The locomotive of history steams on – will there be blood on the tracks After Corona?

The locomotive of history steams on – will there be blood on the tracks After Corona?
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 28:South African Army during the Police Ministry and South African Police Services (SAPS) management visit to policSouthe operations to determine adherence to COVID-19 restrictions on Day Two of national lockdown on March 28, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. According to media reports, South Africa?s lockdown is considered one of the strictest, with bans on alcohol sales and dog-walking, among other things. People are also not allowed to jog in public for the next three weeks. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

We have heard it before: ‘The world has changed forever.’ We heard it after 9/11, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same. This time it’s different. Future histories may well be written as ‘BC and AC’: Before Corona and After Corona.

“When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don’t have enough.” – Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)

There have been proliferating prophecies about what the world might look like after the Covid-19 pandemic has scythed its way through multiple populations. Predictions range from the apocalyptic to the romantic. The distrustful foresee an increase in nationalism and authoritarianism. Some caution that afterwards everything may lapse back to the status quo. Others hope for profound changes, heralding a more enlightened era, including, having got used to clean air, a dramatic shift to action on climate change. Coronavirus is of such a magnitude, the historian Peter Hennessy told the BBC, that histories written in the 2050s will divide between BC and AC: Before Corona and After Corona.

This is not the first time in the 21st century that we’ve heard the chorus: the world will never be the same again. That prediction was repeated frequently after the 2001 terror attacks on the US, when hijacked aircraft flew deliberately into the Twin Towers in New York. The coordination of the 9/11 atrocities was unprecedented. But did anything remotely constructive stem from that tragedy? Internally, the US imposed draconian security measures, which are still largely in place, and there was a sharp spike in hate crimes against Muslims. The following month, war was declared on Afghanistan, and in 2003 Iraq was invaded on a bogus prospectus, with devastating and continuing consequences across the entire region.

In the current crisis, weighed on international scales, the US will almost certainly continue its steady decline as the dominant world power. Simultaneously, despite being the source of the virus and initially trying to hide its extent, China seized the calamity to increase its sway, dispatching lifesaving equipment to many stricken countries, asserting itself as the superpower-in-waiting. 

The European Union failed to rise to the challenge as a united bloc, just as it flunked the 2015 refugee crisis. Britain, the former world power, months after renouncing the European Union on the slogan “make Britain Great Again”, proved unable to cope on its own, racking up a massive death toll. For Britain at least, Professor Hennessy’s epochal divide between BC and AC may prove to be true, though whether due to Covid-19 or Brexit will be for historians in 2050 to assess.

Meanwhile, what might happen in South Africa come the dawn of AC?

It’s always risky to pinpoint a single moment as a great upheaval in history. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was hailed as a seismic change. There were expectations, some triumphalist, that Western-style democracy would spread everywhere. In the three decades since, it can be seen that it is not undiluted democracy which emerged as the overall winner, so much as uninhibited capitalism. That shift in global politics, however, helped nudge South Africa to a negotiated transition from white minority rule. So, before we get carried away with pinning grandiose labels on events which can later be seen as incremental steps, it should be remembered that 1994 represents an uneasy compromise. From the viewpoint of 2020, let alone 2050, the real consequences of 1994 have yet to play out.

There have been projections that the fight against Covid-19, often likened to a “war”, might inspire a social “revolution”. Are either of those metaphors likely drivers of change?

“Revolutions,” proclaimed Marx in 1850, “are the locomotive of history.” In 1922, this was refined by Trotsky to, “War, comrades, is a great locomotive of history.” Yet the long, armed Struggle against apartheid, in which thousands died, and so should properly be viewed as a civil war, did not lead to revolution. Or not yet. It’s possible, of course, that we are living in a strange interregnum, like the February 1917 “revolution” in Russia, which saw the Czarist government collapse and the formation of a provisional government: a bourgeois lull before the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution. In our case, were we to be living through a deceptive intermission, the stalled revolution will have taken years, rather than months.

Meanwhile, for the immediate future and on a more modest scale, what might drive further change in South Africa, for better or worse, beyond our fraying 1994 consensus?

The place to look is not just political movements, but at the beliefs which carry them along: nationalism, capitalism, socialism, liberalism, Christianity and populism. Bizarrely, all those doctrines, however contradictory, find a home in the paradox that is our government – which now has to deal with our health crisis, and the aftermath.


The ANC is like the Pushmi-pullyu: a woolly creature in the children’s story of Dr Dolittle, with a head at each end, both pulling in different directions. The capitalists wish to turn right, while an ill-matching assortment, from social democrats to unions and the South African Communist Party, dream of marching in the opposite direction. There are decent and honest party members, and currently, though precariously, they have the upper hand.

Yet this is a party which at the top can encompass the neo-liberal Tito Mboweni and the shady Ace Magashule, both intent on the accumulation of funds: the finance minister in order to exert “fiscal discipline”, while the ANC secretary-general has a record of accumulating resources for himself and his personal advancement. Alongside Magashule is a ragbag of charlatans and chancers, some of whom pose as revolutionaries by dressing up in camouflage fatigues.

The nearest equivalent to this multi-headed hydra is perhaps the Italian Democrazia Cristiana party, when I reported from Rome in the mid-1970s. Like the ANC, its strength was its weakness. The Christian Democrats had such a broad constituency, from far-right to extreme left, that at one point the party had six separate HQs in Rome for the competing factions. As with the ANC, those cliques were often more at war with each other than with the opposition. What kept that disparate organisation together was the glue of power.

It also practiced “deployment”. Loyalists were appointed to government agencies, provincial departments and powerful parastatals. Even minor appointments were political. The consequence was paralysis, nepotism and corruption. Ministers were appointed to keep rival party factions happy rather than for ability. No one was ever sacked for incompetence. Though their grip on power seemed absolute, such tensions could not survive forever. In the early 1990s the party simply disintegrated. It had been in power for 45 years. So far the ANC has notched up just under half that. But can the centre hold?

The sociologists Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley summed up the party’s tricky balancing act: “The ANC resolves its dilemma by pursuing neo-conservative policies but obfuscating it with an occasional dose of socialist lip-service to redistribution and the desires of the masses.” 

That was written 23 years ago in their book Comrades in Business, co-authored with the late Frederick Van zyl Slabbert. The ANC remains a pushmi-pullyu contradiction, so their verdict still holds, even more so in the coming tough times: “In reality, the ANC’s historical role is both to represent and control the poor majority.”

The South African Communist Party

You might expect a communist party in a capitalist society to represent itself as a locomotive of revolution. Instead, the South African Communist Party (SACP), as a junior partner in government, chugs along more like a gasping steam train than a sleek locomotive.

Again there are instructive parallels with Italy. After WWII, when the Christian Democrats came to power, to avoid social upheaval they were briefly forced to include communists in a unity government. However, communist ministers, as in South Africa today, soon discovered that they had to demonstrate their moderation. In 1947, as the Italian prime minister prepared to fly to Washington to meet President Harry Truman, the communist finance minister Mauro Scoccimarro stayed up all night to prepare a budget. He needed to show how under “Red” control finances were being responsibly managed. In fact, the prime minister was flying to Washington to discuss how best to dump the communists.

The SACP’s curious current invisibility rather confirms the explanation of the Marxist dialectic as divulged to the late Spanish writer Jorge Semprún. “Dialectics,” explained a shrewd older comrade, “is the art and technique of always landing on your feet.”

The official policy of the SACP is the two-stage theory of revolution: first there must be the national democratic revolution; then, when the time is ripe, the socialist one. But with the party leader having enjoyed stays at the Mount Nelson Hotel and the use of expensive ministerial limos, it appears our local locomotive of history has become side-tracked in the first stage, where one can land on one’s feet and enjoy all the bourgeois trappings.

The Democratic Alliance

The DA regularly does a sharp job in Parliament, interrogating the government. But it does not present a remotely viable alternative government. As the main opposition party, the DA displays an astonishing lack of ambition. The problem for a party that promotes itself as pragmatic and businesslike is that, come the crunch of compromising in order to appeal to more black voters, it repeatedly unravels by reverting to a perceived (white) stereotype.

The DA has backed away from the stance set out forcibly in 2008 by Helen Zille, then party leader, in a powerful speech to the Liberal International Congress in Belfast. Opening with a definition of the liberal mission as “the open, opportunity-driven society for all”, she qualified that by adding, “We have to achieve this in the context of a deeply divided society, in which ethnic and cultural differences are far more complex than simplistic racial categories suggest, but which still largely coincide with the contours of poverty and wealth.” 

Zille went on to outline a forthright path which the DA seems to have deserted:

“Unless liberals in a plural and unequal society such as ours, can find credible ways of accommodating diversity and addressing poverty, the ceiling on our growth will remain very low. The need to deal with poverty and diversity requires addressing majority aspirations and minority fears.”

Historically, the instinct of most South African liberals – from the Progressive Party, via its various reincarnations, though to the DA – has been to pander to white fears. 

In 2008, Helen Zille conceded, “This process has proved particularly challenging for many liberal stalwarts who often perceive every adaptation as a dilution of principle. If the choice is between building a broad-based opposition to challenge a hegemonic elite or remaining a small, overwhelming white and ideologically pure liberal party, I generally chose the first option.” 

In Belfast, Zille was unequivocal. “As a start, liberals must accept ‘identity’ politics is a powerful force that cannot be ignored. In fact, it must be embraced within the open, opportunity society project.” That’s not a caveat you hear from the DA these days.

The fundamental problem may lie deeper. Of the three major ideological imports from Europe (Christianity, communism and liberalism), only liberalism has failed to take firm root. While Christianity and communism emphasise an essentially communitarian ethos, classic liberalism highlights individuality. In South Africa, especially among traditional communities, this has seemed alien, thus has signally failed to find sizeable traction.

Twelve years ago, Helen Zille recognised this, admitting, “the term ‘liberal’ is widely misunderstood and actually used pejoratively by many in South Africa.” She set out the basic dilemma: 

“If liberals wish to be less misunderstood and more accepted, they must find ways of identifying with a range of groups who are easily alienated by what they perceive as the liberal culture of superiority. Liberals love the rhetoric of openness, but in divided societies often set themselves apart as a rational, analytical and dispassionate elite that has little contact with the trials and tribulations of ordinary people.”

Having set out her stall to an international audience, it’s hard to recognise that 2008 manifesto in the current party, which last year lost its leading, disillusioned black leaders.

The recurring impasse of liberalism in South Africa was acerbically noted in a letter from Nadine Gordimer in 1956, where the novelist described divisions apparent at a meeting of the then Liberal Party. Alan Paton, she said, made a “doggedly realistic” speech, in which he had urged less proselytising among whites, while seeking greater African, coloured and Indian support. This was met by “puzzled hostility” from much of the audience, recorded Gordimer: “but the debate afterwards revealed something that astonished me. Nearly all the members (representing, I gather, the right-wing majority of the party) and would-be members seem to regard the function of the party as a kind of Noah’s Ark for whites. There, when the black flood comes, they will be preserved, while their unenlightened kind go under.”

Today, absurdly, sadly, the DA seems determined to refloat that Ark.

Other movements

As drivers of change, post the epidemic, we can discount two powerful forces that opposed apartheid: the churches and unions. South Africa may be one of the most religious countries in the world, but the sheer variety of affiliations undercut any unified leadership role. Trade unions, too, have effectively sabotaged themselves with splits and rivalries.

Lesser parties, most conspicuously the EFF, have lost steam in the current crisis. For publicity, the EFF relies on crude street theatre: intimidation, insults and populist bravado. Once the current crisis has passed, and we face devastatingly increased poverty, genuine radical parties should be able to present themselves as the authentic locomotives of history, working and agitating where desperation is greatest. Instead, the published evidence shows EFF bombast usually covers self-interest and self-enrichment.

The EFF’s vulgarly affluent leaders also dress in red and pretend to be maids and construction workers. But like much else with the EFF, their costume gimmick is derivative. The Nazis sported brown shirts. In this, they were imitating Italian fascists who favoured black shirts. In Spain, fascists preferred blue, in Iceland grey, in Czechoslovakia white, while in Romania the fanatical Legion of the Archangel Michael chose green. In 1932, Sir Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists and his thugs wore black shirts, copying the design of Sir Oswald’s fencing jacket. In the United States, after Hitler’s rise to power, the white-supremacist Silver Legion of America was founded in 1933, and wore… silver.

The most revealing fashion similarity, however, is with the South African Nazi Greyshirts, or Gryshemde, the uniform of the paramilitary South African Gentile National Socialist Movement. They renamed themselves in 1949 as the White Workers Party.

EFF aggression, till now, has been a successful recipe for gaining publicity. Yet like the Greyshirts of the 1930s and 40s, beyond their militant rhetoric, they are empty drums. Julius Malema, I suspect, will ditch his red overalls to seek an accommodation with the ANC.

In search of a driver

The 1997 prediction that “the ANC’s historical role is both to represent and control the poor majority” is now poised between those two roles. The way the government manages this social contract, and the response from the even poorer majority, will give us a good idea as to how the nation of AC, after the crisis, may be different from the precarious state of BC.

While the evidence that the ANC represents the poor diminishes with each election, the party retains enough credibility to “control the poor majority” by consent. That balance is being tested. In some townships, the police and army have used inexcusable force. For lack of grave social unrest, why are men in uniform once again strutting around with sjamboks? The problem is not just badly trained personnel. It comes from the top: Police Minister Bheki Cele represents an oppressive current in the ANC. His instinct is the iron fist.

When he was national police commissioner, Cele brought back military ranks for the police and wore a general’s uniform. Now minister of police, that brittle consent of the poor relies on the actions of this dour man who appears to lack empathy for the desperate and destitute.

It is the poor who bear the burden of sacrifice most cruelly. The comforting mantra that “we are all in this together” is deceptive. I live in a warm house, with a full fridge, and work from home. I only have to look out of my window at the township on the other side of the valley to know that our sacrifices are not remotely comparable. This crisis has elicited considerable generosity, notably from the affluent as well. But AC, when the crisis passes and the legion of unemployed and destitute has swelled unimaginably, will that compassion survive, or will Bheki Cele be called on to sjambok mass outbreaks of unrest?

In past years there have been “delivery protests” with differing scales of violence. Mostly protesters have trashed facilities in their own areas, and so have remained contained. It is striking how often they explain, “It’s the only way we can get official attention.” This bears a striking similarity to a more or less accepted code in pre-industrial southern Europe, where villagers rioted in the belief that that their troubles were due to corrupt ministers, and that if only the king knew of their plight everything would be sorted out. It was a cat-and-mouse ritual, which seldom seriously threatened the social order. But such “contracts” do not survive continual disregard, growing rage and insuperable despair. Sparks can flame fast.

The day that AC dawns

There have been many guesses about progressive social changes.

In the financial crash of 2008, such hopes never came to pass. Afterwards it was business as usual, with increasing inequality. The irony is that free-marketeers, who in good times demand minimal interference from government, in crisis rely totally on governments – to the extent, in 2008, that bailouts and soft loans were granted to banks and corporations deemed “too big to fail”; in short, a form of socialism for the rich. What if this were to be turned around, with the same generosity accorded to the poor? In AC, when charity dries up and “normality” returns, there may be a third more unemployed. If so, we will be far worse off than before. We take for granted the patience of the poor. It will not last forever.

What might spark real change? Accept that urban land is the crucial lack, not farms. Stop creating ever-larger ghettos by expanding apartheid townships. Admit South Africa will not miraculously re-industrialise. Acknowledge unemployment will spiral. Re-evaluate previous policies that have failed to break the cycle of poverty. Governments everywhere are bailing out businesses. In South Africa, why not create a matching “New Deal” programme to galvanise the poor majority? Not palliative gestures, food parcels and incremental social grants merely to assuage hunger or prevent starvation. Think big. Be bold. Initiate something audacious and enduring: start by paying the unemployed a long-term, genuinely dignified living wage.

Impossible? No, imaginative.

Soon enough we’ll hear again that, “we’re all in this together”. But After Coronavirus it’ll be a lecture from business pundits to “tighten our belts”, particularly the low paid and grant recipients. Financial crises open breaches for cash-flush companies to swallow others fallen on hard times. During the Napoleonic War, Baron Rothschild advised, “When you hear the sound of guns, buy!” If the rich can seize on a crisis, why shouldn’t our government be equally opportunistic and launch an ambitious experiment to reverse what has proved, thus far, to be an intractable trajectory of poverty?   

Yes, people may squander cash. Others, the majority, will use the resource in ways they know they need to improve their lives. In short, trust the poor. It’s never been tested. Nothing else has worked. You don’t right a listing ship by overloading the top deck; you refloat from below. Try it. Otherwise that fine balance between representing and controlling the poor majority will tip over, and the ANC’s “historical role” will be to apply the sjambok.

If this epidemic is to produce any lasting change, it has to start with our attitudes.

In Albert Camus’ great novel The Plague (1947), at first there’s official denial, then fear and panic. The crisis brings out the best and worst in citizens. There’s the selfless care of victims by Dr Rieux, who refuses to be called a hero for doing his job. Eventually the plague lifts and Rieux, listening to the rejoicing crowds, reflects ruefully on “the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts”. But his conclusion is, “quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”.

Will we learn that?

The South Africa of Before Coronavirus had a minority with more houses than could be lived in, more cars than could be driven, more food than could be eaten. The way to get richer was to cut off those who didn’t have enough. Will such social injustice and moral corruption return, even thrive, After Coronavirus? Now in our lockdown limbo between BC and AC, the grim fact is: those who never had enough, have even less today than before. DM

Bryan Rostron has lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, New York and London. He has written for The New York Times, the London Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Spectator and was a correspondent for New Statesman. He is the author of Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues and five previous books, including the novels My Shadow and Black Petals. He lives in Cape Town.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick The Gathering 2024 banner

Daily Maverick has secured an esteemed speaker line-up...

to help make sense of Elections 2024.

Trevor Manuel, Prof Thuli Madonsela and Minister Ronald Lamola are among the latest panellists confirmed for Daily Maverick The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four.

Join us, on Thurs 14 March 2024 at CTICC Cape Town or online wherever you are, for an event that will put the election in perspective.

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider