South Africa faces a stark political choice

As the intersecting health and economic crises deepen, the country will have to choose between a politics rooted in social solidarity and a politics rooted in exclusion and containment.

On 8 May, it was reported in a presentation to Parliament that police officers had killed 11 people during lockdown operations. At the time, the army had killed at least one person. On 25 May, the state acknowledged that only nine people had received the Covid-19 special grant intended to offer some support to unemployed people of a working age.

Both figures are likely to be out of date now. But this grim juxtaposition between the nine people reported to have received the grant and the 12 people reported to have been killed by the state’s armed forces is telling. In times like these, it seems that the state’s capacity for violent and authoritarian responses to impoverishment rivals, and may exceed, its capacity for solidarity.

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None of us knows what the future holds in terms of the direct social costs of the coronavirus pandemic, or the measures taken to contain it. Estimates for the number of people likely to get sick, and to die, and the livelihoods and jobs likely to be lost, and incomes reduced, vary tremendously.

The lack of certainty about both the trajectory of this new virus and how to weigh its social costs against the social costs of containment measures should engender a degree of humility in our public discourse. At this point, everybody is working with at least some hypotheses that have yet to be verified.

As the crisis unfolds, the strident and at times hysterical nature of much public discussion may well degenerate further. It is important to resist this. It is imperative that a distinction is made between evidence-based claims and those animated by assumption or paranoia, and that the sphere for rational disputation is kept as free, open and rigorous as possible. We should all be willing to take provisional positions, based on the best available evidence at the time, and to revise our views as new evidence emerges.

Dangerous terrain

But although there’s much we don’t know, there is no question that we are inexorably heading into dangerous terrain. The government’s Covid-19 lockdown has not taken the lived reality of millions of impoverished people seriously or been accompanied by an effective programme of testing and tracing. Its popular legitimacy has been compromised by state harassment and violence. As a result, the lockdown has not contained the escalation in the rate of infection. Some of the recent measures announced to loosen the lockdown, including the allowance made for limited religious gatherings, run obvious risks of escalating the spread of the virus.

At the same time, the economic crisis, long marked by rapid deindustrialisation and systemic unemployment, was already worsening before the first case of Covid-19 was recorded in South Africa. Retrenchments were ubiquitous. We don’t know how severe the costs of the lockdown and the growing rate of infection will be in economic terms, but already retrenchments are escalating, businesses are closing and people are having to take significant pay cuts.

The historical record shows that in times of plague or other forms of crises in public health there is a real risk of social stress taking the form of hostility towards the afflicted; outbreaks of intolerance, including xenophobia; a generalised collapse into irrational forms of making sense of the world; and state authoritarianism.

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The record also shows that in times of serious economic crisis there are similar risks that forms of dangerously authoritarian popular and state politics will emerge. As with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, this often centres on making scapegoats of vulnerable minorities.

There are grounds for significant concern about how the ANC is likely to respond to the unfolding intersection of an entwined health and economic crisis. The fact that the state has been more effective thus far at killing impoverished people than in rolling out the Covid-19 special grant is cause for profound disquiet. So, too, is the fact that there has been no public censure of the more authoritarian figures in the Cabinet, people like Bheki Cele and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, let alone swift action to remove them from office.

The rapid escalation in xenophobic rhetoric from leading figures in the ANC, which now taints ministers such as Tito Mboweni and Thulas Nxesi, along with more established xenophobes like Aaron Motsoaledi, is also grounds for serious concern. And the way that figures in the state machinery, most notably Anban Pillay, have sought to suppress the free exchange of ideas is worrying.

Powerful social force

Certain developments in society are also cause for concern. There was a degree of anti-Chinese sentiment at the outset of the pandemic. And in recent days there have been increasing reports of people such as nurses and prison warders, who are assumed to be a greater risk of infection to others than the general public, being stigmatised.

At this point, pessimism seems to be a far more rational position than the naive confidence in the state displayed in some quarters. But that pessimism, insofar as it is a rational apprehension of the situation in which we find ourselves, needs to be accompanied by a commitment to change things, by what Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci famously called the optimism of the will. 

We need to recall that from 1999 to 2008, the situation with regard to the Aids pandemic seemed unremittingly bleak. Millions were infected, the rates of infection were escalating rapidly, funerals had become a routine punctuation in the rhythms of life, and Thabo Mbeki led the state – and significant parts of society – down the road of a catastrophically mistaken denialism. The bulk of people with real power in the ANC did not speak out and our best and most progressive doctors, journalists and activists were, scurrilously, presented as traitors.

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But the combination of a social movement, the Treatment Action Campaign, along with the support of trade unions, progressive doctors, other experts of various kinds, religious leaders and a set of important public figures, eventually built a social force powerful enough to decisively shift the consensus on questions relating to the aetiology of the pandemic, the most effective technologies available for treatment and the need to put public health before private profit.

The victory won in the public sphere began to be translated into state policy on 25 September 2008, the first day of Kgalema Motlanthe’s brief period as president of the country. The state would go on to build the biggest and most effective treatment programme on the planet. It has significantly reduced the rate of new infections and kept millions of people alive and in good health. It is often said that this is the single most important achievement of the ANC in its quarter of a century in state power.

In 2020, we must simultaneously confront a new pandemic and a rapidly escalating economic crisis that seems almost certain to result in a significant worsening of the existing crisis of mass impoverishment. The ANC carries very different currents and personalities in its rather viscous flow into the future. But there are real risks that as the situation worsens, the currents and figures who would prefer to make scapegoats of vulnerable minorities and police impoverished black people with all the contempt of an army of colonial occupation may have considerable influence in shaping the party’s – and therefore the state’s – response to the crisis.

The pressure to isolate the authoritarians, and those who have descended to the base politics of the xenophobe, will have to come from society. In this uncertain moment, with storm clouds building on the horizon, it is imperative to build a broad alliance of progressive forces – in which the progressive organisations of the impoverished and working class must play a central role – to pave the road through this crisis with an ethic, politics and practice of social solidarity.

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