Covid-19 brings rubber bullets and water for the poor

The pandemic has pushed the state towards effective action, but this is simultaneoulsy taking both repressive and potentially progressive forms.

In South Africa, and around the world, old certainties, many of them already a little brittle, are rapidly crumbling. The velocity of the changes taking place in the state, the economy and society are extraordinary. In recent days all kinds of writers, including many on the right, have cited Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s observation that, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

None of us know how the South African government’s Covid-19 lockdown will unfold, how long it will continue and what society will look like when it is lifted. But already we can see contradictory tendencies. What French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the right hand of the state, including the police and other organisations of armed men available to the state, has been massively strengthened. There was never a serious attempt to make a decisive break with colonial forms of policing at the end of apartheid and our police service, and other groups of armed men operating through or within the broad ambit of the state, are simply not equipped to undertake a progressive social function. On the contrary, corruption, brutality, illegality and sadism are widespread, along with a set of ugly prejudices such as sexism, xenophobia, hostility to people organised outside of the ruling party, and the like.

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From the police officer demanding a bribe from a migrant shopkeeper to keep trading to militarised raids on buildings in which Chinese people live or work, or the crude xenophobia of Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, the right hand of the state has frequently mediated its conduct through chauvinism rather than the law or scientifically informed considerations with regard to public health.

However, there is also a significant degree to which what Bourdieu called the left hand of the state has been strengthened. It is often argued that amid the dismal failures of the ANC in areas like housing, employment and gender-based violence, its one shining achievement has been the roll-out of treatment for people living with HIV. Although the struggle that won this huge social gain, a gain that has kept millions of people alive and in good health, has ebbed in recent years, it left a considerable “intellectual sediment”, to borrow a phrase from revolutionary leader and thinker Rosa Luxemburg. That progressive intellectual sediment is now a significant force in shaping responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in the state and may continue to have wider influence with regard to healthcare.

Political will

We’ve also witnessed rapid gains in areas where stasis and rot had seemed permanent. For 25 years, the state has failed to provide adequate water to millions of people living in shack settlements. Suddenly, in a matter of days, taps have been fixed or installed and water tanks provided. This progress has been extraordinarily rapid and shows that the failures of the past 25 years were not consequent to objective limits on budgets or bureaucratic processes but, rather, a simple lack of political will. Now that people have seen what is possible, it will not be easy for the state to revert to the old forms of contempt to which impoverished black people have been subjected.

There is also what appears to be a small step towards opposing the impunity that has long been guaranteed to senior members of the ruling party for incompetence, crude forms of populist posturing and various kinds of scurrilous conduct. In this context, the decision to place Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on special leave has been widely welcomed. But in this regard, developments are also contradictory. A minister such as Minister of Police Bheki Cele, whose enthusiastic attraction to authoritarianism is seriously alarming, does not appear to have been subject to any form of democratic restraint.

There are similarly contradictory tendencies in the elite public sphere. Some commentators see the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to push through measures that will lessen social control over capital. Others are embracing the prospect of the arrival of the International Monetary Fund in the Union Buildings. But there are also potentially promising discussions being had about how to use existing funds and the existing infrastructure around grants and unemployment insurance for new forms of social solidarity, and some interesting ideas about new forms of macroeconomic policy aimed at bailing out society in the context of mass impoverishment and rapidly escalating retrenchments.

When a crisis makes the established ways of doing things unsustainable, it is often those who are best organised or most effectively able to shape what Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called the “common sense” of society who are best able to shape the resolution of the crisis. But collective action requires assembly, the public manifestation of the strength of people resolved to hold a shared position and disruption. 

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Under a lockdown as rigorous as that which has been imposed in South Africa, the standard repertoire of popular organisation and mobilisation – the meeting, the protest, the strike, the land occupation and the road blockade – is not easily available. Even the work of preparing for an intervention on the legal terrain has now become extremely difficult for popular organisations insofar as it requires travel, meetings, and the kind of slow and respectful embodied encounters required to build trust.

Collective action from below has suddenly become exceedingly difficult. This gives enormous power to the state and the social forces, including capital and the academics and non-governmental organisations that are already entwined with the state, that can continue to engage the state during the lockdown. But that power is not absolute.

Flourishing discussion

There has been rampant state illegality since the lockdown, much of it violent, and including the eviction, harassment, organised humiliation, extortion, assault and murder of impoverished black people. However, we are not in a situation in which the law has been suspended in favour of rule by decree. Although it is difficult for popular organisations of impoverished and working-class people to intervene on the legal terrain in the way they could before the lockdown, the courts, as a site of contestation and struggle, have not been shut down.

It is vital that pro-bono legal firms and progressive lawyers watch developments as they unfold with as much care as is possible, keep in regular contact with organisations that represent oppressed and vulnerable people, and intervene as effectively as is possible where required. It is also vital that measures be put in place to allow for adequate preparation of important applications to the courts, especially when they pertain to people without easy access to digital communication.

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And while much of the standard repertoire of organisation and mobilisation available to oppressed people has suddenly been made impossible, there is a flourishing discussion in the elite public sphere, in which much of the ‘common sense’ of elites is formed, about how the lockdown is playing out, which measures are appropriate and which are not, and what the road through and out of the immediate health crisis should look like. This discussion is often valuable.

Moreover, because for the first time since the end of apartheid the state has placed stringent limitations on the rights of people with significant social power, it needs to proceed with more care than it has in the past to sustain consent for the extraordinary measures that are now in place. 

Homeless people quarantined in an entirely inadequate shelter in Cape Town can be contained with rubber bullets, a colonial form of policing. But those kinds of measures will not be viable mechanisms to sustain the consent of elites for the lockdown. The need for the state to sustain its legitimacy while imposing severe constraints on society has meant that the elite public sphere has suddenly acquired more power with regard to the state than it had two weeks ago. Ndabeni-Abrahams’ failure to understand this has cost her a month’s pay.

But it is crucial to remember that in most cases, the protagonists in this sphere of engagement have not had their rights to democratic participation suddenly curtailed in the dramatic way that many others have. For people for whom democratic engagement requires collective assembly, the lockdown is, to a significant extent, a suspension of democratic possibility. 

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This means that for as long as the lockdown continues, there is an urgent moral and political obligation for the organisations that mediate access to the elite public sphere to take great care to watch how the state treats oppressed and vulnerable people, and to keep in close contact with the organisations of impoverished people, trade unions, organised sex workers, migrants and so on. It is also vital that, wherever possible, access to the public sphere is enlarged. 

This is not the time to play what anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, writing in the midst of a very different crisis, called “the game of sleepy beauty”, and to continue with the comfortable fiction that the elite public sphere is the public sphere.

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