A Reflection on Winston Churchill

It is worth reflecting on leadership in the context of this COVID-19 crisis that we are facing.

In general, it is said that Winston Churchill was the man of the time.  He was far more than that.

In our present high technology world, with infinite access to information and statistics, leaders have reacted slowly to the COVID-19 crisis. Short term decisions have been taken out of personal self interest, rather than a true understanding of the end goal.  Massive changes in course have been made without a clear apology for the mistakes previously made.  These leaders lack of resolve at the early stages of this crisis, the absence of a clear uniting goal, has persuaded millions to live in a state of denial, a denial that extends way beyond their own borders.  This denial has exacerbated an already complex situation.  The lack of resolve, the lack of clarity of the end goal, will sadly cost thousands their lives as the medical systems fail to cope with the overwhelming demand for medical support.  Ironically, one of these leaders sees himself as the next Winston Churchill.

Contrast this generation of leaders to the great man himself.  Winston Churchill identified the true evil of Hitler while his political opponents dithered and advocated for diplomatic solutions.  He was resolute in the absolute, non-negotiable necessity of war and unwavering in his commitment to victory.  He saw through the facade of Nazi Germany to see the true horrific risk that Hitler and his inner circle posed to the whole of humanity.  He was far from perfect and made mistakes.  But he never lost sight of the end goal of defeating an extraordinary evil. His conviction and resolve persuaded a nation to unite together for the common good of humankind. Under his resolute leadership victory was won against all the odds.  

Today, as I reflect on these leaders, there is one leader who is worthy of standing next to the great Winston Churchill.  And that is our own President Cyril Ramaphosa.  So much hope rides on his shoulders for the good of the county, and many have been frustrated at his lack of action on critical issues facing our country.  But in this moment of greatest need, our President has responded from a position of overwhelming concern for our collective humanity.  He has been absolutely clear in identifying the true enemy that we face.  He has been bold and decisive in implementing drastic actions, even if those actions cause severe hardship in the short term. 

I personally believe that his announcement on 15 March 2020 that schools would close early will stand in history as one of the single most decisive strategic moves that any leader has taken.  Bear in mind that at that stage South Africa’s infection rate was 51 with no deaths.  This statistic gave the appearance that there was nothing to worry about.  From a world perspective, it appeared that China was getting things under control, but Italy had a big problem.  At that point, we did not have access to the alarming statistics we see today and the general consensus was that people returning from Italy should self-quarantine.  But he listened to the guidance of experts around him.  In his wisdom he did not procrastinate in closing schools, they closed only three days later.  His actions spoke louder than words; it gave a clear unequivocal message that this unseen enemy we were fighting was real and that we were engaged in a life and death battle.   

Looking back, it is interesting to observe that this is the moment that resulted in an immediate and radical change of human behaviour.  In the short period after the announcement and prior to the actual school closure, there were massive drops in traffic volumes.  Mini-bus taxis had hand sanitiser and were wiping down the seats.  Although public transport remained a risk, the visibility of government in taxi ranks distributing sanitising chemicals sent a very serious statement of intent.  People started working from home and holding electronic meetings.  By the time schools closed on 18 March, our infection curve was starting to rise exponentially.  But by then people had voluntarily started taking the much needed actions that have now become mandatory.  Beating this virus is all about statistics; every meeting avoided, every flight not taken, every day that a child does not attend school, every person who can stay home from work; each one of these interventions reduces the probability of infection.  Taken together the impact is exponential.

President Ramaphosa has clearly understood the long term goal of defeating this horrific enemy.  His resolve and leadership has united a previously divided nation.   Many of us have early adopted the legislated actions well in advance of the implantation dates; the actions required of us are just so obvious.  In a country that has embraced a culture of lawlessness, this is remarkable.  In our living memory we have never encountered a situation that has developed as fast as this one, nor one that has brought such economic devastation to the global economy, with implications still to be understood.  Yes, he may not be perfect.  And yes, mistakes will be made, that cannot be avoided in a situation as complex as this.  But overwhelmingly President Ramaphosa’s resolve, determination and grit has united a nation to defeat a common enemy and that gives a fighting chance of victory.

Let us remain united in responding to the great call from our President.  In the end it is not about us, it is about those around us.  Let us use our influence to encourage obedience to what is being asked of us; indeed let us go further.  Every single person in this country has a fundamental part to play in achieving the victory that our President is striving for  Let us never lose sight of that end goal; it is that which will carry us through even the darkest of hours.  Let us follow the example of our President, and Winston Churchill many years ago, and move forward with resolute determination to achieve one common goal.

Let us a nation salute our President.  He declared war at a time that most people still thought this was a bad influenza.

Peter Cottrell

25 March 2020

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