COVID-19 and the Challenges to embracing Change in South Africa

FES-Programme Manager Richard Worthington asks if the “invisible enemy” can generate support for a new social compact.

Image: of Sebabatso Mosamo Learning Social Distancing. The elderly waiting in line for their social grants in Johannesburg('s Alexandra Township on March 30th.)

South Africans have burned through a lot of optimism over recent weeks, perhaps most clearly reflected in progressive media. The decisive response of President Ramaphosa and his government to the arrival of Covid-19 in South Africa was embraced as a welcome change; a break from inaction on many fronts, largely resulting from power-mongering within the ruling party, as the economy went from bad to worse. There was almost jubilation at the statesmanship on display.

There was much speculation that, with economic orthodoxy rendered irrelevant, response to the pandemic would serve to kick-start transformational change, driven by renewed commitment to putting people first. It was suggested that the surfacing of enduring social injustice – rendered banal by routine recognition of our “triple challenge” of unemployment, poverty and inequality – and coupled with a recognition of common cause in the face of “the invisible enemy”, could generate support for a new social compact.

Less than two months later there is growing outrage at on-going failings in implementation of the most rudimentary relief measures. Invocations of social solidarity ring hollow as over 70 000 troops are mobilized to support enforcement of government edicts that defy our lauded Constitution, carrying guns rather than food parcels. There is a growing body of evidence that the restrictions being maintained by government are more detrimental for the majority of South Africans than any projected impact of the pandemic. Failure to effectively address rapidly increasing hunger and destitution makes a mockery of appeals for “social distancing”, especially in high-density townships, where crowds gathering for what relief is available counteracts the purpose of the lockdown.

At the end of the first week of a slightly lower level of restrictions, following five weeks at what is now called level 5 of disaster management, there is growing realisation that no would-be heroic short-term effort is going to turn any tide or put us on a better pathway. It is also emerging that the measures which should have been taken with the time gained by the lockdown have largely not materialized. In particular we are chronically behind in testing, yet there is data showing that community transmission is accelerating in Gauteng’s townships.

The observation that ‘normal’, as in pre-Covid-19, was already a state of crisis (usually citing climate change, also biodiversity loss, sometimes inequality) is most starkly apparent in South Africa, where malnourishment already caused stunting of almost a quarter of children. A range of activists are calling for seizing the opportunity, with economic orthodoxy being set aside, to transform our economic system; while others caution that this could risk the system collapsing entirely, with ruinous immediate impacts and long-term consequences.

There is growing consensus that the peak infection rate in South Africa is likely to be in August or September, while the suspension of most economic activity has created acute immediate distress and social unrest. The growing urgency to accelerate reopening, to limit escalating job losses (from a pre-COVID base of almost 30% unemployment), has exacerbated short-termism without disrupting vested interests.

This is particularly clear in the electricity sector, where the opportunity for development of a renewable energy industry is being held hostage by a Department of Minerals Resources and Energy led by an old-school coal enthusiast. Minister Mantashe not only promotes the fantasy of “clean coal”, but is strengthening his grip on the energy regulator, while also seeking amendments to regulations; in one case to give himself a veto over local government electricity procurement and in another to reduce the rights of local communities in development decision-making. He has also just announced commencement of new nuclear power procurement and suggested that we should buy a lot of oil while it is cheap.

Hope that this health emergency might bring out the best in our ruling party or strengthen the position of President Ramaphosa within is increasingly difficult to sustain. This disease has certainly made the failings of our economic system and our government more visible and pronounced, but it is not clear that it is generating the political will and solidarity required to overcome them. The meagre extension of welfare offered to date – most yet to reach intended beneficiaries – suggests that inclinations toward austerity have not been set aside.

Perhaps this could change if there is a positive response to the appeal of our President, as Chair of the African Union, for the 9-month suspension of international debt payments to be extended to two years. A range of organisations are advancing proposals for transformative change, often to be rebuffed by fears of capital flight or offending market sentiment. With millions more South Africans going hungry each day, it is ever more challenging getting our government to seriously consider how a better world would be possible.

Richard Worthington has worked in the South African NGO sector since 1996, having left South Africa after getting a BA degree at Wits in 1984. After 12 years working with Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, he managed the WWF-SA Climate Change Programme for five years to 2013. He recently joined the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Johannesburg office, as Programme Manager on Climate and Energy Policies.

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