Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup #15

After Covid-19: The renewal of society is too important to leave to states and governments alone

By Sipho Mthathi 11 August 2020

Children sit on an abandoned mattress to enjoy a meal at the Claremont Soup Kitchen, Johannesburg. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen.

February 2020. The year is young. It is warm in many parts of southern Africa, the rich and famous are lounging in bikinis in Tofo Beach. Despite being battered by varying climatic conditions, farmers are out in the fields harvesting or preparing soil for the next season. Even when our states failed, it was always small-scale farming, often led by women, that kept our region’s people fed. 

Hunger in a region with the resources to feed itself is hard to accept, but is real, with estimates by several agencies that 14 million people were facing hunger at the beginning of this year.

From Cabinda, Lilongwe, Lusaka, Harare and Johannesburg, decades of broken politics have run our economies down. Our political elites squandered two decades of the minerals boom, failing to distribute the economic benefits from minerals equitably, and presided over a vacuous growth that only cemented inequalities. As the minerals bust crept in, our mostly mono economies were ill prepared and a debt crisis began to plant its roots in the foundation of our region’s economies.

August 2020. From America to China, Algeria to South Africa, a virus is shaking the foundations of our world, disrupting our very way of life. A little fewer than 19 million people have been infected, more than 711,000 lives lost. 

At 992,771 cases, the pandemic is rising in Africa, its impacts following the fault lines of social and economic inequalities. Even countries not seeing widespread or massive deaths are suffering the consequences of a global economy that’s been rattled to its core, flawed as it was.

For southern Africa, there is no telling what will happen. While from a public health perspective it’s understandable, the dominant disease-prevention approach of closing borders could not cushion us from the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. Despite SADC-led efforts at a regional response and co-ordination, we did not see the solidarity-based approach that understands the social and economic interconnectedness of our region. State responses have tended towards enforcement, citizen blaming, big declarations that when tested on the ground are full of holes and do little to mobilise and equip our societies to rise to the multi-dimensional challenge of this pandemic.   

Meanwhile, women, young people, small farmers across our communities are filling the gaps of state failure. They are running soup kitchens and other food initiatives, establishing self-sufficiency initiatives, creating safe havens for the homeless and bringing communities together for solidarity and to rebuild the social fabric. 

Civil society has been at it, speaking against human rights abuses by overzealous states, shining the spotlight on who is being made invisible or left out of the “responses”, drafting submissions way into midnight to supplement the gaps in state framing of the response and exposing the way political elites are feasting on the monies pouring in while people starve in the streets or die in under-resourced healthcare facilities. 

Healthcare workers are bearing the brunt, many with their lives, but they continue to keep hope alive. Even the best of state efforts is patchy, too little too late, unable to match the scale of the problems. Good intentions fizzle out before hitting the ground because of broken politics which have turned our governments into machines made for looting, state institutions into self-serving, inefficient bureaucracies more quipped for repression and clamping down on citizens than saving lives.

Late 2021. Medical technology giants compete on the world stage for our attention to convince us theirs is the best vaccine. Transfixed to our screens, we page furiously from website to website, article upon article to determine which one has fewer side effects, is cheaper, altogether better. The World Health Organisation has issued new prevention and treatment guidelines for nations, and a politically negotiated settlement on vaccines or medicines pricing is reached. The neoliberal capitalist logic that sees medical technologies as commodities of profit and not global public goods even in pandemic times remains intact. All the “innovative” solutions have provided some hope, but leave our healthcare systems untransformed, unequal and unfit for carrying the health and wellbeing of nations, regardless of which pandemic will come next. 

Technological determinism is in full swing. 

Governments are heavily relying on technologies to combat the pandemic, which greatly benefits tech corporations in the US and China, who control the world’s digital infrastructure. Very little consideration is given to the long-term social and political impact of relying on technology to save us from Covid 19. Instead of investing in more human labour, the digitization of different aspects of our social life, including education and health, is being intensified, reinforcing existing social inequalities in our societies. 

The long-term effects of using surveillance technologies to track and trace extend far beyond the medical realm. The authoritarian nature of surveillance means that corporations and governments can use the data collected through surveillance to undermine democracy and human rights. In many African countries, state surveillance on the internet and social web is being used to suppress political dissent, thus it is not inconceivable that authoritarian regimes would use the pandemic to fight political opponents and intensify their grip on power. 

In a context of rising hate including anti-womxn hatred and growing attacks on womxn’s rights, we know the digital technologies are knives in the hands of misogynists and fundamentalists. 

Covid-19 has shredded even further the social reproductive capacity of households and communities and the question of where the resources will come from to supplement this gap under the current regional economic situation needs, confronts us. Since history is our prophet, we know that the implications of this for womxn will be huge. In a region of absent or inadequate public service provisioning, women will be structurally coerced into performing with growing intensity, the unpaid labour needed for households and societies to sustain themselves.  

But we fear not, because rescue is within reach. Western governments and Bretton Woods institutions have committed billions to support developing nations to stem the spread and rebuild their economies. Money is flowing in from all ends, purchasing us the hope that despite still licking our Covid wounds, we will be fine. Soon, we adjust to the new normal and the pacifying machinery of capitalism lulls us into believing our world on the mend.  

Yes, it is late 2021. 

The recovery phase is upon us. Our societies are exploding with noise. We have never spoken more than we have done in 2020. We, the privileged, have clamoured to outshine each other. Everything, including the voices of those most impacted or rendered more vulnerable to Covid impacts, has become a technology for wielding greater power and positioning ourselves. 

New and old politico-economic interests line up to write the script for our Covid recovery journey. NGO and social justice elites, multilateral actors, private sector actors, technocrats, policy wizards and the political party-aligned all stand in line, in all our colourful regalia of dazzling words and ideas, for bringing our societies from the brink that Covid 19 has plunged them into. 

But we know this much is true. It was never going to be the hot-housed private-sector-led “innovative solutions” and big ideas of clever economists and our NGOs about the new economy that, despite what may be revolutionary content, is still top-down. 

In this context of broken politics, it was never going to be the governments who pull societies up from under the weight of a merciless pandemic. Governments have presided over this world of deadly inequality and broken social order that Covid-19 capitalised on to spread its tentacles. With a few exceptions, governments have mostly failed even when they managed to arrest the pandemic spread, where stopping the spread of diseases saves lives, yet isn’t successful enough in a world of pandemics that circle above our skies waiting for the next best destination to land? 

Southern Africa’s own epicentre, South Africa, is a case-study in how broken politics and lack of imagination will strip through the theatre of it all and bring a nation to its knees.

But this can be different. We are justifiably desperate for fast solutions and they are falling from our digital skies faster than we can blink. But whose solutions are these? Whose problems do they solve? In our desperation, we have had decades of elitist, top-down, overly technicist, imported, short-termist if timid solutions to our social, economic and political challenges.  

How will we truly confront the role of politics in how things have panned out and take on the work to redefine a new politics that underpins the effort at rebuilding, the remaking of our societies for a post-Covid era? How will we define a new politics of existence, of social organisation, of allocation of resources and power arrangements that determine that, of governing and being a government, political power arrangements, and so on? 

The magnitude of our challenge today requires us to do what is needed on the one hand, but to also examine the very construct of what we consider solutions, and the modalities we use to get to them. 

We must consider how in the crafting of solutions, the young people and womxn who stepped in and started growing food to foster food self-efficiency of their families and communities become part of the journey of rebuilding, not just recipients of handed-down solutions. How do they become part of thinking through the unemployment crisis, new visions for building livelihoods, what the future of work should look like and determining what technologies are needed to solve what human and societal problems? 

The healthcare workers, community-based healthcare workers, who stepped in to fill the gap created by our broken politics must become part of redesigning the future of public health and transforming our broken health systems.

The teachers, young people and parents who lived through a disrupted educational system must be a central part of rethinking education in a world where disruption is an irreversible normality.  

The poor and economically excluded, the ones whom our economies are structurally designed to leave out or render precarious must have a strong voice in what it would look like to build a people’s economy that is inclusive, build from the needs, interests, capabilities of our societies for the purposes of bolstering those capabilities first and foremost.  

The women who ran soup kitchens and community feeding schemes in their kitchens know hunger in their communities, so they must become part of telling the story and shaping the solutions. 

Most of all, what we have become and our relationship with our governments needs to change. We have to figure out what it may mean to exit the conscripted space and build outward towards a new social order, where our capacities for resilience against disruptions become stronger. What does it mean to resist coercion into a Fourth Industrial Revolution that governments use as a panacea for failure to build societies that are just spaces where human life and interests of all and protection of our planet define priorities?

How will we truly confront the role of politics in how things have panned out and take on the work to redefine a new politics that underpins the effort at rebuilding, the remaking of our societies for a post-Covid era? How will we define a new politics of existence, of social organisation, of allocation of resources and power arrangements that determine that, of governing and being a government, political power arrangements, and so on? 

I say all this being deeply respectful of the efforts of so many in our societies, who are doing the best in a situation that threatens our very existence, where nobody, no matter what rank, position in society or skill, was prepared for. 

In the eye of a storm, it may seem a fanciful luxury to be thinking about these things. But I believe we do not have the luxury either, to wait for 2021, or whenever it is we predict the “post-Covid” era begins, to ask the hard questions.

As people in the wider continent, and specifically the southern Africa region, we cannot afford to waste this crisis, and in this context more than ever, politics becomes too important to leave in the hands of states or governments. DM/MC

Sipho Mthathi is a feminist activist and Executive Director of Oxfam South Africa with two decades of experience in the human rights and social justice movement in Southern Africa and internationally.

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