In the beginning, there was the word – and the word was ‘unity’. All our political parties pledged their support for President Cyril Ramaphosa. They all accused the president of being ‘decisive’ and then proceeded to call on all South Africans – all of us – to unite behind the president and the lockdown measures he announced when level 5 of the lockdown began. What we saw at the beginning of the lockdown were unprecedented levels of unity among those who constitute the political class of our country, including sections of the Fourth Estate that were quite effusive in their calls for the nation to unite behind the lockdown measures.
Things have changed.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is preparing to go to our courts to challenge the rationality of some of the lockdown measures. The tobacco and other sectors of the economy have threatened to go to court if the restrictions that have rendered them unprofitable or less profitable are not lifted. In the face of these threats and other forms of pressure, the government has decided to adopt a ‘risk-adjusted’ strategy on the basis of which we are beginning to see the ‘gradual’ opening of the economy as is the case in countries such as the United States of America, Italy, Spain and Germany – countries that have been hit very hard by the novel Corona Virus Covid-19. In fact, even the Nelson Mandela Foundation has entered the fray with its CEO, Sello Hatang, characterising some of the lockdown measures as ‘paternalistic’. What has change? What has happened to all the manufactured unity and consent? As former US president, Bill Clinton, said, “It’s the economy, stupid!”. I say, “ It’s the political economy, stupid!”.
It was always naive to think that Covid-19 would be the miracle cure for social, racial, economic and class cleavages, as well as, the political and ideological tensions that have become an integral part of South African society, as they are everywhere else in the world. It was, therefore, extremely unrealistic to assume that the fuzzy feelings that came with ‘non-partisan’ exhortations for national unity would not, as is the case now, mutate into bellicose calls for unity as well as the need to privilege the well-being of citizens, particularly those affected the most by poverty, inequality and unemployment prior to the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. Therefore, it was the height of naïveté to think that clashes of narratives – at a political, economic and scientific level, would not be part of the Covid-19 discourse. Therefore, the tension between different narratives, the tension between words and what they describe, as well as, the tension between words and reality, was always, unavoidably and inevitably going to inform, not only the content of debates about Covid-19, but also the content of decisions about how to mitigate the devastating impact of the virus on the economic lives of billions of people around the globe and millions in this country.
As I sat down to write this opinion piece, the confirmed Covid-19 cases are chasing 13 000. In all probability, they will be chasing 14 000 by the time I finish writing. What we have here is a perfect storm of the wave of confirmed Covid-19 cases, the wave of starving citizens because of the economic devastation, as well as, the wave of social and political discontent rising to collide at a speed and impact that will cause untold misery to all – a reality that will create conditions for another perfect storm, the discontent of the poorest of the poor, the unemployed, the working poor and the middle class. There are many who were not poor who will be as the virus courses through our country. The fact that the perfect storm of discontent is inclusive of the middle class constitutes both a challenge and an opportunity for the political class. It is for this reason that narratives and, therefore, the clash of narratives, are a critical component of the politics of Covid-19.
Until recently, the president was benefiting the most, in political terms, from the master-narrative about how to manage the virus and mitigate its impact on citizens. By extension, the African National Congress (ANC) has been basking in Ramaphosa’s reflected glory. The president’s improved approval rating diverts attention from the parlous state of the ruling party. Also, it means that the succession battle for 2020, the leadership contest, can proceed ‘unseen’ under the cover of Covid-19. Furthermore, the fact that, in our post-apartheid setting, the economic impact of the virus has a particularly virulent configuration in the townships, squatter camps and rural areas, is a problem that needs solving for both the ruling party and opposition political parties since all of them must demonstrate that, particularly at this time, they care about the plight of those who will suffer the most from the ravages of this virus. In response to a narrative which suggests that the corona virus has exposed the extent to which, since the advent of democracy, the post-apartheid state has been dismal in changing the lives of the black majority for the better, the ANC must posit a counter-narrative that foregrounds the sins of apartheid. In the dance between the two narratives, the ANC needs to blame our post-apartheid reality of inequality, poverty and unemployment on our apartheid past. The DA, in turn, must counter this narrative by focusing exclusively on the post-apartheid failures of the ruling party.
In my view, however, the DA and the ANC are, in relation to the economic establishment, two sides of the same coin. The broad thrust of ANC policies when it comes to the economy have been objectively anti- poor and anti-black even if this was not intended. For its part, the DA is the doll and the economic establishment is the ventriloquist. To some extent, however, some of the policy wonks in the ANC are, themselves, the dolls of the same ventriloquists. Put differently, both the ANC and the DA are subservient to the Anglo-Saxon logic of those whose interests are dominant in both our economy and the global economy. For its part, however, the ANC is uncritical of the economic designs of China and Russia on the African continent.
On the other hand, the DA is overly critical given its ideological inclinations and how, in epistemological terms, it is an extension of global colonialities and their logic. To some extent, therefore, the DA and the ANC serve the useful purpose of lending narrative dignity to those who promote a narrative of denial when it comes to the causes of inequality in South Africa – the most unequal society in the world. As Thomas Piketty says in his latest book, Capital and Ideology: “Every epoch therefore develops a range of contradictory discourses and ideologies for the purpose of legitimizing the inequality that already exists or that people believe should exist. From these discourses emerge certain economic, social, and political rules, which people then use to make sense of the ambient social structure. Out of the clash of contradictory discourses—a clash that is at once economic, social, and political—comes a dominant narrative or narratives, which bolster the existing inequality regime.” Need I say more?
At the moment, the clash of narratives and contradictory discourses revolve, in the main, around where a healthy balance lies in the tension between the health imperative, on the one hand, and economic imperatives, on the other. The government, as I indicated earlier, says it has adopted a risk-adjusted approach to the gradual opening of the economy. The ruling party, South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) have, as expected, albeit to varying degrees, decided to quarantine critical thought in support of the president and in support of almost every measure the government has announced so far. Opposition parties are divided into two broad positions – those whose emphasis is more on the health imperative, on the one hand, and those that put more emphasis on the economic imperative as a way of saving lives. In fact, the DA argues that continuing with the lockdown in any form will, in the end, cause more deaths than the virus itself. So, who is right?
Honestly, it is difficult to say notwithstanding the fact that we have been told to rely on scientific evidence. I wish things were that simple. They are not, and to pretend otherwise is to assume that science and scientists are valueless. Furthermore, the argument that we must rely on scientific evidence ignores two critical points: First, scientists are not a lump of clay and, unlike water in a river, they do not flow in the same direction. So, the argument that we must rely on scientific evidence (and scientists) is on shaky ground in two other respects: First, we live in an era where scientific modeling is presented as scientific ‘evidence’. Second, there is an attempt to subordinate other forms of knowledge, indigenous knowledge systems in particular, to ‘scientific’ ‘knowledge’. This raises two more questions: In whom does knowledge reside? Who decides who knows? These questions are about who, at a collective and individual level, must be the primary defines whose tyranny of expertise must inform the content of policy and other decisions on how to manage Covid-19 and its impact on humanity. Is it the scientists who have attached themselves to the concept of herd-immunity or the scientists of lockdowns, flattening the curve and risk-adjusted strategies who must inform decisions such as when to open schools and the rate at which we must open the economy? Is it not dangerous to always listen to one group of scientists and not another at all times?
I suspect, however, that my questions are irrelevant. It is quite possible that what will matter the most in the short-term, if not in the end, is the distribution of economic power globally and in the domestic terrain. We already know that, when money talks, politicians mumble. Perhaps, scientists will mumble too when profit starts making eloquent speeches about the need to save lives and fund scientific research. In other words, we must be open to the possibility that decisions about how to manage the virus will be based more on where economic power lies, and less on scientific evidence. The trick, I think, lies in being adept at packaging the foregrounding of economic considerations as health imperatives.
Personally, I am with Cicero on this one. Cicero – he of the heydays of the Roman Empire – argued that the health of the people, that is; their physical health and their social and economic well-being, must be the supreme law. This, to me at least, means that, while saving lives and economic imperatives are not mutually exclusive, decisions to open schools and the economy must privilege the supreme law. In this regard, the health of the people, not the Constitution, is the supreme law. My contention, therefore, is that the Constitution exists to serve the people. The people do not exist to serve the Constitution. Through the Constitution, the health of the people must become the supreme law of our country. In addition, the Constitution must protect us from what George Orwell warned us about. He warned that the fact that we live in a democracy is no guarantee that we will not be subjected to authoritarianism. We must remain vigilant because an authoritarian streak may enter our lives by stealth, disguised as something that is good for us. It is in this regard that i support some of the lawfare. We must be vigilant for another reason: Because of the nature of the beast called by us politics, the truth is divisible – along party lines. Because of the nature of the beast known to us as capitalism, profit comes before people. Ours must be a struggle to tame these two beasts. Covid-19 is not going to change their nature.