“The majority of black people are not simultaneous with the dominant society made up of white people and the black elites. To be denied simultaneity is, as Benedict Anderson implies in Imagined Communities, to be interpellated as not coeval with the rest of society – in purportedly post-colonial contexts, it is not to belong to the ‘new’ society.”
– Tshepo Madlingozi, Social Justice in a Time of Neoapartheid Constitutionalism, Stellenbosch Law Review (2017)
This pandemic has caused a series of calamities across the world and threatened to lower entire generations. Our minds have no real faculty to comprehend death, let alone death so traumatic at the scale at which we are witnessing it. Related to that is a series of media empires who are viced into trading on the currency of shock and devastation, empires that have had an unbroken chain of worldwide, national and regional horrors available as funding models begin to unfurrow. At least since World War ll – when the cost of print was relatively affordable, so that even local political organisations could print and distribute manifestos – the news has returned to the same pale of grammars to describe current affairs in increasingly sensational vocabulary.
Today, those same grammars are deployed to describe the indescribable, but their metaphors and hyperboles have gone tepid and rancid. Otherwise, countries around the world have endured the continental cinder block that is globalisation, expanding and diminishing our sense of the world in one fell swoop.
Here in South Africa, we have waded through an excess of calamity. The Zuma years, the HIV/Aids pandemic, TB, Marikana, the Ingonyama Trust, gender-based violence, taxi wars, silicosis, technical recessions, apartheid spatial planning, mud schools, access to justice and State Capture, to name a few. In such a context, the media is no longer a useful vehicle to deliver comprehension of the world, but an unceasing alarm bell our ears have stiffened to ignore.
In some parts of the world, for some classed experiences, the current global health crisis sincerely does present a “new normal”. In South Africa, this may apply in some ways to the experiences of the precarious black middle class and a white minority, who have had to contend with the reality that their lives and the livability thereof are indeed commingled and connected with and to the experiences of the working class and the decisions of the executive arm of the government.
Suddenly, their freedom of movement, access to healthcare, access to education and job security are all as precarious as the majority of those that live in South Africa.
From the vantage of many people in South Africa, those whose suffering is the source of all meaning for the economic and social elite, the constitutive elements of the effects of this pandemic are certainly not new. To be frank, this rhetoric of “new normal” is unprogressive, it is anti-black and an unhelpful cliché. Rather, we should be wary of the temptation to declare another rupture, but learn from what happened the last time we declared South Africa “new”.
When the African National Congress gained power as the new incumbency, it and the rest of the world began the “New South Africa” narrative. This discourse of rupture allowed the state, as the continuous entity of population, territory, the agency of government and sovereignty, a cheap scapegoat to evade the urgency for calls for reparations and redistribution.
We not only allowed it to happen, but we also supported the state’s new persona. We painted apartheid as a foreign, long-ago and imprecise nightmare that stopped when a new administration entered Company Gardens. And so we navigate a context where it has become a vacuous assertion to state that apartheid is not over. Moreover, the “New South Africa” discourse demobilised the agencies and energies that could metabolise the restructuring of South Africa.
“To engender a false consciousness of rupture and newness and to enable co-optation into the ideology of post-apartheid, beneficiaries of the political transition do not only perpetually proclaim the mantra of rupture and of a ‘New South Africa’. They also narrow today’s fundamental struggle to a struggle, waged on behalf of ‘the poor’, ‘for a better life for all’” (Madlingozi: 2017).
The coronavirus and the current lockdown can be constituted as barriers to freedom of movement, unnecessary deaths due to a criminally negligent administration, a lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to education, insecure tenure and widespread unemployment as well as lack of employment security. None of these is new. None of these should ever be normalised. To consider the current circumstances as “new” is to disregard the experiences of black people who have endured the constitutive elements of the pandemic as “unthere”, is to figure those experiences as taking place outside of South Africa proper, to render them devoid of meaning, anachronistic residual apartheid clinging to the hems of the king’s new clothes.
The “new normal” discourse is concerned with the means by which skilled labour is delivered and has driven the stock prices of Zoom, Google Meets, Slack and Outlook Planner. Meanwhile, global protests have erupted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, against femicide in Turkey and South Africa, in support of action against the climate crisis and growing inequality. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people die due to lack of access to proper healthcare.
The cultural insensitivity and myopia of the “new normal” discourse is astonishing yet understandable. In times of crisis, we seek catharsis, as we did in 1994 when we ushered in the “new South Africa” and declared a clean break from the past.
At the same time, we should not waste a good crisis.
This country, at least since Union in 1910, has been in crisis. And the crisis of this country has now spilled over into middle-class living rooms, on their daybeds, flowing from their French Press coffee makers. If anything, this moment, in the long line of moments, of Life Esidimeni, of horrific accounts from Groote Schuur, from Bara, of widespread unemployment, of mud school walls collapsing on children, this crisis should animate an intersectional, inclusive and revolutionary intention to rebuild the means by which we extract from the Earth, how labour is organised, how healthcare is provided, how education is made available and identity is imagined.
If we are quick to declare this pandemic another epoch-making moment in the history of this country, we repeat burying heads in the sand, clinging to the appearance of rupture while preventing the possibility for one to truly take place. DM/MC
Kneo Mokgopa is the communications manager at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
King Tutankhamun's ceremonial dagger is forged from meteorites.