do not do this, then the inequality gap that already exists between those with access to online learning and the majority poor will increase even further.

On Wednesday I will sit for two hours and try to respond to all your questions. Sometimes it’s not a specific answer that you want, but to simply to know that your leader is visible and standing with you in the passing storm.