MAVERICK CITIZEN EDITORIAL
A Love Letter to Social Justice Activists: Now is the time to change the world, tomorrow may be too late
These days, civil society often seems to be the last redoubt of dignity and solidarity. It is a place where love and concern for fellow human beings still drives politics. A place where the noble spirit of sacrifice that animated Nelson Mandela and many other freedom fighters has not been snuffed out. But as much as Covid-19 needs action to defend people’s lives and livelihoods, it also now needs the courage to take risks to fight forward for a fair and equal society.
Covid-19 is the great revealer.
Across the political spectrum, from the British Financial Times to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and now the UN Secretary General, everybody is suddenly talking about how SARS-CoV-2 and the economic lockdowns intended to block its path have revealed “unacceptable and intolerable” inequalities the world over. The newfound concern with equality by powers-that-be legitimises the cries of the excluded: social justice activists who, for too long, have called for far-reaching changes to the way economies and governments are run.
A recent article in the Lancet (Seeing Covid-19 through José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’) recalled Portuguese writer Saramago’s 1995 novel (Blindness) noting how in his allegory about an epidemic of blindness:
“The citizens of the city chose to not see the cruelty hiding under the surface in themselves and in others. It took an epidemic to shed a blinding light on the darkness that was always beneath. The same is true of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed many entrenched injustices and inequalities.
“Pushing healthcare systems and resources to their limits in many countries, this global pandemic has brought prescient issues such as systemic racism, the state of social safety nets, and variations in access to healthcare into focus. And for a brief time, we have lost our ability to look away, as death counts and videos of the critically ill in hospital wards invade our consciousness. And yet, many appear to be refusing to look or are already forgetting.
‘It is a story of two worlds.’
And indeed, the world has now divided into those who are “refusing to look”, like Trump and Bolsonaro, and those who are working hard to try to bring relief to their fellow humans, be they as health workers or activists bearing food parcels. Among ordinary people Covid-19 has mobilised solidarity in a way that is unprecedented for decades. It has also sown seeds of possibility for the birth of a world with inclusive food and health systems and humane values.
In this one respect the Covid-19 catastrophe has created an opportunity for radical change. If you tally up the people who advocate for change, and the impoverished billions who stand to benefit from it, they vastly outnumber those who are “already forgetting” and want to revert to the status quo, even before the Covid-19 panemic is over.
For example, according to the New York Times, the estimated 25 million people who took to the streets in the USA to support Black Lives Matter “may be the largest movement in US history.” In addition there was a huge wave of global solidarity action. There is a mood for change, especially among young people.
As this year progresses and in future, the havoc caused by Covid-19 will fuse with the harm to humanity caused by the climate crisis which – although not much in the news – is making itself felt again with global heating leading to record temperatures in parts of the world in April.
Now surely the time to heal the world.
But it may be our last chance …
This inchoate hydra-headed multi-millioned clamour for decency and dignity is a sign of what environmentalist Paul Hawken called a “blessed unrest” in his book of the same name. But despite its number and clamour (or possibly because of it) there is a very real danger that post-Covid-19 governments, big business and the 1% will want to “forget” and revert to business-as-usual.
As we are already witnessing in SA, fine promises by the president of more inclusive societies soon get buried in arguments about realpolitik and “what’s possible” economically. In the calculus of capitalism, debt trumps dignity; restoring GDP beats restoring happiness and well-being.
However, if this is allowed to happen, it won’t ever again be business as usual for billions of poor people; reports already show that Covid-19 has unleashed a deepening cycle of iniquity and inequality. Hunger will not miraculously evaporate. Unless our governments are pressured to throw out the neoliberal rule book and put people’s lives before profits, then, to stay in control, they will have to revert to repression, populism and xenophobia; they will need people to blame, be they migrants, minorities or civil society.
This means that, at this moment, the threats society faces are far larger than the opportunities Covid-19 has created for change. In the words of Joe Athialy, an Indian activist, Covid-19 is “a pandemic which every fascist govt would like to have! No parliament, no protest and a free hand to do what they want to.”
Where they can, governments have already shown their hands, exploiting the fact that the world is leaderless and distracted to weaken democracy and human rights.
Before Covid-19, students in Hong Kong were leading the world in their demonstrations of bravery. However, on 30 June Hong Kong experienced a de facto annexation by China when Xi Jinping approved a draconian new security law that has already forced some leading democracy activists into exile.
Similarly in India. Before Covid-19 hit, millions of people were on the streets protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. But now this movement has been halted by lockdown restrictions. Yet, according to activists in India, the:
“… government continues to target activists, particularly the ones involved in last year’s protests, putting them behind jail, charging draconian acts, trying to topple state govts ruled by other parties, and charging journalists for reporting ground realities”.
And even here in South Africa, more and more the government operates outside the rule of law and the Constitution, what Mondli Makhanya has called a “mild form of junta”. As the NIDS-CRAM report has revealed, our country is reaching a breaking point. The writing is on the wall. Unless the Treasury reverses its austerity economics the government will inevitably resort to using the army and police to keep hunger and anger off the streets.
Solidarity and the thirst for freedom are alive and unquenched in spite of everything. If it were not for the love of citizens, armed only with food parcels and soup kitchens, ideals and a spirit of generosity, the toll of Covid-19 would already be far greater.
But the truth is that while everyone is talking about the need for change, an equality revolution, no one really knows how to make it happen. That’s why activists now have to be honest with themselves and ask why we can’t make the change the world so desperately wants. What needs to change to be the change we want? And, at this crucial moment, what’s the price of failure?
It is no exaggeration to say our future peace hangs on the way we exit the Covid-19 pandemic.
First of all, activists have numbers.
The changes that are following BLM demonstrations in the US are a reminder that people still have power. Even in Hong Kong, in the face of threats by China’s proxies, 600,000 people went out to vote as a sign of protest.
Last week in Iran five million people used the hashtag #Do_Not_Execute to successfully prevent the execution of Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi and Saeed Tamjidi, three young men who had been sentenced to death for participating in mass protests in November 2019.
In Chile the anthem of Lastesis went viral not just on the internet, but on streets across the globe.
Second, activists have the power of viable alternatives based on human rights law and ideas as we have repeatedly shown in op-eds and opinions published in Maverick Citizen. The world is awash with critiques of neoliberal capitalism, most recently from the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty.
Third, activists have energy, anthems, heroes, morality and a history of successfully fighting for justice that goes back centuries.
So what’s the problem? What’s missing?
Sadly, civil society’s greatest weakness is increasingly …. civil society. Some activists treat each other as punchbags; want to find fault rather than common ground; luxuriate in one upmanship, identity politics and ideological purity.
In his spirited little book Talking to my Daughter About the Economy, the Greek economist, Yanis Varoufakis, jokingly quotes Oscar Wilde as saying, “The trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings.” A century later, we could just as well say the trouble with social justice activism is it takes too many Zoom calls.
When those who genuinely want change in civil society are divided it creates another problem: with eyes off the ball, organisations of civil society are captured and corrupted. Fake fronts are set up. In an era when words and fake news are weaponised to create confusion, when individual identity is set up against solidarity, when left posturing is substituted for conversations with communities, it’s easy for some people to get away with corruption and division.
Civil society now needs a broad unity in action. Now is the time for civil society to act on what it agrees on, rather than be held back by what it disagrees on.
This is the time for civil society to draw a vision of a post Covid-19 future that is possible and then take it door to door to rally and inspire millions. It is not the time to suckle on fellow converts in an ideologically pure echo chamber.
Finally, faced with such high stakes it’s time for activists to make their demands for fair, equal and safe societies unapologetically and back them with the power of imaginative and captivating protest. Do Covid-19 restrictions make it moral that people starve in silence or should hunger be seen on the streets? Is it constitutional to introduce austerity during a time of mass unemployment and starvation? When will it be justified to take legal action and even engage in peaceful civil disobedience against austerity, with the aim of restoring human rights law?
Activists still have power. They should use it while it lasts. DM/MC