Monday, 01 February 2021
Dear Fellow South African,
South Africa’s term as Chair of the African Union comes to an end later this week. As we reflect on our year in this position, I am reminded of the old saying that ‘in crisis lies opportunity’.
Ours was a baptism of fire, having assumed the Chairship in the same month the first case of coronavirus was reported on the continent.
The priorities we outlined for our term, among them furthering peace and security, the economic empowerment of women and deepening economic integration, had to be immediately and dramatically reoriented to deal with the pandemic.
Our most pressing task was to steer the focus of the African Union to addressing the worst global emergency in over a century.
COVID-19 has affected all the countries on the continent. To date there are more than 3.5 million confirmed cases in Africa, and more than 88,000 people have died.
It has been a health, humanitarian, social and economic crisis for African countries, most of whom are inadequately resourced to manage a health emergency of this size.
And yet, as unprecedented as the nature of the pandemic has been, so too has been the manner in which African countries have come together to fight it.
In doing so we have drawn principally on the continent’s own expertise, capabilities and institutions such as the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
Africa did not sit by passively as the true extent and danger of the pandemic unfurled. From the earliest days of the pandemic and led by the AU, we swiftly developed a continental response strategy, driven by the Africa CDC and regional task forces.
We realised that every country on the continent would be severely affected by the pandemic. Most would not have the resources needed to meet the public health challenge or to protect their economies. We therefore agreed as African countries to appoint several prominent Africans as special envoys, who would engage with international funders and multilateral institutions to make the case for financial support and debt relief on Africa’s behalf.
In this way, working as a one continent, we were able to achieve debt relief for many countries and financial assistance towards our COVID response and economic recovery.
But much as African countries went to the international community for support, we first helped ourselves – establishing and capitalising a continental COVID-19 Response Fund.
For every partnership forged with better-resourced nations and the international donor community, we set up our own innovative and ground-breaking African Medical Supplies Platform to enable all African countries to quickly secure personal protective equipment and other medical supplies in an equitable, affordable manner.
And now that the COVID-19 vaccine is available, we have worked as a collective to ensure that the continent gets its fair share, working with the COVAX Facility and led by our own African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team. Vaccine rollout has already commenced on the continent and we aspire to have the majority of the continent’s population vaccinated by the end of 2021 to achieve herd immunity.
We have acted as one to protect health, people and livelihoods on the continent. In doing so, we have demonstrated our capacity for self-reliance and our ability to be the drivers of our own development.
Despite the dominance of COVID-19, we have still managed to make advances in several of our key priorities.
During our term, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was finally launched, heralding a new era of intra-African trade and economic integration.
Even under the difficult conditions posed by the pandemic, the continent has pushed ahead with towards the goal of ‘silencing the guns’ on the continent. The AU has been actively involved in negotiations around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, in achieving a ceasefire in Libya and promoting peace in South Sudan.
Another focus of our term has been on the economic empowerment of women, which we will continue to champion even beyond our term and throughout the Decade of African Women’s Financial and Economic Inclusion to 2030.
As we hand over the baton to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) we leave this preeminent continental body in a position of greater strength.
South Africa will continue to play its part to foster integration on the continent, and support the incoming Chair and the organisation in its efforts to meet the aspirations of the AU’s Agenda 2063.
When the Organisation for African Unity was founded in 1963, Member States planted the seeds of cooperation and solidarity in pursuit of a better life for all the peoples of Africa.
They affirmed that African unity was paramount if the welfare and wellbeing of Africa’s people was to be assured.
History bears witness that these seeds have not always fallen on fertile ground, and over the years the continental unity project has experienced many hurdles and false starts.
But the grave threat posed by this pandemic has galvanised African countries to collective action.
In the hot-house of the COVID-19 crisis, the seeds of unity and cooperation planted by our pioneering forebears have come to life and flourished.
This time of great trial and difficulty has been among the AU’s finest hours.
We are honoured to have been given the opportunity to lead the organisation through this period, when it practically demonstrated the true meaning of the words African Union.
This is an accomplishment for which all the citizens of our continent Africa should feel proud and from which they should draw encouragement.
With best regards,
Monday, 25 January 2021
Our country will soon receive its first consignment of COVID-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute in India, which is the world’s largest vaccine producer.
It will signal the start of a mass vaccination campaign that will be the most ambitious and extensive in our country’s history. It will reach all parts of the country and will be phased to ensure that those most in need are prioritized. The first vaccines to arrive will be provided to health care workers, who will be targeted in the first phase. The second phase will include essential workers, teachers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities. The third phase will include other adults in the population.
A comprehensive rollout strategy and an accompanying logistical framework will be implemented in partnership with the private sector, civil society, traditional leadership, the religious sector and others. It is vital that this is a society-wide campaign, in which everyone is involved and no-one is left behind.
A year after the novel coronavirus started spreading around the world, the arrival of the vaccine gives great hope for our country’s social and economic recovery – and, most importantly, for the health of our people.
Given the unprecedented global demand for vaccine doses, combined with the far greater buying power of wealthier countries, we had to engage in extensive and protracted negotiations with manufacturers to secure enough vaccines to reach South Africa’s adult population.
We have also worked closely with the global COVAX facility and the African Union’s Vaccine Acquisition Task Team as part of the collective effort to secure vaccines for the world’s low- and middle-income countries.
The doses that South Africa will receive through its participation in these initiatives, together with the agreements being made directly with manufacturers, should ensure that the country has sufficient vaccines to contain the spread of the virus.
From the moment the coronavirus first reached our shores in March last year, we have acted swiftly and decisively, and informed by the best available scientific evidence, to save lives and protect livelihoods. Through the measures we have taken, we have been able to contain infections, protect our health system and prevent an even greater loss of life.
Understanding that vaccines are essential if we are to overcome the pandemic, government has been working, both through multilateral initiatives and direct negotiations with manufacturers, to ensure South Africa can make the best use of vaccines when they become available.
There has been concern that government has not been sufficiently transparent about these efforts. However, as we did with the announcement on the Serum Institute, the details of deals with manufacturers will be released as and when negotiations are concluded and we are released from the communications terms of the non-disclosure agreements. This is commonplace in such circumstances, and most governments have had to comply with similar restrictions.
We recognise that it is important that the public must be kept abreast of developments on vaccine acquisition at all times. And government must be held to account for all the decisions it makes in this regard. Freedom of speech and open public debate are cornerstones of our democracy, as is the media’s right to scrutinise and interrogate all government’s policies and decisions.
Throughout the pandemic, government has been open and transparent with the South African people on the health measures it is taking to secure our people’s safety. We have sought to explain all our decisions, to listen to people’s concerns and to continuously update the country on the state of the disease.
When it comes to fighting a deadly pandemic like this, honesty and trust are just as valuable as any vaccine.
Through Government Communications, we have already embarked on an extensive communications campaign to educate the population about the COVID-19 vaccine, and to challenge many of the misconceptions in circulation.
All of us need to be part of this national effort and not allow the spread of rumours, fear and mistrust. False information and fake news can and does put lives at risk.
We all need to work together to build confidence in the vaccine, to demonstrate its effectiveness and its safety – and to emphasise its vital importance in overcoming this deadly disease.
For its part, government will work to improve all its channels of communication, to keep the public regularly informed on the development of the vaccination programme, to provide information that is accurate and factual, and to continue to engage with and listen to the broad range of voices in our society.
We have a massive task ahead of us, probably far greater than any of us has ever undertaken before.
But if we work together, if we support and trust each other and if we keep the lines of communication open, we will certainly succeed.
With best regards,
31 December 2020
As we reflect on the year that now draws to a close, we see a world that is fundamentally different to anything we have known before.
There is no corner of the earth, nor any part of our country, that has been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.
It has devastated lives and destroyed livelihoods, caused great pain, and left many people hungry and destitute.
At the same time, it has brought our people together.
The pandemic has demonstrated our people’s great capacity for cooperation, solidarity and shared endeavour.
Globally, the countries of the world have worked together to share information and resources.
Our continent, under the leadership of the African Union, came together to develop a common response to this pandemic, and found an innovative way to ensure all countries have access to essential medical supplies.
We have gone out to the rest of the world to advocate for debt relief and to mobilise funds for Africa’s coronavirus response and for its economic recovery.
In the face of this unprecedented crisis, South Africans have demonstrated the true meaning of ‘ubuntu’.
We have taken responsibility for each other’s welfare, by donating our time, our energies and our resources.
Working together, we have mobilised the nation’s resources under difficult conditions and in a very short space of time to support poor families, protect jobs and keep businesses afloat.
It has been a year of uncertainty, pain, worry and loss.
Many people have been called upon to make huge sacrifices.
Many have been worried for their jobs, many have struggled to make a living.
Nearly all South Africans have had to spend time separated from their loved ones.
As this year draws to a close, we mourn the loss of relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours who succumbed to COVID-19.
As a nation, we mourn the loss of several eminent South Africans and people from all walks of life.
Even as we were struck by coronavirus, we had to confront another pandemic that has long plagued our nation.
We mourn the many women and children who lost their lives at the hands of men.
We think of the many more who have had to endure rape and beatings, abusive relationships and sexual harassment.
We think of the many children that have been injured and traumatised by adults – the very people who are responsible for their wellbeing and safety.
And yet, in the face of both these pandemics, South Africans have remained resolute, determined to overcome the coronavirus, and determined to end gender-based violence.
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to every South African for the courage and the perseverance with which you have confronted this crisis.
I want to thank the health and social services workers for taking care of people who are ill, hungry or lonely.
Even as the New Year dawns, in hospitals and other health facilities across the nation, committed health workers are caring for the sick in the face of a severe resurgence of infections.
Throughout the year, they have worked tirelessly and at great risk to themselves to care for us and protect us.
We have a duty to protect them from harm and fatigue by acting responsibly, by ensuring that we do not become infected and that we do not infect others.
I also want thank the men and women in our law enforcement agencies and our Defence Force, who are keeping us safe from crime, violence and harm.
In the many ways that COVID-19 affected our lives this past year, one of the most challenging was the disruption caused to learning and teaching in our schools, colleges and universities.
The pandemic threatened the educational development of an entire generation of South Africans.
It is therefore with great admiration and much respect that I salute the learners and the students of 2020 for having continued with their studies under such difficult conditions.
In some instances, they have had to continue the academic year into 2021.
I want to thank the educators, lecturers, administrators and school governing bodies for having worked so hard to save the academic year and to ensure that the young people of our country progress and succeed.
We are grateful to the country’s religious leaders and traditional leaders for having suspended or limited many of their activities during the pandemic.
We are grateful to our sports people and administrators, to our artists and performers, and to all those who have been unable to continue their trade to prevent the spread of the disease.
I want to thank all Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Legislatures, local government councillors and all public servants for having remained at their posts even at the most difficult moments of the pandemic – and for having continued throughout to serve the nation.
We enter a new year ready to rebuild our economy, to revive businesses and restore jobs, and to continue our drive for new investment.
Working together in partnership, we are undertaking an ambitious recovery plan
to build new roads and water projects, human settlements and power generation plants.
We have made important progress in vital economic reforms to ensure we have a secure supply of affordable energy; that we have cheaper, faster and more accessible broadband; and that our ports and railways are more efficient and more competitive.
We are creating public employment opportunities that contribute to the betterment of people’s lives, and providing greater support to the small businesses that drive growth and create jobs.
We are accelerating the redistribution of land and improving the support provided to beneficiaries.
Through this work, we are transforming our economy, enabling more black people, women and young people to participate in, and benefit from, activities from which they had previously been excluded.
Due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, we have had to learn to work, to learn, to trade and to socialise in new and different ways.
We have harnessed technology as never before to keep our economy working, and we need to use the great advances we have made to shape a new world of work that is more productive, more efficient and more focused on the needs of people.
We are just a few hours away from the birth of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which will fundamentally change the economic fortunes of our continent.
It is the start of a new era of trade between African countries, when the continent will produce the goods and services it needs, when its economies will grow, industrialise and diversify, when it will realise the great potential of its abundant natural resources.
I call on the entrepreneurs of our nation to seize the abundant opportunities that this historic development will present to explore new markets and build new partnerships.
This is an opportunity to empower the women of Africa through special trade arrangements, financial inclusion and preferential access to government and private sector procurement.
South Africa’s chairship of the African Union is now coming to an end, just as we also end our term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Through these important bodies, we have championed the cause of peace and development not only in Africa, but across the world.
We have worked to strengthen the multilateral institutions that are so necessary for global cooperation and for the sustainable development of all.
The year ahead will be challenging and difficult.
We are in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus infections, which may be even worse than the first wave.
And while we are greatly encouraged by the progress made in developing an effective vaccine, we know that it will be some time before the pandemic ends.
The year ahead will therefore require our greatest effort and resilience.
The past year has shown what we are capable of when we are united and when we work together for the good of all.
It is this spirit that will carry us into the new year, and which will enable us to prevail and to prosper.
I wish you a happy and healthy 2021.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.
Welcome to my first weekly letter for 2021.
The first two weeks of the year have been difficult for all South Africans. The coronavirus pandemic has gotten worse, with new infections increasing far faster and far higher than before. Hospitals have been under great strain as more people have needed medical attention.
While most economic sectors have been able to operate again for several months, it will take some time for the economy to recover and for lost jobs to be restored. As the new year starts, many families are still feeling the effects of the pandemic on their lives and livelihoods.
The world is now entering the second year of the coronavirus pandemic. For South Africa, as for most countries around the world, the year 2021 will be extremely challenging. The second wave of COVID-19 infections may well be followed by further waves, which will threaten both the health of our people and the recovery of our economy.
Difficult as this year will be, I am certain that we will overcome the pandemic and set our country firmly on the path to recovery.
My confidence comes from the South African people. If I look at how South Africans responded to this crisis from the moment the virus arrived on our shores, I have no doubt that we have the resilience, discipline and ability to defeat this disease.
Certainly there were exceptions, but the vast majority of South Africans understood the need for restrictions on their movement and activities, and complied with the regulations that we had to put in place. Even more important than compliance, most South Africans took responsibility for themselves and for others, following advice on issues like social distancing, wearing a mask and hand washing.
And where we fell short, we have, sadly, seen the consequences. We now know about the risks of closed spaces and crowded gatherings, of not wearing masks and not keeping our distance from others.
This bodes well for the year ahead. We now know much more about the disease and how to prevent its spread. And despite what one could call ‘pandemic fatigue’, we are no less determined as South Africans to do what needs to be done.
As we adhere even more rigorously to the basic prevention measures, we will also be rolling out a mass vaccination campaign. As more and more people are vaccinated, we will both save lives and progressively reduce the risk of infection across the population.
Getting enough vaccines as quickly as possible – and making sure that they reach the people who need them – will be one of the biggest tasks of the year. This will be particularly challenging as every country in the world is clamouring to secure a limited supply of vaccines. But we are hard at work with partners in business, labour and civil society to make this happen. We are working on several fronts to get vaccines, including through the global COVAX facility, the African Union initiative and through our own engagements with vaccine manufacturers.
As we act together to overcome the pandemic, we will need to work together to rebuild and transform our economy. We have both the ability and the will to stimulate economic activity, grow our economy and create jobs. And to do so in the midst of a pandemic.
Public finances are under extreme strain, now even more so because of the cost of our health response to COVID-19 and the social and economic relief measures we put in place to assist businesses and poor households. The contraction of the economy also meant that tax revenue has declined significantly. There are some parts of the economy that will take longer to recover due to lower global demand generally and restrictions on international travel.
That is why we need to be innovative and focused in our plans to rebuild the economy. Significantly, the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan that we announced in October last year is based on broad consensus among all social partners on the actions needed to rebuild the economy. This lays a firm basis for effective cooperation that draws on the resources, capabilities and energies of all sections of society.
We are seeing this in various practical ways. For example, we have been working closely with private funders and multilateral development institutions to prepare infrastructure projects in areas like transport, human settlements, water and telecommunications. Using the Infrastructure Fund as one of the vehicles, we are developing funding models for these projects that draw on several sources in both the public and private sectors. This is particularly important at a time when public finances are limited.
The Presidential Employment Stimulus is another example of partnership in action. Understanding that it will take time for economic growth to translate into private sector employment, we have launched the employment stimulus to start creating work opportunities now. This programme is being coordinated from the Presidency, but is being implemented by a range of government departments and different spheres. Through this programme, tens of thousands of unemployed people are able to both earn and learn as they provide valuable social services.
In time, this programme will include a ‘social employment’ part, where we will partner with other social actors to employ people in a variety of activities – from improving food security, to tackling gender-based violence to upgrading informal settlements – that all contribute to the common good.
All this work is being reinforced by an aggressive focus on those economic reforms that will have the greatest focus on growth. These include the expansion of electricity generation capacity, making our ports more efficient and competitive, improving access to affordable broadband, and improving turnaround times for water, mining and other licenses. These efforts are being coordinated and monitored jointly by my office and National Treasury.
There is much to be done in the year ahead. And we should be in no doubt that we will have to confront many daunting challenges.
But we have shown that, as a nation, we are able to succeed when we work together in pursuit of a common purpose.
If we remember that, and if we put our unity into action, we will ensure that 2021 brings better health and better lives to all our people.
I wish you all the best for the new year.
Let us roll up our sleeves and make it happen.
With best regards,
Monday, 14 December 2020
I was recently sent a photo that featured on the popular #ImStaying Facebook thread. Two women are seated side by side at a bus stop somewhere in Cape Town. One is white, elderly and frail, and rests her head on the shoulder of the younger black woman.
This simple image, of these two women sitting there with their hands locked tightly, resonated deeply with me as we approach Reconciliation Day on 16 December.
It brought to mind the powerful words of Steve Bantu Biko that captured our aspirations for a new country: “In time we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.”
Such a scene, of kindness and compassion, and of two people simply being human, would have been unthinkable in South Africa just over three decades ago.
Under that most insidious manifestation of petty apartheid, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, only the white woman would have been allowed to sit at that bus-stop, or travel on the bus. A black woman holding a white woman’s hand would have been met with disapproval from the city’s white residents.
It is often difficult to explain to the younger generation of South Africans, who were born to freedom, that apartheid was both brutal and extraordinarily petty. It is difficult to explain the lengths to which the regime would go to keep the races apart, from banning interracial relationships, to creating separate bus stops, entrances to buildings, public toilets, to even segregating beaches.
On Reconciliation Day each year, we reflect on how far we have come in advancing national reconciliation. It is important that we deal decisively with the obstacles to reconciliation, among them the high levels of inequality in our country and the persistence of racist attitudes and practices.
But it is equally important to acknowledge just how vastly different our country is today to what it was 26 years ago. For every negative story of racism that makes the news, there are countless other positive stories of racial integration, communities living in harmony and social cohesion that do not generate headlines.
Many of these can be found on the same #ImStaying thread. They are simple, everyday stories of South Africans living and working alongside each other, being friends, and helping each other.
We know that divisions of race and class remain very real in South Africa, but these stories do show that race relations in our country are not as toxic as we are often led to believe.
Last year’s National Reconciliation Barometer, which is published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, noted that the optimism of respondents regarding racial unity was the highest since the inception of the study.
It also found that the majority of respondents believed race relations have improved since 1994.
It is noteworthy that most South Africans report they would like to interact more often with people from other race groups but cite language and confidence as the two greatest barriers.
This is ahead of other perceived factors such as lack of common ground, anxiety, or negative prior experiences.
It is obvious that true reconciliation is impossible unless we overcome the social and economic inequalities that persist in our society. It is only when the playing fields of opportunity are levelled and the lives of all South Africans improve that social cohesion will be strengthened.
But we should at the same time not discount the important gestures in our everyday interactions that demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation between the races; and breaking language barriers is perhaps among the most important of them.
Reconciliation is a weighty concept, and there may be many who are unsure as to what they can actually do to advance racial reconciliation. We may feel reticent to take the first step or to reach out, for fear of being judged or even rejected.
On this Reconciliation Day, I call on each of our citizens to think of the simple things they could do to reach out across the racial divide in their everyday lives. One way of doing this is to learn another South African language.
By trying to learn the language of your friend, your colleague, your neighbour or the people you interact with daily in public places, you go beyond just demonstrating cross-cultural understanding. You open up the space for real communication.
We need to find ways to reach beyond our social and professional circles, to appreciate other people’s points of view. Through sporting, cultural and religious activities, we can find ways to interact with fellow South Africans from a diversity of backgrounds.
We should recognise that in addition to the fundamental changes we need to make in the structure of our economy and society, reconciliation can be built through our every-day activities. Madiba saw this in sport, for example, and demonstrated its great potential for nation-building. He said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does.”
Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown that we are at our best when we extend hands of solidarity and compassion to one another.
Now, as we rebuild our society, let us place this spirit of generosity at the centre of our national character.
I wish you all a joyful and a meaningful Reconciliation Day.