The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
These poignant words of Dr King went through my mind as I listened to our commander-in-chief, President Cyril Ramaphosa, address the nation a week ago. He was certainly not a man in a moment of comfort or convenience.
From the moment he took the nation into his confidence on 15 March 2020, when he declared a national state of disaster, and even into those early days of lockdown level five, social media and commentators were in euphoria about the president’s leadership.
I later watched in awe as a middle-aged Coloured woman in Delft on the Cape Flats, the prototype of an ardent opposition voter to the ANC in the Western Cape, express her trust, her loyalty and even her obedience to President Ramaphosa. “He is our president!”, she insisted emphatically, beating her breast, to the interviewer and those around her.
In webinars on the effects of the lockdown and trying to work through South Africa’s political economy at this critical juncture of crisis, we enquired about the resurgence of Ramaphoria that had seemed to quieten down drastically after last year’s national and provincial elections.
Those of us studying election results had noticed the lacuna in that year’s support for the ANC provincially in every single province compared to support for the ANC nationally. While some people were prepared to vote for the ANC nationally they displayed less confidence in their provincial ANC.
For us attending webinars, it was Ramaphoria reloaded but we knew it would not last. It was not sustainable. Public opinion never is.
By the time the president addressed the nation on 13 May 2020, it had been three weeks that he had not addressed us. It was the first time after the fiasco of the lifting and then re-imposition of the cigarette ban. It would seem that as brittle as a cigarette that is how fragile the public’s opinion of him was and all it took was a Camel to break his back.
Yet you do not judge a man in a moment of comfort and convenience or when the public is in his favour. You judge him when he is in a moment of challenge and controversy.
There is little doubt that he could have taken the populist view and sided with the economy, the national treasury and the smokers. The president could have insisted on an alternative measure and sought to comprise between the scientists and the economists and the people. But he did not.
As with any concession, some people wanted more and more after the easing of the lockdown to level four. More essential goods, more time to jog and exercise, more sectors of the economy to open and more shouts of “end the lockdown!”.
Yet with all the information at his disposal and surrounded by different pleas from the scientists, the health experts, the economists, the workers, the religious leaders and the leaders of business, the decision was his alone. The buck stops with him.
But he chose not to be alone. Commendably he chose to stand with the collective. Trusting in the collective wisdom of his peers in the national executive, the president has emulated some of the greatest heroes our country has ever seen.
Men and women who forsook their own opinion and thoughts to submit humbly to the wisdom of the collective.
In a country with a history ladened with individuals who took decisions based purely on expediency for personal gain and gratuity, we have once again a leader who will sacrifice his own so as to live ubuntu.
The continued lockdown in Beijing, now day 115, allows one to catch up on reading. Busy with the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime, one cannot help but be struck by personalities such as Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Oliver Tambo who despite having strong views on issues inevitably remained terribly faithful to the decision of the collective.
We are in this together, Mr President. We salute you on your leadership, sir! We know where you stand in the moments of controversy and challenge and we judge you well.
Wesley Seale is a PhD candidate in Beijing.