It has no place

COVID-19 exposes the continued inability of most white South Africans to critically reflect on privilege or engage constructively about the handling of the pandemic.

Image credit Steve Crane via Flickr CC.

South Africa went into lockdown on March 26 to manage the impact of COVID-19. Although the country has eased some restrictions since May 1, the lockdown remains strict (at the time of writing lockdown restrictions are set to be further eased by late May). The World Health Organization (WHO) praised South Africa for its swift medical response, but the country was criticized, including by the United Nations (UN), for the heavy-handedness of its police. Noteworthy have been the reactions of white South Africans, which still dominate the upper and middle class strata of society. They include media figures as well as the opposition Democratic Alliance (the only major political party with a white leader). Much of their opinions make the rounds on social media. Predictably, they have not critically self-reflected on their position of privilege or the roots of many of the current challenges we see—all of which have been magnified during this crisis, and most of which disproportionately affect the vulnerable.

What are legitimate concerns with the heavy handedness of the police and army have come from these corners at a very uncanny time, particularly considering that the fundamental nature of South African policing has been inherited from apartheid logics and has been plaguing our country despite political liberation. Instead this outrage with South Africa’s policing culture conveniently coincides with the displeasure of and often reluctant compliance with lockdown measures, not recognizing that this has been an issue raised by many (mostly black) South Africans prior to COVID-19. While the policing of black spaces and communities has been continually highlighted in recent years, it has persistently fallen on deaf ears that either do not recognize this as an issue and/or square blame with corrupt officials, the supposed inability of “blacks to govern,” or some kind of pathological proclivity for “black barbaric behavior” (read discourses of the uncivilized). Though I am sure many would not explicitly label their position as such, this is very much what it represents.

I also find it curious and disturbing that many of the critics of the South African government’s handling of the pandemic are echoing the same short-sighted sentiments advanced by right-wing white protestors in the United States. These protesters continue to defend their first amendment rights (at all costs) in the face of a global pandemic and at the cost of national health and protection. The sentiments of Trump and his supporters in the US demanding the lifting of lockdown measures reflect a brand of libertarianism that has little resonance in South Africa’s historical, economic, political and social context, and overlook the careful balancing act this crisis requires. What is routinely missed is that it is not just your health and up to you to decide how and when to “take your chances” as some would have. Given the contagious nature of this virus, what we do as individuals impacts others— sometimes fatally. Moreover, within the South African context the “rights” discourse that is frequently invoked is glaringly void of engagement with international human rights law which holds no rights as absolute, and moreover conflates inconveniences of the privileged with rights. Now is the time for such critics to take several seats and not conflate justified albeit contentious government prescriptions limiting the duration of exercise (level 4), prohibiting the sale of cigarettes (level 4/5) or buying rotisserie chicken (level 5) as arbitrary as they may seem with basic and fundamental rights (see here for an overview of lockdown levels in South Africa). Here, the social practice of ubuntu has a decidedly important role to play, particularly from those in positions of privilege.

Interestingly, these narratives are not employed by people in positions of privilege across color lines but overlap with race. Notwithstanding individual exceptions, unlike most white South Africans, it would seem that privileged people of color are generally supportive and compliant with lockdown measures—most likely because of their very real awareness and recognition of their positionality and privilege as is.

This brings me to the precarious nexus of lockdowns and the economy. This is a careful balancing act all countries across the world are currently facing. This is not unique to South Africa, and no, it is not our specific “brand” of lockdown that is problematic or somehow at fault. Instead, the challenges we face relate to the intersection of politics, governance and economics in times of crisis in a heavily unequal society. This has undoubtedly been magnified by the pandemic. Instead, these challenges are a function of the pandemic and not necessarily “capricious” and “spiteful” ministers as critics have put it. Contrary to vocal critics, there are capable, educated and well-informed people running our country who are making informed decisions (we need not look further than Health Minister Zweli Mkhize as an example). This however does not preclude missteps as no crisis is averted seamlessly. Using this crisis to have a go at our ministers as opposed to engaging in constructive debate is politicking at a time when partisan politics has no place. Not only is it unconstructive, but it so frequently misses the point of why (inherited apartheid legacies of violence) many of these challenges persist across the political spectrum.

There has also been talk of the limited ability of South Africans to abide by regulations. Now of course regulations require careful consideration regarding their duration and intensity. However, those South Africans that transgress regulations to go for a run on the promenade versus those that loot and protest make up two very different groups that “break regulations” for very different reasons. Frustrations at not being able to buy hot food or sympathizing with smokers are not the same as the raiding or looting of stores by impoverished and vulnerable communities (whether this be for cigarettes, alcohol, or food). While I fully recognize that frustrations, anxiety and stress are real across the social and economic spectrum, we cannot be blind to the equally real differences that underpin these. The former are existential threats while the latter are mostly inconveniences.

Again, these calls for “rights” by privileged white communities in South Africa have ironic timing, i.e. when privileges are being inconvenienced (not to be confused with a violation of rights). What emerges is a pattern of selectively sympathizing with the struggle of others. The relative silence and lack of outrage from these corners on the issue of evictions during the earlier stages of the pandemic are but one example. Whether intentional or not these current concerns come across as disingenuous—particularly considering most of those making up this group are rarely seen protesting for the rights of the vulnerable during times of normalcy (unless talking about the re-hashed complaints against the ANC government of course).

Qualms with the ruling party and their apparent “childish flirtation with outdated and failed socialist ideas” have been cited as an issue somehow related to the lockdown. How this relates to the current predicament is not clear. The welfare state and the socialist ideas that underpin them have in fact been quite successful and are gaining increasing currency worldwide despite still often falling short in addressing persistent systemic inequalities. If however, such critics are referring socialism whereby government exerts control and ownership of business (which I think most are), it should be noted that there is a wide spectrum and variance of success of these models and that their success and/or failure is not attributable to the ideas themselves but a range of variables. Describing them as childish flirtations is paternalistic, ill-informed and myopic. Instead, demonstrating an understanding for the damage and complexities that a free market system has on the poorest of the poor would make for a stronger argument and/or basis for debate. Better yet a fully-fledged engagement with political theorists and practitioners would give these voices a degree of credibility. However, again, it is not clear if the outrage is with the conditions that the most destitute of our society have to deal with or whether this has been brought up because of the lack of hot food and cigarettes.

These arguments reflect the continued inability of white South Africa to critically reflect on their positionality and engage in meaningful, self-reflective and constructive debate. The poor and underprivileged do not need these segments of society to call out causes that they have been calling attention to for decades. What we need more than anything are allies and systems of support that recognize just how destitute this situation is for many, and what a tall order this crisis is for our leaders. Constructive solution-driven engagement is required. Whether we like it or not, apartheid’s inherited legacies rear their persistent and ugly heads in times like these. These legacies are inculcated in our systems and perpetuate violence and draconian patterns of behavior that are difficult to shake. This will not be resolved with a simple change of government. They are socially embedded to the degree that they will require input and insights from teams of multidisciplinary experts—not armchair critics.

In sum, while many of these critics may be lucky enough to purchase one-way tickets to the supposed “lands of the free” (Australia, New Zealand and the UK), should the regulations on runs on the promenade continue, these decisions will come at the cost of many despite it being well-within their power to contribute constructively.

Further Reading

Masks off

The revival of an elite technocratic rationality is starting to undo South Africa’s lockdown, now in its second month.