Opinionista Mkhuleko Hlengwa 7 April 2020

Don’t praise government fish for swimming

South Africa was in crisis before the emergence of Covid-19, with urgent intervention needed in improving infrastructure and support to reduce inequality. Now, the South African government is being praised for swinging into drastic action – in other words, for doing the job required of it.

The threat of a Covid-19 pandemic in our country has miraculously restored good governance, and urgency and efficiency have tackled the rude awakening of the global threat before us. Sadly, these precise, clear and targeted actions of our government have been met with praise and applause. 

The action steps that our government has taken so far are indeed noble, but not out of the ordinary nor are they inconsistent with international standards. The fish can swim and are actually swimming, as they should.  What is evident is that when efficiency and efficacy are absent, then mediocrity can easily be mistaken for a job well done. 

If it takes a crisis to show us real leadership in our government, then we might as well remain in a perpetual state of crisis post-Covid-19, or government must just do right and good all the time, crisis or no crisis. 

Homeless people suddenly have found refuge; telecommunication companies are suddenly cooperating to trace Covid-19 positive South Africans. This begs the question: “Where is this cooperation when dealing with everyday crimes, such as murder or gender-based violence?” 

JoJo tanks are now readily available, but were absent while we have battled a severe drought and water shortages throughout the country. Ministers are fielding questions more and more as part of public accountability.

Yes, these are all noble action steps in this time of crisis, but South Africa was already in crisis before the emergence of Covid-19. Yet, despite the need for urgent intervention in improving infrastructure and support, we have not seen this kind of drastic action. 

When our children were dying in pit toilets, all we got were excuses. When we had challenges, we looked the other way. Those with deep pockets turned away and denied the depth of their wealth. Yet, only now when faced with dire economic and social consequences do we somehow all band together – it begs the question: “For self or for nation?” 

In May 2019, Time Magazine ran a cover story concerning South Africa titled: “The world’s most unequal country”. What was most striking was the picture on the cover; a picture of Primrose suburb in Ekurhuleni on one side and the Makause informal settlement on the other.  

This visual interpretation formed part of photographer Johnny Miller’s project titled Unequal Scenes, highlighting the extent of South Africa’s inequality. The realities of inequality are prevalent in all major cities in South Africa. The uneven distribution of development, services and infrastructure are glaringly visible. 

Townships and informal settlements are the forgotten realms where the majority of our people live in abject subhuman conditions. This has been the South African crisis pre-1994, entrenched by apartheid and sustained post-1994 by government’s laissez-faire approach to the plight of the poor. Corruption and neglect have robbed our people of the 1994 promise of “A Better Life For All”. 

We are now all holding our breath for the Covid-19 catastrophe that is likely, with certainty, to prevail in Alexandra and Khayelitsha much to the threat of treasured Sandton and Cape Town. Our townships and informal settlements have always been ticking time bombs, and Covid-19 is the trigger we never saw coming.

The visual work of Miller has come to life. This pandemic has exposed more sharply the inequalities of our society and more so that efficiency is not in short supply in South Africa. 

Inequality is not uniquely a South African or African phenomenon. The world over, we must all work together in stopping Covid-19 from exploiting the inequality between rich and poor nations. The rich and poor South Africans. The haves and the have-nots.  

Poor nations with weak health systems and who are drowning in debt cannot keep up, while wealthier nations are showing they can unlock trillions to build new hospitals and keep their economies alive.  

In stemming the spread of Covid-19, it means stopping this virus from exploiting the inequality between rich and poor people in every country. 

While the richest countries across the globe are getting tested and treated fast, with healthcare and cash to get by, most of humanity is facing this crisis with neither. As much as this outbreak shows up the grave inequalities in our country, it is also an opportunity to address the big elephant in all rooms – we must fight to ensure that we tackle inequality, to bring those who have and those who don’t closer together.  

Our people deserve an equal footing, with equal opportunity, with equal care and the restoration of justice, dignity and humanity.  

Surely, South Africans are facing a moment like we have not yet seen before, not even 1994 could compare to our togetherness, to our generosity and to our humanity, like right now.  

This is a lesson for us all, in particular, a lesson to the government – we all now know that government can work, can be effective and can ensure that South Africans are protected, treated and live up to its sovereign promise to its people. DM

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