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German citizens stand in a queue at the Cape Town stadium, ahead of their repatriation flight to Germany. (Aljoscha Kohlstock)
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Political leadership is about finding the right timing and the willingness to be bold and resolute, writes German Ambassador Martin Schäfer.
They say that times of crisis reveal our true character. My personal experience in these challenging last few weeks confirms that thoroughly.
In the midst of deep feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, as well as understandable frustrations about the limitations brought about by the strict lockdown rules, there have been so many uncounted and uncountable encounters of kindness, solidarity and humanity.
My team has been working tirelessly for the last three weeks to repatriate more than 5 000 German and EU citizens who have been stranded in South Africa after spending their holidays in your beautiful country. It has not been easy because this is literally unchartered territory for all of us.
We never strove to become a travel agency, no, we usually take pride rather in our diplomatic work. With all air traffic brought to a halt, we had to quickly find ways and means to help our citizens get home, as home is the best place to be in such a dramatic crisis. Support from our friends and partners in the EU and some creativity on our side were important, but not sufficient.
Without the understanding and full support of the South African government and without the courage, flexibility and knowhow of South African Airways we would never have come to where we are now:
Our air bridge has already brought home more than 2 500 German and EU citizens - in a safe, orderly and reliable manner, and more importantly, giving our people a sense of the humanity and solidarity at work. And by the way, this has been far more than an altruistic endeavour.
Our people will tell and share their stories on how well they were treated in South Africa when they needed it most. And many have already told us that they will come back.
What we did, and were able to do, was the result of important choices that were made: The choice of the German government to launch the biggest ever repatriation programme for more than 200 000 stranded travellers across the world.
It was also the choice to take our European compatriots on board, quite literally, from the first flight onwards. It was also the choice of the South African government to help us generously, by providing airport access, police and medical support and other services we needed to get this done.
That shows: We have to make choices, and we can make choices.
We can choose whether we act with resolve and courage or whether we procrastinate and dither. We can choose between repression or our unwavering trust in enlightened citizens. We can choose whether we indulge in selfishness, nationalism and fear or whether we strive to help the weaker and live in a spirit of solidarity and empathy.
All of these choices will shape our lives - not only during the crisis, but far beyond.
Political leadership is not about pleasing everyone, and certainly not about the instant gratification of the electorate. Political leadership is about vision, it is about the right balance, about taking informed and measured decisions, after scientifically-based advice by experts and proper consultation with civil society and political parties. Political leadership is about finding the right timing and the willingness to be bold and resolute, if necessary.
Enlightened citizens do not need to be forced to do what is needed, they understand that it is the right thing to do. Active citizens are willing to accept even drastic restrictions of their freedoms because they see, understand and accept that these measures are necessary to save lives and work to their own good. Empowered citizens observe vigilantly whether their freedoms are limited to serve this sole purpose. Wherever or whenever that is not the case, they stand up and live their constitutional rights to fight for their freedoms.
This virus does not care about the colour of our skin, the passports we hold, or the country we happen to live in. It affects us all, and it has the potential to kill many of us, wherever we are. There is no place to hide. In a sense, it is the most democratic of threats imaginable.
The most natural defence strategy against a virus that attacks humanity as a whole is also the most reasonable, and the best way to prevent the worst. This certainly is not the moment for political games, nor the moment for the my-country-first brigades around the world. It is indeed the moment for partnership, co-operation and solidarity.
We have all reason to strengthen our multilateral institutions, first and foremost the UN and World Health Organisation, to have our scientists work together to develop a vaccine or cure, to share best practices, test kits and equipment, to encourage and look after one another and to help the weakest among us.
We have noted the very firm stance South Africa has taken on all of these choices.
We have seen President Cyril Ramaphosa act both resolutely and clear, explaining the choices he has made on behalf of your country, for the South African people.
We have seen the willingness and resolution of South Africans to do what is right and what is necessary.
We can only commend you for this.
And we are seeing the drastic measures the government have imposed to decelerate the spread of the virus are actually serving their purpose. They serve the purpose of bringing down infection rates and the number of deaths.
Of course, it is too early to cry victory. There still is a lot to be done. But some optimism is due when we look at the fate of countries which recorded similar infection numbers as South Africa around 15 March, the moment, when in South Africa, the first measures were announced and implemented. Some of these countries are now recording dramatically higher infection rates and deaths related to the disease.
I am proud to say that we are with you.
On all the choices you have made.
In solidarity, and as part of one great humanity.
- Martin Schäfer is the German Ambassador to South Africa.
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