Indubitably, 2020 will be remembered for the public health crisis and the social and economic devastation that was wrought by the coronavirus COVID-19. While we were enjoying the 2019 Christmas break, the virus was busy announcing its ominous presence in the Chinese population. As we screamed, “Happy New Year!”, to celebrate the arrival of 2020, the Chinese government must have been celebrating something else – the fact that the arrival of Covid-19 had, by then, not dominated world news headlines. We now know that the soon to be ex-president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, was in January informed by Chinese authorities of the public health crisis the coronavirus was visiting upon China. I think it is safe to assume that the US president is not the only world leader who was briefed by Chinese authorities. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that our own government was unaware of what was happening in China. As we approached the 2020 budget speech towards the end of February, the virus had not only made landings in Europe but it was becoming common cause that the world was about to be hit by an epidemic or pandemic of global proportions. What astonished me, though, is the fact that there was no COVID-19 scenario in the budget speech. What this suggested to me was that our government, like other governments elsewhere, harboured the hope that the impact of the virus would be fleeting and ephemeral. It wasn’t. A month after the budget speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the imposition of hard nationwide lockdown.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) will never forget COVID-19. I am certain that its leaders and strategists are praying that voters will forget what the virus told them about how the ANC is failing to deliver on the promise of a better life for all, particularly for those who are victims of colonialism, apartheid and neo-apartheid. The virus exposed the extent to which a vote for the ANC is a vote for the economic disenfranchisement of black people. A vote for the ANC is, basically, a vote for the further entrenchment of racial inequalities in our country. This is what the coronavirus is telling us about our post-apartheid reality. For ANC strategists, the challenge is to sugar-coat this reality because what COVID-19 is telling us is that, almost twenty-seven years after the advent of democracy, black lives still don’t matter in South Africa. Another thing the ANC will have to sugar-coat is the fact that our ruling party has become a powerful symbol for things venal, corrupt and nefarious in this country. I want to see how ANC strategists will get around the contention by its own leader, Ramaphosa, that – when it comes to corruption, the ANC is ‘accused number one’. Where are you Bell Pottinger?! The ANC needs you!
As if the fact that the policies of the ANC, its economic policies in particular, are objectively anti-black and anti-poor was not enough to demonstrate that black lives do not matter here and elsewhere in the world, George Floyd, an African-American man, was murdered by white police officers who callously ignored his cry, “I Can’t breathe!”, as one of them continued to press his knee on his neck until he died. This resulted in protests in the US and globally as black and white people angrily screamed, “Black lives matter!”. To demonstrate that the response should be, “Not really”, some decried more the destruction of property during The Black Lives Matter protest, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, thought that the statue of a slave owner was more valuable, and the most dishonest among us, including some members of the Proteas national cricket team, tried to change the subject by arguing that “All lives matter”. Since when? Until further notice, both the Proteas and the Springboks do not matter. I am tired of their racist bullshit. Unfortunately, our security forces did not want to be left out. They too had to demonstrate that black lives don’t matter. Collins Khosa, a black man, was killed by black members of the South African National Defence Force for, as the soldiers alleged, refusing to comply with lockdown regulations. There are two things I find instructive about Khosa’s death: First, his killing became an issue when the protests against George Floyd’s murder became a global phenomenon. Second, it showed the extent to which even the most conscious and ‘woke’ among us are still victims of the racism we internalise unconsciously.
Talking about racism, the Democratic Alliance (DA) pulled another race rabbit out of its liberal hat. This time, it is a new conception of non-racialism. Realising that the ANC is conceptually unreliable when it comes to the question of race the DA found a gap and widened it. The DA recently held its policy conference and federal congress at which events it re-invented the concept of non-racialism to align it properly with its denial and ambiguity when it comes to redress. To put it succinctly, there shall be redress but it will not be based on race. In other words, the DA came out of its federal congress colour blind. To make sure that someone who may be tempted to argue like Mmusi Maimane when he said, “If you don’t see colour, you don’t see me”, is not elected and messes the race thing up, John Steenhuisen was elected party leader to head the new project of non-racialism. This is the vision of non-racialism the DA will be taking to black voters next year. Some have argued that this vision can’t be wrong because it enjoys the support of black people in the party. Well, if you know what I mean when I talk about patriarchy in a dress or skirt, then you know what my answer is.
Sadly, it was another terrible year for women and children. The war on women was interrupted by the hard lockdown and when the government started relaxing the lockdown measures, the violence against women erupted again. In fact, this is a gross mischaracterisation. The violence did not stop. The women, their abusers and the violence were under lockdown confined to the privacy of the same dangerous spaces. Today the sixteen day campaign against the violence we visit upon women and children was launched and, so far, the conversations about gender-based violence are following the same pattern they follow every year. I am beginning to gravitate towards the conclusion that the annual expressions of outrage have become a mere ritual performed, in the main, by politically correct opinionistas. My frustrations, among others, are the following: 1) Our conversations are dominated by pet theories that have no room for an alternative view. 2) There are views and ideas that should not and, therefore, cannot be expressed. 3) We suffer from the obsession of condemning without understanding. Any attempt at understanding why men are beating and killing women is treated as an attempt to excuse the murderous impulses of men. 4) Spiritual explanations, especially those that pertain to African spirituality and African indigenous knowledge are treated as mumbo jumbo.
As a man, I have caused pain to women I love. I want to be part of conversations, in safe spaces, from which, with a sense of humility, I can participate in broader struggles against patriarchy and specific struggles against the abuse and killing of women by us men, and do so without seeking to change the subject for my comfort, or moving my concerns as a man to the centre.
Before I forget, the US had an election on 3 November and the world is still waiting for Trump to concede defeat and accept that Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president on 20 January 2021. However, the sooner we accept that Biden is going to be the president of no country other than the US, the easier it will be to accept that Africa will remain a priority only to the extent that her natural endowments are critical for the growth of the US, European and Chinese economies. In short, Biden, like his predecessors and counterparts in Europe and China, is not about to abandon the realist conception of international relations.
So, what does 2021 have in store for us?
On the economic front, there will be no ‘green shoots’ for the poor and the working class. The African continent is expected to go into recession for the first time in more than twenty-five years. As for our finance minister, Tito Mboweni, he will continue to deliver more on the ideological and propaganda fronts than on the promises of a better life for all and structural reforms in the economy. South Africa’s credibility crisis in relation to ratings agencies and, by extension, international investors too, will continue. From at least 2013, South African finance ministers have, with monotonous regularity, been making the same promises: There shall be: 1) Structural reforms 2) Fiscal prudence, lowering of the budget deficit and cuts in social spending. 3) cuts in the public sector wage bill. 4) eradication of red tape in the interface between the state and business, especially small business. 5) the rationalisation of state-owned enterprises. 6) Economic growth with infrastructure development taking centre stage. 7) effective implementation of the new economic development plan, and so on.
The problem is that ratings agencies do not believe that the ANC government can deliver on these policy promises hence the recent downgrades by Fitch and Moody’s. They do not believe that the government will be able to deliver on the austerity package it has promised given the rising levels of resistance from labour. The incredulity of ratings agencies is understandable given the fact that 2021 is an election year, which means that the finance minister must walk the tight rope of sending a positive message to international investors while making sure that the package of austerity measures does not alienate poor and working class voters, the preponderance of whom have been voting ANC since 1994. Will they do so in the 2021 local government elections?
The ANC goes into this election with its credibility in tatters. As indicated above, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the failures of the past twenty-six years. The combination of these failures and the perception that the ANC is corrupt to the core have led to a serious breakdown of trust between citizens and the ruling party. Ordinarily, the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) should benefit from this but the DA with its race denial and internal problems may underperform and not be able to surpass the electoral gains of 2016. The EFF, on the other hand, is suffering from a trust deficit of a different kind. Its messaging resonates with the electorate but the majority of voters do not believe it is ready to govern. Therefore, the electorate has the following options: 1) Stay at home. (18 million voters who were eligible to vote in the 2019 general election did just that and 9 million of them had not even bothered to register.) 2) A holding pattern – in which case the outcome will more or less mirror the 2016 result. 3) Punishing both the ANC and the DA to the benefit of the EFF even though a realignment that delivers a decisive swing towards the EFF is unlikely. On the hand, the results of the recently held by-elections in which the ANC made impressive gains may be a harbinger of things to come in 2021. But, what is probably going to excite the popular imagination are the outcomes and aftermath of the ANC’s National General Council (NGC) of the ANC which will be held in May. If what is being said by some of the opponents of Ramaphosa is anything to go by, the rebellion against him will be launched at the NGC. More important, however, is the possibility that the NGC will signal the direction the 2022 succession battle might take as well as the nature of the policy battles -which are usually proxy political battles – that lie ahead. The corona virus will still be with us and the world will spend 2021 finding new ways of adapting to and living with it.