The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is, without a doubt, the most disruptive moment our world has experienced since the 2008 global economic crisis.
By disruptive moment, I mean an event, or series of events, that stops and alters established ways of operation or being.
Despite the discomfort, anxiety and uncertainty, disruptive moments serve a particular purpose as they allow space for perspective and positive change.
While the 2008 global economic crisis taught us that unfettered capitalism breeds irresponsible capitalism, the Covid-19 pandemic is showing us that the ever-widening inequality among the haves and the have-nots is becoming increasingly unsustainable.
In our interconnected world, the survival and prosperity of every individual relies on the collective. Consequently, the health of a rich person is not removed from or irrelevant to the health of a poor person.
In South Africa, this tends to follow the adage of “out of sight, out of mind” as the elites avoid confronting our poverty epidemic.
Covid-19 is disrupting this and placing our country’s uncomfortable realities back in plain sight and front of mind.
Poverty, unemployment, inequality and injustice are staring us in the face. We dare not refrain from acting.South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, roughly split into two halves – one which is globally competitive in development, and one with high levels of poverty.In the one half we have dollar billionaires, while 55% of South Africans live on less than R1 138 per month, below the upper poverty line.
South Africa is a poor, unequal and underdeveloped country, and the political elite have for too long been out of touch with this truth.This extends to the “one size fits all” approach to the current lockdown and its implementation. It is inappropriate to use a suburban approach when dealing with all communities.
We have to approach them with an understanding of the unique challenges they face.
Recently, I spent time in Masiphumelele, an informal settlement in Cape Town, spearheading a One South Africa food distribution programme.I observed how impossible it is for people in Masiphumelele to physically distance themselves. It was as if the Easter period was just another set of public holidays.
I could not discern any meaningful levels of self-isolation, social distancing or wearing of masks, and that’s because this is impossible in circumstances of such congestion.
How does a family of eight living in a shack and sharing a communal tap and toilet effectively practise social distancing?
This showed me the need, not for a brutal approach to obtaining observance, but for an approach which factors in education and sufficient support. What has been happening in vulnerable areas is violence and intimidation by police officers towards citizens.
Police Minister Bheki Cele’s infamous mantra of “shoot to kill” is fast becoming “skop, skiet en donder”.
You won’t find this police behaviour in the suburbs because citizens there know their rights, and have access to lawyers and the media. As a result, this rough-handed approach is only applied to the poor.It is not only inhumane, it’s also failing to produce the desired effect of enforcing lockdown regulations. It provokes and creates unrest and rebellion in communities struggling to make ends meet.
Beatings do not educate; they antagonise.
These are spaces where people have had to deal with existing health problems such as HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, which make the risk of Covid-19 spreading of even greater concern.
Poor and working class South Africans are becoming desperate.
Without critical interventions – car payments and other debit orders – social unrest is going to bubble over. The many who work in the gig economy and are unpaid in this period due to the disruption of their businesses will need direct cash allocations. In the same way we have declared a state of disaster, this needs to be followed by an economic disaster recovery plan for both the formal and informal economy.
Without sounding histrionic, we face the twin threats of Covid-19 and the revolt of poor people.
The burning of schools, the protests in Mitchells Plain – these are the first signs of what is to come if politicians do not start to listen and respond. This, among other reasons, is why I left formal politics. Politicians grow tone deaf to the cries of poor people, who become a statistic instead of a face.
We need change, not only in the suburbs, but in the townships and rural areas where the majority of our citizens live.
We urgently require policies that focus on uplifting and assisting the poor. The tough decisions facing the country’s leadership in the post-Covid-19 world will be a lot more difficult than the decision to place the country in lockdown. What got us here is certainly not going to get us there.
Our unemployment rate will breach the 50% mark if we fail to act and usher in a new start-up country, one in which we put to bed ideological divides over state-owned enterprises, and reward and incentivise innovation in the economy, including healthcare and education. Avoiding some form of external stimulus, whether from the International Monetary Fund or elsewhere, is a pipe dream. The challenge is how to best use such a stimulus to open up the economy while tackling poverty.
Tax reform that incentivises job creation and gives tax cuts to those who support family members and direct cash transfers to young South Africans; the establishment of a jobs and justice fund; the introduction of a voluntary year-long national civilian service; an increase in child support grants; education reform: the solutions exist.
It’s the insistence on old ways of thinking that hampers real change.