South Africa


The fierce urgency of now: Life & Politics in modern times

The fierce urgency of now: Life & Politics in modern times
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

In South Africa, just as in America, a crisis can be too important a moment to waste. But what happens when nothing much happens at the moment of the greatest urgency?

Back in April 1967, when this writer was trying to sort out what would happen after his high school graduation in just two months’ time, the big questions were whether the military draft would grab him and send him to the Vietnam conflict, or would he begin university studies (and what he would be using for money in order to pay for that), or would he work for a year or so in order to save up enough for a tertiary education, even as he somehow stayed beyond the basilisk vision of his local military draft board.

The American military commitment in the Vietnam War was growing rapidly and so that very real fear of being drafted pushed me hard to scrape together sufficient funds to get through the first year of the local public university, just as long as I continued part-time work in the evenings and weekends, like so many others.

In that same year, much of the country was in increasing turmoil from the civil rights revolution; there was growing anger and demonstrations against the Vietnam War; and there were growing outbreaks of violent urban disorder in response to an anger over continuing racial inequality.

In response to this tumult, describing the need for real change, an increasingly weary civil rights leader Rev Martin Luther King Jr had delivered one of his most important sermons, this time at the famous Riverside Church of New York City on 4 April 1967.

For King, personally, it was now some years past those electrifying protests and marches in the Deep South against overt racial discrimination and the deliberate prevention of African Americans’ voting rights. It was years after the glory days of the 1963 March on Washington, the tacit alliance with President Lyndon Johnson to press successfully for the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts, and even his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize more than two years earlier, accepted before the entire world.

In this sermon, restating and recapitulating the threads from his years of testimony and preaching and moving well past the specifics of the American civil rights movement, King had said to the assembled congregation:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’ There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…’ We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”

That formulation of the “fierce urgency of now” has, of course, found its way into the thoughts and language of many politicians who had come along after Dr King, such as Barack Obama. This has been true for such leaders even as they were not always able to translate that urgency in the actual textures of their respective political systems.

Now both South Africa and the United States have become laboratories where any real sense of urgency — or the lack of it — is being tested in response to the circumstances of Covid and the ensuing economic collapse. In these experiments, we now get to observe how effectively politicians and citizens can or will respond to that fierce urgency of now. 

In America, the country has been through four years in which the increasing urgency of some very real problems, including the mind-bending difficulties of the economic collapse, the Covid pandemic, and the continuing effects of racial inequality and racialised policing all came together in a near-firestorm over the past year.

Sadly, the country’s top political leadership then spent their time belittling or denying these were near-existential crises for the nation. Instead, it chose to fight chimerical battles of “wokeness” and “cancel culture” as the be-all and end-all of fundamental political values and virtues.

Now, having lost both the presidency and Congress, Republican Party leadership has taken to protesting the depredations exacted upon Dr Seuss and Mr Potato Head, rather than focusing on the actual fires of our present moment. 

In response to such madness, the newly ensconced Biden administration elected to grapple with the pandemic and economic meltdown simultaneously, seeing them as interrelated and in which a solution for the one must be found in the other.

The American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in a squeaker of a vote the other day, is already delivering a range of direct stimulus payments to many of the nation’s citizens in a demonstration of a real Keynesian “pump priming” exercise, along with other support payments to hard-done-by local and state governments. This effort is taking place even as the federal government pushes hard on the disease front, sharply ramping up the national anti-Covid vaccination program, and encouraging reestablishing face-to-face schooling again as long as there are appropriate distancing precautions.

All of this is an effort to achieve actual herd immunity to this disease, just in time for American Independence Day celebrations on the Fourth of July.

The new administration has structured the direct payments so they go to a majority of citizens, well beyond just poorer minority populations. This has helped generate a broad level of support among citizens, as opposed to programmes that incite identitarian rancour.

So far, at least, that decision appears to be working, as the Rescue Plan does have broad bipartisan support among the electorate, even if all Republican elected officials in Congress refused to embrace it. Given the circumstances, it seems a question if that will turn out to be such good politics on their part. 

If these twin efforts — building a stimulus package and disease fighting — succeed, there is the chance that the economy will rebound heartily, just in time for the 2022 election, giving Democrats a real advantage. And it may even provide a fertile landscape of support for other items on the Biden agenda such as a national infrastructure rebuilding programme or fundamental immigration policy reforms. 

Well, maybe all of this will happen, even if the tangible results will not be known for a while. But before this new burst of urgent effort in the face of growing disaster, there were those wasted years of futility and presidential magical thinking, the hunting for imaginary unicorn solutions for real problems, the telling of ridiculous lies, vicious assaults on truth, and prevarications against his enemies foreign and domestic — as well as those tax code gifts to the nation’s top income tiers. All this was ongoing until enough of the country’s voters rebelled during the 2020 election, changing the national course heading.

And what of South Africa, the other laboratory experiment? This country’s challenges are well known to most of its citizens and are often the subject of vigorous criticism and anger.

Still, it is true the immediate government response to the Covid pandemic came quite quickly, with the stringent lockdown and economic shutdown, and the mandatory social distancing and mask-wearing to prevent the pandemic from overwhelming the country’s health sector. The economic toll of the lockdown, however, was less immediately or effectively addressed.

Whole classes of people were quickly thrown into growing financial distress as they had little or nothing to fall back on and were left with little or no means of support for themselves and their families. But despite the agonies, most people accepted the necessity of these restrictions.

The effects of this urgent economic distress have now deeply affected the higher education sector as it is now clear a majority of university students do not have the financial resources to pay for their educations, that the state’s student loan program was in disarray, and that increasing numbers of students were becoming insistent the previous president’s pledge of free university education be implemented forthwith, in accord with that broad utopian promise in the 1955 Freedom Charter. 

At this point, even when most students have largely been kept home for a year because of the nation’s anti-Covid efforts, there has been little real planning to solve the university financing conundrum now upon the nation, even as thousands of students — understandably enough — believe their futures are held in thrall to gaining at least a bachelor’s degree, and that the government is shirking on its promise to provide funding. This is neither good politics nor a demonstration of effective leadership.

This same lockdown period could have been time spent focusing on addressing the urgent crisis of technical and technological skills training and development in the nation. In the year of the pandemic, the government, as an urgent priority, and working with the country’s employers, might have planned on establishing a serious, widespread, national apprenticeship and training programme (perhaps modelled on the way Germany carries out such efforts), once schools reopened.

Such an effort could have embraced the hundreds of thousands of students who, year by year, drop out of school before even reaching the final year of high school. Even without the added weight from the impact of Covid, this dropout rate has almost guaranteed such students lifetimes of dead-end jobs or joblessness.

Such a national plan, robustly constructed in conjunction with the private sector, might have been poised to guide many thousands more into the kinds of internships that would lead to students gaining a foothold in business and industry. But despite the deep economic hiatus, there was little attention to this urgent need either, despite the fact that under the expanded definition of unemployment, some 40%+ of the nation is jobless.

This past year could even have been a year in which the government and the country rethought and restructured the entire educational landscape, creating real plans and budgetary commitments to give every single student equitable educational exposure, right from the beginning of their school years until they finished their formal education, including concerted efforts to make certain the national broadcaster contributes fully to teaching across the nation. As many politicians have noted, a crisis is too valuable to waste, but sadly, this one seems to have been.

As economic journalist Carol Paton recently wrote in Business Live, concerning the ballooning share of educational funds going to higher education versus the funds for the early years of education, “The government now spends R115bn a year on higher education. But it spends only R1bn a year on early childhood development. And since the introduction of free higher education, the basic education budget has been haemorrhaging, with spending declining in real terms while student enrolment increases.” 

But, instead of midnight meetings to get out of this Gordian knot, there appears to be little sense of urgency for anything so ambitious, even as an entire year of schooling has been disrupted by the Covid lockdowns. This was time that might have been productively put to use by educational planners and administrators to really rethink the future of South Africa’s educational landscape.

And of course, there is the country’s Covid vaccination programme as well. Even as the lockdown procedures have been comprehensive, stringent and all-encompassing, the process of obtaining vaccines in sufficient quantity to deal with the nation’s population has been much less so.

There are those who calculate that at the present level of vaccine availability or promised delivery, it would actually take years before the entire nation received its needed injections. Some responsibility for this must lie with government leaders who seem to have taken the approach that it will all work at in the end, if everybody is just patient and trusting in government efforts. But by now, for many, patience has significantly eroded and trust must be earned anew, given the current crisis. For most people, beyond healthcare providers, it still remains unclear when or where they will be able to gain access to the vaccines.

Instead of palpable urgency on the part of public policymakers, to the outsider it seems that much of the energy over national budgetary priorities or projects to fix things like the national electrical grid, or the rapidly decaying road and rail networks, must come in second place, behind a shadowy, internecine struggle within the governing party for political dominance and control over the state machinery.

As Paton has also argued, “As occurred with the R10.5bn SAA got last October, budgets of other departments will now be sliced and diced and shaved to the bone as political decisions that were not properly processed in the first place are brought to bear. This makes the budget a mixture of austerity and politics: whoever is powerful enough and has an ANC resolution on their side can trump the fiscal framework of the day.” 

Despite the urgent need to think anew and act anew for these national challenges, amid the typhoons of economic crisis and pandemic both, the current budgetary struggles and policies in South Africa (and until just two months ago in America) have something of the texture of American President Andrew Jackson’s comment after winning his election, way back in 1828 that, “To the victor belong the spoils,” rather than a pledge to deliver a government his fellow citizens deserved. DM


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