Defend Truth


Our Darkest Hour – facing the invisible enemy


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures – and extraordinary leadership. There are lessons from past leaders, from Winston Churchill, and from Horatius as he defended the Sublician Bridge against the invading Etruscans.

The Covid-19 pandemic is often likened to the invisible enemy during a time of war. And as such many global leaders have intimated that our approach to this enemy should be no different to attacking an enemy during wartime. Which incidentally also calls for far-reaching measures, including curbing some civil liberties, in order to get a handle on this enemy. 

With so much time on all our hands, just sitting at home, I’m sure Netflix has come to represent an invaluable friend during this time of lockdown.  Similarly, for me. I found myself watching how difficult Winston Churchill found it in those strenuous few days leading up to convincing the British Parliament to support him in going to war with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. How he could not rely on the help of both Europe and the United States of America during that dark hour in British history. In a manner of speaking they were all saying to him, you are on your own, Churchill. 

In the hours leading up to that crucial address to Parliament, Churchill remarks to his driver that he has never experienced public transport in London. In other words, he was intimating that he had really never engaged with ordinary people on the streets of London and yet, he is about to take serious decisions that will imperil them all: going to war with the Nazis, a position some in Westminster did not support at the time. En route to Parliament that morning, he waited for the opportune time and jumped out of the vehicle and made for the London Underground, to the utter dismay of the driver. The call was placed to Parliament: the prime minister has gone missing.

Having never undertaken such an endeavour, Churchill asks a young girl, who immediately recognises her prime minister, for directions. She informs him which train to take and on which line to find the said train. Once inside the train carriage, most people are a bit dumbfounded at the sight of their prime minister on the Underground. He then proceeds to inquire from them as to what the best course of action should be for the sake of the British people. To which he receives a resounding, “WE MUST FIGHT THE NAZIS.” 

As he looks at a little girl, he narrates the lines of a famous poem by Thomas Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome.

It reminded me of our situation with this invisible enemy named the coronavirus. And like the Etruscan army, which wanted to cross the Sublician Bridge to cause havoc and misery, it must be stopped. Horatius, I thought, is our South African government under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa. The Lays of Ancient Rome goes like this (imagine if it were to be in reference to the march and onslaught of coronavirus and our Horatius is the SA government):

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

“Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”

As the span becomes unstable, Macaulay writes, Horatius urges the other two to retreat, while he fights on alone. His companions regain the Roman side before the bridge begins to collapse, but Horatius can no longer cross to safety, and therefore leaps into the river, still fully armoured.

No sound of joy or sorrow
Was heard from either bank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
With parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing where he sank:
And when above the surges
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.

He reaches the Roman shore, is richly rewarded, and gains mythic status by his act of bravery:

With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
On the brave days of old.

Will this be the end we all hope for? That our Horatius is triumphant in its defeat of this coronavirus? Is it not too much to expect when others have failed so dismally in other parts of the world? 

Churchill went on that day to convince his Parliament that the right thing to do is not to pander to those who are too concerned with wealth and the status quo of the middle class, but to do what is right – no matter how difficult and what the perils of tomorrow might present. We all will have to knuckle down and do our bit. And if it takes five years, as was the case with World War II, then so be it, good people. We must just remember that part of this equation must be the vulnerable and the poorest of our people. After all, Mr President, the way you look at them (the poor and marginalised) is the way the world will look at you.

So far so good, Horatius, the bridge has bought us some time. To flatten the curve completely, however, a bolder and bigger plan is required. A plan that will transform the way we do things post the Covid-19 pandemic, that will redefine the “New Normal”. Perhaps what was presented on Tuesday night is sufficient for now, good sir, but remember Horatius, there are still many battles ahead. You and the people of South Africa must have the courage to get through this crisis. As Maya Angelou reminds us:

Having courage does not mean that we are unafraid.
Having courage and showing courage mean we face our fears.
We are able to say, “I have fallen, but I will get up.”

Let us support our Horatius, and if we fall, let us get up together and rise to the occasion. We will defeat this virus but we can only do it together. DM


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