South Africa is a complex society when viewed from its socio-economic composition and character. It is the most equal country on earth, often alternating with Brazil, and among the world’s most culturally diverse. The levels of crime inclusive of gender-based violence rank among the highest there is anywhere. South Africa consists of a dirigisme state, mainly disposed towards wealth redistribution. But also, it manifests aspects of an open market economy -although a small one. This profoundly divergent character creates conditions for development of a particular kind of a state, a particular kind of society and a particular kind of alternatives.
Often, the state- society dynamism in South Africa play out in human conflict terms. This is mainly because the country’s historical foundations (social, economic, political and moral) are characteristically troubling. In simple terms, modern South Africa is founded on a crisis of multiple histories. The closing decades of apartheid (1970s and 1980s) generated sufficient momentum for the state and society to crash on the shores of civil war, a worst-case scenario which was more likely than any other.
If the worst-case scenario was to be avoided, a delicate coordination of the state and society was urgently necessary. The political class within the liberation movement rose to this task, following which the rest is historical pride of otherwise a dangerous state managing highly uneven society. The method employed by leaders in the liberation movement was a combination of political, economic (at least in intention), social and moral ‘control’. For the most part, whatever social control exercised by the liberation leaders during and after transition to democracy, the public saw these actions as a force for good. This strategy worked. It was only much later, approximately two decades on, that a revolt to such social control started to emerge, with voices rising against Nelson Mandela’s generation.
There are at least three dark moments in South Africa’s post 1994 state. The HIV/Aids tragedy is one of them, as is the state capture discomfiture. None of these crises are disputable as far as the actions of the state is concerned. The third dark cloud has to do with the Covid-19 pandemic, although as far as state action is concerned, there is nothing to be alarmed of, on the surface. But human society should not be understood based on what’s visible on the surface. The world over, state responses to the pandemic have been varied. South Africa’s response is considered as reasonably effective. Notwithstanding, there are subtleties of social control which I would like to examine. Whether these actions are inherently altruistic is contestable. Let me first turn to the French philosopher Michel Foucault for some insight into the theory of social control.
In his 1975 scholarly work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault saw political power as a means of social control, which, he argued, replaced public execution of bodies. In Foucault’s view, the new form of discipline and punish was institutionalised and monopolised by the state. It was his work on how a plague provides suitable conditions for development of new power techniques and social organizing, as the state takes extreme measures to control the plague. In this light, state power, individual freedom and knowledge become salient. Foucault anticipated that lockdowns of entire cities, mass quarantines and urban forms of organizing the public were all forms of social control by the state. Foucault is relevant to South Africa at this moment in history.
During the series of lockdowns implemented in South Africa from March this year, a different form of state power, which we are not used to, emerged. Within two weeks of the first recorded case in the country, on March 15th, the government invoked the disaster management Act 57 of 2002 which provides for an integrated disaster management policy, and the establishment of national, provincial and municipal disaster management centres. The integrated government system of disaster management aims to optimise available resources, eliminate duplications and increasing response effectiveness. Just over a week later, total lockdown was implemented. If we turn to Foucault, then we’ll understand that there is more than meets the eye, whether the state is intentional or not.
At the core of state response to the pandemic is state power, individual freedom and knowledge management. Like most other states around the globe, the South African state has control of the knowledge and management of data on infection rate, mortality rate and recovery rates. The public has no means of verifying the numbers provided by the state. Abstract numbers tend to treat individuals as accessories, mere statistics or cases whose value is no more than books on a shelf. So as a means of social control, the state could be charged with abstraction of its citizens through dehumanized information management. Based on these numbers, the state implements more response measures of choice, whether the public approves of them or not. This is a matter of monopoly of power. State power and preservation of individual liberty has become a site of contestation, depending on which social class one belongs to.
State power and individual liberty have also become sites of contestation, depending on which social class one belongs to. In South Africa, there were divergent responses from the propertied bourgeoisie, state bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the precariat. Nationally, the propertied bourgeoisie (mainly white) pushed back against what they considered as abundant state intervention in personal lives. This narrative suggests that individuals are able (and should be allowed) to make rational decisions without cohesion by the state. It is this same narrative which, following German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, concludes that the state often uses political means to plunder and exploit society. This position also aligns with the American individualist Albert Jay Nock who labelled the state as a professional criminal class.
The state bourgeoisie (employed by the state), which is mainly black, was a silent actor through the darkest part of the pandemic night. The wages of this class are high and secure. The state expects a reasonable measure of loyalty and credit for maintaining decent livelihoods for the state bourgeoise. But the same state has rendered the state bourgeoisie precarious, by failing to deliver quality basic services, by which this same class is forced to use private services -education, health and even security, all of which are state responsibilities in a proper functioning of the state.
Both the proletariat (working) and the precariat (poor) classes have always had a tumultuous relationship with the state. These classes view the state as taking too much from the public and giving too little to them; possessing too much power and yet using that power for private accumulation. As such the state has earned little of their loyalty, if any. These classes further consider confrontation with the state a moral duty with economic embeddedness. Through the past nine months of the pandemic, therefore, the state made efforts to deliver water tanks and expand social safety nets for a short period only, a crude form of tokenism which holds little merit as far as these classes are concerned.
At the backdrop of state action is rising government debt, prospects of tax increases, increased unemployment and business fold ups. These outcomes add to the reality of state power over its citizens. In effect, opening up economic activities after months of lockdown corresponded with rising protests as the proletariat and the precariat classes demanded basic services and employment opportunities.
During the pandemic still, we’ve seen endemic corruption within the state, which has disadvantaged most citizens whatever their class status. The same state chooses who to prosecute at what speed. Although to be fair there are traces of benevolent state actors, the larger pie of the state is deeply defective, employing political power for pursuing self-interests. The normalisation of corruption within state institutions has rendered State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) more of economic inhibitors than economic catalysts. This, I argue, is more than an economic or social question. It is a breakdown of normative ethics, a failure to decide what is wrong and right, and an alarming disregard of moral courage on individual and institutional level. But the widespread practice of corruption by a state which gets to determine and define what corruption is, is a narrative created by the state for the society at large.
For more than a quarter century, the South African state has accumulated political, economic and social power, without translating such power to material benefits of the society at large. In 2016, Lucien van der Walt penned an Op-ed titled ‘beyond white monopoly capital, who owns South Africa’, which exposed some of the glaring facts of a state tightening social control. Van der Walt contended that by 2016, the state bourgeoisie (what she referred to as black elite in the state sector) controlled roughly 30% of the economy through the state. Such control, she argued, included state banks (e.g. the IDC), state corporations (e.g. Eskom, South African Airways (SAA)), state facilities (e.g. the water grid and harbours), mass media (e.g. South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)), a world-class weapons industry (e.g. Denel), high-end research (e.g. the universities); plus 25% of all land (including 55% in the provinces of Gauteng and the Western Cape), making it the single biggest landowner in the country. The state, van der Walt continued, wields Africanised army and police, and state bureaucracy, making it the single biggest employer in the country; and, through the taxation system, it also receives more income from South Africa than any other single institution operating in the territory.
And yet, with all the above means of social control for more than two decades, the society is still fragmented, poor, unequal and largely unemployed. The fragmented society reflects increasing conflict of social classes. The emergence of hardliners on both the left and the right of the country’s political spectrum reveals deepening ideological schisms. The seemingly inept state is gradually losing grip of re-organizing society around social and economic goals. But when a pandemic calls upon the state to exercise social control, the same state seems effective and efficient-at least outwardly.
As it follows Karl Marx selectively, the economic redistribution narrative posted by the state disposes of Adam Smith’s moral concerns articulated in his moral philosophy. Adam Smith argued that our feelings, whether self-interested or benevolent are constituted by a process of socialization. Smith saw ethical behaviour as influenced by social pressures, although moral actions were ultimately up to an individual. He also argued that human beings have the ability to place themselves on others shoes, by ‘imagining’ how others in difficult circumstances would feel.
In masking social control with economic redistribution rhetoric, state actors have tended to subdue meaningful national debates which range from economic to social to moral. Thus, the HIV crisis during early 2000s, the state capture crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic all adopted economic redistribution as the lingua franca, which in turn deflects debates around the underbelly of state power.
The social control tides maintained by the state are strong, and the actors who would help restrain these currents will need to enter the fracas urgently and forcefully. In the same way that the French Philosopher Michel Foucault saw historical function of the state in quest for justice as institutionalised violence and oppression, modern South African state does not hold the answer to a more equal society. The alternative actors, citizens themselves and the civil society should use their limited power to re-make the future. Ultimately, what is stake in South Africa is more than economic and social inequality. These are effects of which moral failure is the cause. For South Africans who expect the state to act in their interest, Foucault offers a bleak promise to such expectation. If Foucault is right, racial conflicts, xenophobia, state corruption, gender-based violence and other crimes will require individual and institutionalised allegiance to the values which are considered as morally right. Such allegiance is first an individual mission before it is institutional. In realising that economic and social conditions are moral questions, we will have made a first step towards building a more perfect society.
Dr Jason Musyoka is an Associate Researcher as the Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria.