The year 2020 will long be remembered as one of extraordinary challenge and widespread suffering. It was also a year which saw the re-emergence of human solidarities on a scale not seen in decades. History may very well come to regard the year of Covid-19 as one of those pivotal moments for humanity, and indeed for other species of the Earth.
Covid-19 brought with it a sense of both peril and promise. It has exposed in cruel ways what human societies had come to normalise – inequality, racism and ecological depredation. It has taken many lives – at the time of writing, confirmed Covid-related deaths globally have passed 1,4-million - and destroyed many more. And it is calling us to change human behaviours fundamentally.
Societies around the world will be carrying the wounds of Covid-19 into the future. The loss of loved ones, of jobs, of livelihoods, of dignity and hope, will resonate for generations. And what a myriad of people will be carrying the wounds of not being able to be with loved ones dying in hospital wards, nor of being able to find the succour of ritual and farewell through attending funerals.
In terms of loss, 2020 has been a heavy year for the Foundation. We have mourned the passing of so many people connected to Madiba and to the Foundation. Zindzi Mandela. Anna Gadikaenyana Mosehle. Denis Goldberg. Andrew Mlangeni. George Bizos. Achmat Dangor. Shaun Johnson. David Dinkins. John Lewis. Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Diego Maradona. Many of our staff members have had to deal with loss in their families and communities. We remember all those who have passed, and honour those who have carried loss with fortitude.
In the early months of Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa, the crisis of food insecurity and people literally starving loomed largest in a medley of challenges. The Foundation responded by inaugurating the Each1 Feed1 campaign in partnership with the Kolisi and Imbumba foundations. An emergency relief initiative focused on food delivery, Each1 Feed1 has taken us all around the country and exposed us to the best and the worst of our current realities – from the extraordinary resilience displayed by vulnerable people, to corruption from local officials and public representatives, from the generosity and solidarity of donors to delivery failures by structures of the state.
Repeatedly on Each1 Feed1 community visits the Foundation team has encountered how poverty humiliates people and has seen how retaining dignity in the depths of deprivation is a priority for so many. I will never forget the old man who received a food parcel at a township delivery point and tried to resist the team accompanying him until he was safely home. He didn’t want us to see the deplorable state his home was in. In that moment I learned again that dignity is arguably the most fundamental human right of all.
As Arundhati Roy has argued, COVID-19 not only entered human bodies and amplified existing vulnerability, it also entered society and amplified multiple intersecting structural inequalities. During his Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in July, United Nations Secretary-General Gutteres echoed this view:
“The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our world. It has laid bare risks we have ignored for decades: inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; the climate crisis.”
Here in South Africa, as in many other countries, we have seen the pandemic amplify patriarchy and gender-based violence, white supremacy and racism. Covid-19 has laid bare the structures which condemn millions of people to lives of what Frantz Fanon called many years ago "wretchedness". Too many yearn in vain for the experience of freedom. Too many are discarded and can barely survive. Too many know that their lives don’t matter to those who hold power. Too many are losing their dignity no matter how hard they fight to keep it. It is clear as it has never been before that what economist Thomas Piketty calls “the global inequality regime” is unsustainable. While elites around the world have sought to normalise it, we must insist that it is not normal. And we must demand that it is time for a new normal to be fashioned. Covid-19 presents a global crisis unprecedented in recent times, but at the same time it brings with it opportunity to begin the work of refashioning. The virus colliding with the killing of George Floyd in the United States provoked a momentous global recalling of too many deaths and a demanding that structures of racism be dismantled once and for all. What an opportunity for the nations of the world.
This is not work which can be accomplished overnight. And it is not work which can be done successfully without international co-operation. As Piketty argues in his book Capital and Ideology, dismantling the inequality regime is unimaginable without transnational justice and a move towards what he calls global federalism. The various forms of nationalist and identitarian retreat which we see gathering pace across the world will undermine fundamentally attempts to build a new world order. As Secretary-General Gutteres said in his July lecture:
“COVID-19 is a human tragedy. But it has also created a generational opportunity. An opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world. The response to the pandemic, and to the widespread discontent that preceded it, must be based on a New Social Contract and a New Global Deal that create equal opportunities for all, and respect the rights and freedoms of all.”
For some years now, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has been grappling with the implications of a democracy that is not working well for the majority of people in society and which is failing them in fundamental ways. The international Mandela Dialogues on Memory Work (2013-2017) enabled us to explore these lines of enquiry with professional colleagues in fifteen other countries. What is being seen globally, we have argued, are forms of state capture which are best understood in terms of the capture of democracy itself. Democracy, as with all forms of regulating sociality, relies on what could be called a social imaginary - at the heart of which are the notions of "the social contract" and "the public good". The evidence suggests that democracy’s social imaginary needs revisiting, renewal and reimagining. Perhaps not surprisingly, the South African state and many other democratic states have invoked both the social contract and the public good during the Covid-19 crisis, at the very moment that they have revoked (or suspended) rights (for the public good) and, in some instances, sanctioned extraordinary use of force by security units.
That humanity needs a new social imaginary is beyond question. Reliance on the notion of a social contract, however, is problematic. In South Africa we have seen how state-initiated forums drawing on and promoting social contract theory (for instance, NEDLAC – the National Economic Development and Labour Council) have promised much, but delivered too little. The ways in which the concept is being mobilised in current contexts is troubling. As is its rootedness in Western modernist (and therefore colonialist and imperialist) history. And the concept of "contract" is embedded in capitalist and legal frames of reference that are less than helpful. As Walter Benjamin argued, “the contract is the beginning of legal violence.”
What could be called a democracy-to-come, a renewed democracy, one which works for all who live in a particular polity, will draw on a social imaginary which mediates social life – regulates sociality – in liberatory ways. What might this look like? Thinking outside the frame of contract, and drawing on the work of care economy theorists, feminist economists and scholars of intersectionality and postcoloniality, the Nelson Mandela Foundation is positing what Judith Butler has termed “a social philosophy of living and sustainable bonds” – a philosophy which recognises, prioritises and nurtures interrelationality and interdependence. In this conceptual space: "care" comes before "competition", "provisioning" before "growth", "sharing" before "accumulation", "liveability" before "existence"; and "sustaining" replaces "extracting" and "discarding". And constitutionalism becomes about transformation rather than about protecting power, privilege and property. Neoliberalism over the last three decades has been the engine of a rampant individualism and a privileging of competition, growth, accumulation and extraction. No accident, in these contexts, that inequality globally has reached levels last seen in the late eighteenth century (as Piketty’s work has demonstrated) and that great swathes of humanity are simply being discarded. And no accident that the rates of extinction of non-human species and irreversible damage to the environment have reached alarming levels.
It is time to stop relying on the reproduction of individualism and contracted protections. It is time, instead, to reorient public discourses in relation both to ancient ways of knowing and to new ways of thinking. It is time to foreground the common in "the common good". It is time to reconsider social bonds as, in the words of American philosopher Judith Butler, “based in embodied forms of interdependency.” These are bonds which find expression in practical ways and at multiple levels; bonds which are made and remade by people ‘on the ground’. And it is time to cast the net of interdependency far beyond ‘the human’ – as Butler argues:
“It is not just other human lives, but other sensate creatures, environments, and infrastructures: we depend upon them, and they depend on us, in turn, to sustain a liveable world.”
For the Foundation, social bond thinking will be a primary line of enquiry as we seek to contribute to imagining a liberatory post-Covid world. Thinking differently has become imperative. And doing differently, finding a liberatory praxis, is equally important.
Next year will see the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s Constitution. The Foundation will be marking this moment by insisting that 25 years is too long for anyone to wait for statutory rights to become a lived reality for them. We will continue to promote a constitutionalism which demands transformation and prioritises the protection of dignity before all else. Recognising interdependency and building bonds will come to naught if this kind of constitutionalism does not take root in our country.