JOHANNESBURG – The spread of novel coronavirus seems to have turned everything upside down in South Africa, including its usually fractious politics.
As cases surged past 100, the nation was also treated to a startling show of political unity from President Cyril Ramaphosa and his bitterest political opponents.
The president and his rivals stood side by side at a Cape Town news conference, although they intentionally kept their distance and did not touch each other except for elbow bumps.
A smiling Ramaphosa addressed reporters.
“We all agree that this is an unprecedented moment,” he said. “We have not seen anything as serious as this confronting the entire nation. But we agreed that regardless of our political persuasions, our political differences, all of us share a common desire to keep our people safe, but also to mitigate the impact of this virus on the lives of our people.”
Ramaphosa also said political leaders had discussed issues of inequality that could impact efforts to stop the virus.
Many lower-income South Africans lack basic services at home, and rely on crowded public transportation where the virus could easily spread.
Support from opponents
Just a month ago, firebrand politician Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters staged a demonstration in parliament that delayed Ramaphosa’s annual state of the union address. On Wednesday, however, these words came out of Malema’s mouth:
“As the EFF, we fully support the initiative of government and we call upon all South Africans to listen to the leadership of our government and follow exactly as we are told.”
John Steenhuisen, leader of the pro-business Democratic Alliance, also praised the president and appealed to customers and entrepreneurs to act responsibly.
“I would like to make an appeal to two aspects, to South Africans, to the private sector and big business, particularly, to get involved in the effort,” he said. “This is going to require the best efforts of all South Africans to come together to fight this virus, and its effects of the economy. It’s not a time for anyone to be sitting back on their hands.”
‘Generosity of spirit’
But everyone is wondering: Will this camaraderie last? Political analyst Karima Brown thinks it will, at least through the crisis.
“Political parties, even such as the Freedom Front Plus, acknowledge that the president isn’t in denial about the extent of the crisis,” Brown said. “And as a consequence, there’s goodwill and there is generosity of spirit, which is really, you know, part of the underlying fabric of South African social society. We are deeply divided, but we are also a society that is able to rally in times of crises. We’ve done it before and we are doing it now.”
Because, she said, if the Rainbow Nation can make it through the grueling, violent end of the apartheid system and emerge better for it, it can work through this crisis, too.