May has seen the Nelson Mandela Foundation preoccupied with emergency relief work and the selection of a new cohort for its US-South African fellowship programme (Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, a partnership with Columbia University in New York). In both areas of work, I have felt keenly the extent to which black lives don’t matter. I write this in the days after the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and another racist rant by an apartheid ghost – David Bullard - here in South Africa. White supremacy takes different forms and manifests in many modes, but its purpose - the oppression of black people - is unswerving.
One of the reasons this form of oppression is so resilient in South Africa is the extent to which it has been internalised. How else do we explain the killing of Collins Khoza and the ongoing attempts to sidestep accountability? How else do we explain the ruthless evicting of vulnerable people from their homes (an old apartheid ploy) in a time of Covid-19 and a time of winter? Or the heartless attempts by politicians and officials to frustrate the delivery of food to starving people? Or the things Nelson Mandela Foundation staff have experienced as they’ve travelled the country on the Each One Feed One campaign – from corrupt officials extracting personal wealth from emergency relief, to bullies in uniforms taking pleasure in petty humiliations, from food for the desperate being stolen, to beneficiaries hoarding supplies at the expense of others.
Covid-19, as moments of crisis tend to do, has surfaced the best and the worst. It has been good to see institutions of the state stepping up to the challenge in ways that we did not think was possible. It has been good to see the courts pushing back robustly where the state has got things wrong or has failed to deliver effectively. (Although I worry when civil society routinely has to resort to litigation in order to protect rights.) Across the country I have been inspired by the resilience and the generosity of our people. In Mpumalanga, for instance, we encountered an aging and undocumented woman who is supported materially by her community on a continuing basis. Right now they are building her a proper house. And I have been moved by many other expressions of solidarity – from the tireless work by Siya Kolisi which supports relief systems but also responds to individual cases of need, to the generous donation made by Nomzamo Mbatha after just one phone call. One more example – recently, when our team was again stranded as something was deemed to be wrong with their permit, a small business owner spontaneously came to their rescue by leaving his home to go and open his shop and not charge them a cent for the service. Covid-19 keeps surfacing our humanity - botho, Ubuntu.
As the country moves into level three lockdown, it becomes easier to imagine the return of normality and to begin thinking about the future. Of course, we know enough now to be sure that it will not be business as usual when the virus is finally gone. Too much damage has been done to our economy, and to the global economy. The challenges will be manifold and daunting. How will we rise to them? Will we see the opportunity this moment presents to fundamentally restructure political economy, and society as a whole? Will we prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable? Will we demonstrate that black lives matter? What is the future that we are already beginning to make in our responses to Covid-19?
A state of disaster unavoidably poses an enormous challenge to democratic states as they seek to weigh the common good against the rights of individuals. The very nature of the social compact which holds our society together comes into question when the former is deemed to trump the latter. This will remain a critical question for South Africa and for many other countries in a post-Covid world. Since the state of disaster was declared in South Africa, manifestations of an authoritarian instinct from apparatuses of power have been worryingly evident. This does not bode well for the reconstruction of political economy after COVID-19. We will emerge into a new reality in which the basis for mediating social life will have to be renegotiated. The space for that negotiation is already being framed by the new norms being established under the conditions of Covid-19.
We cannot tolerate norms which condemn the Collins Khozas and the George Floyds to living in conditions of vulnerability which are structurally determined. We cannot tolerate norms which determine that their lives can be snuffed out with impunity. We cannot tolerate a reality in which the words of Nelson Mandela at his presidential inauguration in 1994 are rendered meaningless: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”