Nelson Mandela Foundation

As we have reflected on many times during this year of Covid-19, the virus has surfaced the best and the worst of human imagination and endeavour, and it has disclosed opportunity even as it has both foregrounded and deepened deprivation, despair and the discarding of the desperate. 

This sense of ambivalence and the carrying of pain has become routine for the Nelson Mandela Foundation teams that go out into communities in support of the Each1Feed1 campaign. We returned from Soweto recently weighed down by the evidence of a social fabric worn, torn and barely holding together. Always the help we offer goes way beyond the provision of food and other essential supplies – in this instance, we engaged with a family traumatised by the rape of a minor, and were able to ensure that they were given access to psychosocial services. We were weighed down. And yet we were also uplifted by the solidarity shown by 13 community volunteers who have been working to help others month-in and month-out.

Covid-19 has shown us how important the role played by the state can be in facing big challenges. It has demonstrated what can be achieved when civil society and the private sector work together with the state. It has highlighted what solidarity can do in moments of crisis. And it has suggested how humanity might reorganise sociality in ways that would prioritise interdependence and the deepening of social bonds. The social contract which has underpinned democracy for centuries is failing societies across the world. As United Nations Secretary-General Gutteres argued during the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in July, it is time to reimagine it.

There has, of course, been a terrible shadow to the ways in which structures of the state have stepped up in the face of Covid-19. We see it in many different countries in the form of greater authoritiarianism, the longer term undermining of civil rights, the arbitrary use of force, and even the unleashing of state terror on peaceful protestors. In recent days we have been preoccupied by what is happening in Nigeria – first the popular resistance to the activities of a more or less covert state security structure, then the outrageous use of force against peaceful protestors. If only this were exceptional. An aberration. But we have seen deeply disturbing patterns emerging in Nigeria. And they are patterns which manifest in different forms and contexts around the globe.

We will not forget the deaths of Collins Khosa and George Floyd, and the unacceptable ways in which police, military and national guard conducted themselves in face of popular protest in South Africa and the United States. We never stop thinking about what is happening to citizens in our neighbouring Zimbabwe, and in distant Belarus, Palestine, Hong Kong and the western provinces of China. We have watched in disbelief the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Armenia and Azerbaijan. We don’t forget what has been happening to migrants from Africa, Syria and other countries as they’ve tried to enter Europe. Well, I could go on – the list is endless.

As we have been arguing for some time now, while the crisis humanity is facing feels like a material one, a practical one, in fact, ultimately, it is a crisis of imagination. We have to imagine a different way of thinking and of doing. In the words of feminist scholar Judith Butler, we need “an egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives”. An imaginary which will counter the dominant one which continues to justify police violence against Black and Brown bodies, military violence against migrants, state violence against dissidents, and community violence against ‘foreigners’. An imaginary which would constrain insurance companies to respond with empathy and solidarity to claims for business interruption during the COVID-19 lockdown. (How many workers have lost their jobs as businesses have collapsed in the absence of such support?) And an imaginary which would importune all sides in the Senekal crisis to honour victims across the board, afford dignity to those one regards as opponents, if not enemies, take responsibility for finding a way forward, and work together to make a liveable future.