Social justice in post-pandemic South Africa

Covid-19 has shone a light on the weaknesses of the world. A fairer system is possible if activists, the government and society employ sweeping changes that speak to the many.

A better world after the Covid-19 pandemic is possible. Which, in this country in particular, does not mean it is likely. 

It has become a cliché to point out that the virus has shown up many of the weaknesses of a world where for decades profit has counted far more than people. Here and elsewhere, it has shown the costs of inequality, of trying to control people living in poverty rather than listening to them, of allowing public services that protect people to run down. 

Change, it has shown, is more possible than we are told. Clear skies and waters have returned, signalling that the planet can recover from what we have done to it. Around the world, measures to close down economic and social activity to protect people from the virus rack up overwhelming public support, despite noise on the extreme right to the contrary.

To name but one example, measures to re-open schools face resistance from parents and teachers’ unions. There is also huge support for using public money to help people get by.

But that does not mean the coronavirus pandemic will ensure a more humane world in touch with nature.

Peddlers of hate

The pandemic will be followed by a severe recession or depression. 

History – including that of the past few years – tells us that economic hard times are fertile fields for the peddlers of hate. We can already see the signs. In China, African visitors are blamed for the virus while the United States president blames the Chinese. This is only the beginning of attempts to persuade people that they are suffering because there is too much freedom, which allowed others to bring plague and poverty.

Even if we are spared this, we will hear voices – using the same tired and false comparison between our household budgets and the country’s finances – telling us we must endure years of economic pain to pay back the money spent now.

In this country, recession may halt the growth of the black middle class. That could result in a build-up of pressure for policies that tackle poverty. But it could also revive the fortunes of politics that use a misleading slogan – radical economic transformation – to justify the enrichment of a connected few. 

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And in a society where, in the mainstream, “economist” means someone who ignores or despises people living in poverty, we will hear loud demands that most of us suffer for years to “pay back” the spending that is needed now.

So, what do people who want a fairer world, one more likely to survive, have to do to make sure we get one? 

Clear message

First, there needs to be a convincing message. This is beginning to emerge elsewhere in ideas such as the Green New Deal in the US, which would build an economy that does not lay waste to the planet and includes everyone in its benefits. This idea is gaining so much traction that it has been adopted by the European Union. Critics say the EU version is neither green nor fair enough, but the debate is not over whether it is needed but what its elements should be. 

In this country, the message is far less clear and sometimes there does not seem to be much of a message at all.

Some campaigners seem unable to distinguish between demands that the better off risk everyone’s health to enjoy themselves and concern for people living in poverty. In the midst of a pandemic, the demand that health measures be removed can never be a call for social justice. Yet some who insist that they are concerned about poverty and angered by police and army bullying demand the end of measures that save lives.

In the process, a credible social justice criticism of government actions is lost. People who want social justice surely want health measures but insist that they are implemented by working with the millions who live in townships and shack settlements. Central to this is an insistence on care for people who cannot feed themselves and their families. But even where social justice campaigners do not support calls that would allow more illness and death, they have nothing much to say except the obvious point that we need to do something about poverty and inequality. 

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Here, there is no clear programme for a better world that can win the battle of ideas. Activists have, in fairness, urged the government to work with people at a grassroots level. But, important as this is, it has not gelled into a loud message that can capture the public imagination.  

Social justice activism here could learn much from Kerala. The Indian state has, in settings not unlike ours, produced better health, economic and educational standards than the rest of India and has been engaged in a successful fight so far against Covid-19. 

The Kerala model is based on commitment to democracy and partnerships between the government, citizens and citizens’ organisations. It does not impose from the top, it works with people to ensure a more caring society. Most of its healthcare is provided privately, but the state government ensures that this happens in a way that includes everyone.      

Strong base

Second, social justice movements need a strong base among the majority, which is even more sorely lacking here.  

For years, many South African social justice movements have spoken about people living in poverty, but not for them. Their roots in society have been weak, they have relied on debates in the media rather than building a support base. This has been on display during the pandemic.

Social justice activists have said much since Covid-19 reached South Africa. But they seem to have little presence in the lives of people. The way to be part of people’s lives during the national lockdown is to become part of the relief and support effort.

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Indian activists understood this during the last global pandemic, a century ago. They threw their energies into activities aimed at helping the sick and hungry. This enabled them to become part of people’s lives, not simply commentators on their experience. Today, the Sardines, the Italian movement that is fighting the politics of hate in that country, are devoting energy to raising relief funds and other work aimed at improving people’s lives. These are valuable activities in their own right. They also strengthen movements by building bridges between activists and society.

Some campaigners say they have tried this but that you need a permit to engage with grassroots people and the government has not been eager to hand them out. But it is not clear if they asked to conduct normal business or volunteered to contribute to social support. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently acknowledged that the government had not worked with people on the ground and promised to change tack. This creates an opportunity for activists, but it is not clear that any are taking it up.

Post-pandemic South Africa could be a nightmare or a modified version of what it was before the Covid-19 pandemic. But it could make a real attempt to include all citizens in a stronger democracy. Those who want the third option will have to work for it. A good place to start would be to develop a vision and a way of operating that is capable of appealing to the minds of the many.

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