President Cyril Ramaphosa was mindful of the anxiety and growing frustration South Africans were feeling as he strode to the podium at the front of the media room in the Union Buildings on Sunday just after 7.30pm.
Instead of uttering the three often fateful words which tumble from the lips of heads of state as he began to address the nation – “Fellow South Africans” – Ramaphosa first apologised for keeping the country waiting as it waited for word on government’s plans to fight the spread of Covid-19.
And many of those eagerly waiting to hear him speak were parents of school children or young adults at university.
Just hours before Ramaphosa’s address, Wits University confirmed one of its students had tested positive for Covid-19, becoming the country’s first known local transmission case.
The university sounded the alarm and instructed 305 medical students who may have shared a lecture hall with the affected student to go into self-quarantine.
Earlier in the day, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies took the decision to close all Jewish schools under its administration for a week, starting on Monday.
It was clear academic administrators and parents were rattled – the president had to act, and on Sunday he did so decisively.
Ramaphosa announced that schools would be closed from Wednesday 18 March.
He said schools would remain closed until after the Easter weekend, which runs from 10 to 13 April.
This means many children will remain at home for almost a month before returning to school, if the dates are not extended.
Many independent schools, which follow a four-term calendar, were due to shut their doors on Friday, while those who follow a three-term system were due to continue teaching until 9 April.
Ramaphosa said to compensate for the extended closure which starts this week, the mid-year school break would be shortened by one week.
In his address, the president said government was “working closely” with colleges and universities.
He added that higher education minister Blade Nzimande “is consulting with vice chancellors of universities and colleges across the country and will soon be announcing measures in this regard”.
But just hours after the president’s address, the universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Wits announced they were suspending classes from Monday.
The University of Cape Town also announced that one of its staff members had tested positive for Covid-19.
All three institutions had postponed graduation ceremonies.
Nzimande was expected to be one of several ministers who would give details on the plans their departments would implement as part of government’s strategy to deal with and stop the spread of Covid-19.