As president of South Africa since 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa has dutifully delivered his annual address before Parliament, outlining government priorities in the year ahead.
None have been like this one, though, he said late Thursday, speaking to a thinned-out, well-spaced crowd of masked lawmakers in Cape Town. Before speaking, he led the assembly in a moment of silence for the more than 47,000 people who have been killed by the virus since it landed in South Africa last year.
Then, with hope and determination threaded through every sentence, he spoke.
“This is no ordinary year, and this is no ordinary State of the Nation address," Ramaphosa said. "I will therefore focus this evening on the foremost, overriding priorities of 2021. They are not many, but they are focused.
"First, we must defeat the coronavirus pandemic. That is primary in everything we have to do as a nation. And second, we must accelerate our economic recovery," the president said.
"Third, we must implement economic reforms to create sustainable jobs and drive inclusive growth.
"And finally, and not leaving other things aside, but these are the key ones, finally we must fight corruption and strengthen the state that has been weakened.”
Even without the pandemic, that is an ambitious list. However, on Thursday, Ramaphosa revealed some encouraging progress on his top priority: the government has secured 9 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The first batch of 80,000 doses will arrive in South Africa next week, he said, with another 420,000 doses due in the next month.
Additionally, he said, the government has secured 12 million vaccine doses through the global COVAX facility, and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has committed 20 million doses of its vaccine. The government aims to vaccinate 40 million people — about 67% of the population — by the end of the year.
That encouraging news follows the disappointing revelation from earlier this week, in which the nation’s top health experts revealed that the recently arrived shipment of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine showed disappointing results against the highly contagious variant that is prevalent in South Africa. That realization meant that officials put the mass vaccination program — the largest in Africa, so far — on hold before it was to begin.
South Africa will not use its stockpile of 1 million vaccines, and will instead consider trading it to countries unaffected by the variant that makes up the bulk of South Africa’s new infections.
Ramaphosa also laid out a series of government initiatives to resuscitate the economy, which is 6% smaller than it was a year ago. South Africa’s formal unemployment rate now stands at an unprecedented 30.8%.
And, he assured his beleaguered nation, which has been the continent’s viral epicenter, that just like the iconic fynbos shrub — which requires fire to thrive — South Africa will get through the firestorm and thrive.
“In counting the great cost to our society over the past year, we may be tempted to lose faith. But we can get through this, because we are a nation that never gives up. We are a nation that is never defeated," Ramaphosa said.
"We are a nation of heroes right across the country. I am referring not to the glorious lineage of struggle icons, but to the everyday heroes that walk among us, who work hard every day to put food on the table, to keep the company running, and to give support, help and care to our people. It is your resilience that will help this country recover. "
Ramaphosa ended by invoking the hopeful words of the man many South Africans consider the father of the nation, Nelson Mandela. On his release from prison 31 years ago, Mandela, who was elected the nation’s first Black president, exhorted his people to continue their lengthy, painful struggle against injustice and inequality.
The president applied that to the modern day, saying, “To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive.”