On 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster, announcing a series of measures to prevent the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic, at the core of which was locking and shutting down the country to effectively implement social distancing, flatten the curve, care for the sick and conduct mass testing.
This, just as another finance buffoon stripped South Africa of its investment rating, downgrading government bonds to junk status in the midst of a global crisis where big economies such as France and the US are sliding into recession. But this is a circus that we have become accustomed to playing, even priding ourselves as top performers, and therefore should not be complaining. This rating game is part of how we celebrate freedom and have used it to distinguish our exceptionalism from everyone else. We compete for the numbers. It might look like nonsense, but it is not inconsequential.
We might be ranked the most unequal country in the world, but South Africa is currently Africa’s second wealthiest country with a GDP of over USD358-billion, boasts three of the top 10 billionaires in Africa, has the highest concentration of ultra-high net worth individuals (net worth greater than USD30-million) on the continent and is home to 109,368 of Africa’s 302,360 high net worth individuals (net worth greater than USD1-million).
In regular times, downgrading to junk status would profoundly impact us negatively. Through higher taxes and scaled-down government services, the rand would grow weaker, increasing the cost of basic necessities such as petrol, bread, and probably your alcohol, cigarettes and weed. It would mean bad news for banks and their customers, especially as they would have to offer higher interest rates. But these are not normal times, and a good actor should know when to come on stage.
The year 2019 was a tough year for South Africans. Statistics from StatsSA show that the economy contracted by 3.2% in the first quarter of 2019, grew by 3.1% in the second quarter, and then shrunk by 0.6% in the third quarter. At 29.1%, we recorded the highest unemployment rate since the measuring of joblessness in 2008.
With an estimated 25 million active credit consumers in South Africa, 10 million were behind on payments. And household debt reached USD154.5-billion, a shocking 44.7% of the nation’s nominal GDP.
Yet South African Airways and other state-owned enterprises continued asking for massive bailouts from the government. Ironically, SAA, branded as the gateway to Africa, closed many of its routes across the continent and globally, recently even domestic routes, as it was subjected to business rescue.
At year-end, we all had to create space to add a new useful app to our phones to more efficiently help the electricity corporation Eskom to effectively plan its disruptions. Load shedding entered our vocabularies, redefined our routines and changed our relationship with energy and its related technologies. Things happen when you can be load shed for up to 8 stages.
Coupled with the economic woes, more worrying were the 2018/2019 annual crime statistics that revealed that we were growing increasingly more violent against each other. Murders increased by 3.4% to just over 21,000, with over 60% of all murders committed over the weekend between 9pm and 3am. So much for the weekend. Goodbye, sweet dreams.
According to the statistics 2,771 women, and 1,014 children were murdered during this period. With a homicide rate averaging 58 per day, it is clear that while freedom has come, we are officially in a civil war. Police Minister Bheki Cele noted in his report: “There are a very high number of people who are murdered by people they know.” Freedom came, but we turned some of our most intimate encounters into traumatic relationships.
We continued to use sex to violate, batter and destroy bodies, lives and spirits in what has now become our epidemic. In fact, some organisations rank us amongst the world’s rape epicentres. Some report that we may be its capital. Approximately 52,420 incidences of sexual crimes were reported in the preceding period: 36,597 against women and shockingly 24,387 were against children.
Last year 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana was brutally raped and murdered by a post office worker – a brother, an uncle, an elder, someone entrusted with the responsibility of care – in a seemingly safe public space. And this is just one of the many brutalities in which our intimate relationships are confined. The toxicity of our masculinities has reached immeasurable proportions. We are special. Actually, we are a pathology.
Over this past year, we continued our notoriety for xenophobia. No, Afrophobia, our contribution to the English vocabulary. At various times during the year, there were sporadic “attacks on, and looting of, foreign-owned shops, leading to retaliatory attacks against South African businesses” in different parts of the continent. The tensions forced Nigeria to organise and repatriate some of its citizens. We were forced to send an envoy to some African countries to apologise for these criminal acts; and emphasise that South Africa is home to all and not xenophobic.
But there is hope. Freedom has come, again.
In 2019 we elected South Africa’s sixth President, Cyril Ramaphosa. Siya Kolosi captained South Africa to an astounding victory at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, bringing home the trophy with the Springboks and reuniting the “Rainbow Nation” with the nostalgic memories of 1995. The Student Village “Student Spend” survey also showed that South Africa’s new “Gen Z is characterised by a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit, founded on hope and a sense of self-created liberation. Many of whom have started businesses at a young age, they no longer save to spend, they save to re-invest.” To top it off Zozibini Tunzi won Miss Universe. We are the world. Right? Freedom has come. The time is now.
On April 9, the president announced the decision by the National Coronavirus Command Council, after careful assessment, “to extend the nation-wide lockdown by a further two weeks beyond the initial 21 days” thereby keeping most of the lockdown measures “in force until the end of April”. This means that on Freedom Day 2020, we shall be locked down in our various corners without the traditional alcohol that we love to celebrate with, and the privilege of physical conviviality and debauchery. But freedom is a faraway thought for those who fell victim to the 87,000 cases of gender-based violence reported after week one of the lockdown.
On the flipside, the social support deployed during this lockdown shows that it is possible to create a more caring state, if we are willing and if as a society and political community we are grounded in solidarity. The government has for the first time provided a basic survival buffer, even if insufficient, for the unemployed across the board. The idea that such support and solidarity would create dependency and avoidance of work is radically shifting.
Despite the challenges and obvious consequences of militarisation, and the devastating economic consequences of interdicting alcohol and cigarettes, the country has seen a dramatic drop in reported “serious and violent crimes” such as murder, rape and assault cases, and trio crimes (i.e. robberies and vehicle hijackings).
The government’s Covid-19 Solidarity Fund raised more than R500-million in donations after the first week following its announcement. Other related funds such as the eMedia Covid-19 relief fund had raised close to R4-million in the first 48 hours of its launch. Just the other day, the President announced an additional R500-billion planned injection into the economy and social support, a record 10% of GDP. These are extraordinary times, with an extraordinary budget. Who would have thought we would live to see such extraordinary attention to the needs of the vulnerable.
Freedom Day is here, but freedom, as we know it, is gone. We are left with one last thing: the freedom to reflect. But how should we use this freedom?
In response to a question by a BBC reporter in the late Nineties seeking to understand what he meant by coming out of prison a different man, and also what was specific about life in Robben Island that changed him, Nelson Mandela said: “Well you know, the fact that you could sit alone and think, gave us a wonderful opportunity to change ourselves… your behaviour. I felt quite ashamed because I became busy with politics and with law, and I forgot the people who were very kind to me when I arrived in Johannesburg, and I said if I ever get a chance of coming out, as I was sure I would eventually no matter how long, I would make up for the omissions I made.”
It has been 26 years since we inaugurated Freedom Day on 27 April 1994. It is time to reflect and make up for our omissions. Those who insist that we must absolutely return to normal and continue with business as usual must ask themselves if our past omissions are what they want to return to, or should we free ourselves by imagining a new social contract. DM