In the past month we have seen South Africa at its best and at its worst. It has been heartening to see a government, which for years has been crippled by State Capture and has been failing to meet the expectations of society, step up to the plate and deliver at a moment of crisis and overwhelming need.
It has felt good to be able to rely on structures of the state to do what they should do. It has been moving to hear South Africa singled out by the World Health Organization as a country that is setting an international benchmark for good leadership, innovation and efficacy in rising to the COVID-19 challenge. When last – outside of sporting contests – could we feel sure that Madiba would be proud of what we were doing as a country? It has been inspiring to see high levels of intersectoral collaboration and the many manifestations of a great well of generosity located deep in our communities. I could go on.
So much to applaud, then. And yet how disturbing has it been to see local authorities evicting people from their homes and then destroying them in the midst of COVID-19? I cannot help but be reminded of how the apartheid regime routinely used to wait for the onset of winter before forcibly removing people from their informal settlements. This can’t be right. Such heartlessness leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. And how disturbing to find out that there are people selling land which they do not own to desperately poor people. The bitter taste of corruption, in other words. It’s hard to read stories and watch images that relate to monies and goods being siphoned off from emergency aid. For instance, local government officials overcharging for food parcels. It’s hard to see deliveries of those parcels being waylaid. Hard to listen to accounts of people’s rights being violated by police and military personnel. To observe the awful rise in rates of domestic violence (though we note with relief decreases in many other forms of violence). Again, I could go on.
We are living in a moment that is at once full of danger and of opportunity. For institutions of the state, the private sector and civil society – for all of us – it will be critical to be nimble, harness creative energies and mitigate risk effectively. A willingness and a capacity to do differently is now no longer about strategic positioning but about surviving in a world that is changing dramatically and will never be the same again. At the Foundation, for instance, we are interrogating the traditional modes and delivery instruments for providing emergency relief to people in need. In the contexts of today, can Each One Feed One rely on the physical delivery to beneficiaries of food parcels sourced from major retailers? Would it not be more effective and empowering to use technology to put money directly into the pockets of the poor? Who would then be empowered to tailor the support to their actual needs, at the same time as supporting local informal sources of food and other essential goods? Or do we not trust poor people enough?
These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking not only in the short term, but also in the longer term as we seek to contribute to the development of the kinds of public policies that will be transformative in a post COVID-19 world. For instance, how are we (I mean South Africa, but the reality applies to countries all around the world) going to meet the needs of people who have lost their formal jobs during the crisis and will never get them back? Is it not time to introduce a universal basic income grant? Of course, there are those who argue that such a step will simply increase dependence on the state and won’t ultimately solve the problem. But what if poor people are given money in their pockets, access to free or very cheap internet, supported by fully functional public education, health and transport systems, and given avenues to access the country’s enormous store of social capital? What if funders and donors were willing to support social movements and community-based organisations directly rather than indirectly through elite NGOs? What if – as feminist economists have been arguing for decades – our economy was geared to a social provisioning model rather than to growth and the expansion of capital?
The world, humanity, has known for a long time that it needs to do differently. The global economic collapse of 2008 sounded a loud warning. The evidence of climate change in recent years has been doing so relentlessly. But we have chosen to listen to other imperatives. We have dragged our heels. In fact, we have known for years that a virus like corona would emerge, but chose not to put in place the instruments and the plans that would have enabled us to respond effectively. Some countries even dismantled instruments that had been put in place! COVID-19 is another, very loud, clarion call to action. The time to do differently and act decisively is now.
In the last days of the month our Each One Feed One distribution of food mainly to orphans and child-headed households demonstrated starkly and painfully that the needs are overwhelming and the resources to meet them very limited. People are starving. We want to encourage our stakeholders and friends everywhere to join us in rising to the challenge of this emergency. We want to thank our partners, the Kolisi Foundation, the Imbumba Foundation, Old Mutual, ATC, Nando’s, Pick n Pay and Give and Gain, The Lighthouse Foundation, Hollywood Bets and Bursary Network. We want to thank our Each One Feed One ambassadors and the many individual donors who have been contributing on our various platforms.
It's in your hands now to give hope and sustenance to those in great need. Let us avoid being armchair critics and instead become active citizens who are helping to find solutions in what is arguably the most challenging moment of the 21st century. Let us remember Madiba’s words when he said, “Only armchair politicians are immune from committing mistakes. Errors are inherent in political action. Those who are in the centre of political struggle, who have to deal with practical and pressing problems, are afforded little time for reflection and no precedents to guide them and are bound to slip up many times.” (From an unpublished autobiographical manuscript, written on Robben Island, 1976)
We will make mistakes along the way. We must soldier on if we are to succeed against this virus.