Defend Truth


Let’s use this war to build social justice and equality in South Africa


Sahra Ryklief is the secretary-general of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations. Ryklief holds an MA in political science from the University of Liverpool and is an adjunct instructor for the Labour Studies and Employment Relations department of the School of Management and Labour Relations at Rutgers’ University, New Jersey, US. She is the former director of the Labour Research Service (LRS) and represents the LRS as the chairperson of Ditikeni, an ethical investment fund committed to the long-term sustainability of South African NGOs.

A national project is being built, both from above and below, in a time of great need and heroism, on the best of basic principles.

The phased announcements by President Cyril Ramaphosa last week were a masterful display of political finesse. First, on Tuesday 21 April, came the announcement of massive economic support and social relief programme of R500-billion, amounting to 10% of the GDP, to stimulate the economy and protect wages and enterprises in distress. South Africa has been awaiting this announcement to increase the social relief and grants and extend the provision of medical supplies and services with growing urgency.

No one would disagree that South Africa’s social welfare system is woefully inadequate. It cannot even provide the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy: the basic physiological needs of water, food and shelter to the impoverished. Nonetheless, in a country where a rising number of the unemployed live in households where no household member is employed or supported, the more than 17 million grants that are disbursed to adults and children in South Africa are widely considered to be the government’s most effective poverty alleviation agency. Without grants, many have no income at all, and the grant system is the most comprehensive way of getting cash income to those in greatest need.

The announcement also ushered in a first in South Africa: comprehensive relief, through a small basic income grant for the unemployed – something many of us have been fighting for over more than two decades. These are small amounts, and the announcement was weak on the detail of who, how and when. It has now been revealed that the child support increase will be given per caregiver/household and not per child beneficiary. This seems in contradiction of the initial announcement that grant beneficiaries would receive these amounts, and could undo the promise to relieve the plight of those who are most desperately affected by the coronavirus. Amandla.Mobi, a movement that campaigns for justice through cellphone communication, has launched a signature campaign to apply the grant to each child.

There were two other announcements in this first address, namely, the deployment of the full armed forces and that much of this package will be raised in the forms of loans from national and international institutions, raising the spectre of militaristic responses to the movements of the homeless, street traders, addicts and informal settlement populations, and a future of imposed structural adjustment austerity measures as part of any recovery programme in the years ahead.

Yet one cannot help but admire the skill of these phased announcements. In his first announcement, Ramaphosa silenced left voices (inasmuch as we can be silenced) who were calling for humanitarian aid, relief and basic food security for our impoverished population. He silenced struggling and failing enterprises, both large and small, and also the economically orthodox and the captains of industry, whose first question to increased social distribution would be how South Africa will pay for this without socialising their private property or commandeering their private coffers. Lastly, he silenced the securocrats, whose eyebrows were beginning to rise in tandem with the food riots, convenience-store looting and vandalising of public property, incidents which are becoming more generalised every day.

The real meaning of the phased announcement became clear on Thursday, which was basically that we are still under an extended lockdown after 1 May, except that we can now smoke, and use home delivery and expanded financial services. Government agencies will operate, which should aid the rolling out of the relief measures. The country’s highest income-generating activities, agriculture and mining, are freed to operate. With neither one of these industries having a good reputation for being particularly responsive to its workers, the requirement of strictly monitored health measures which accompany the permission to open economic activities should hopefully place workers’ safety as paramount. This will be a first in these sectors.  

It is also hoped that the expanded deployment of the army will ensure the protection of public stock, schools, clinics, hospitals and railways.

In South Africa, at this time of Covid-19, there is not only one threat of contagion, but two. The first, which we share with the rest of the world, is the pandemic decimating vast numbers of our population. The density of our informal settlements, a limited and already strained public health system and a nutritionally deprived population makes this an impending reality if containment of the virus is not paramount. The lockdown strategy, as it unfolds, attempts to address this. It is based on a rationale that in pandemics the long-run economic consequences for cities experiencing rapid and high cumulative infections are significantly worse than those for cities enduring temporary restrictions on economic activity.

The second contagion is mass anger and rioting. Rapid unemployment is an inevitable consequence of an extended lockdown. With one of the lowest wage economies in the world, an official unemployment rate of 29% and a youth (aged 15-24) unemployment rate of 55,2%, we can ill-afford a rapid and uncontrolled expansion of unemployment, as witnessed in the US and Europe in the past month. Decades of labour market deconstruction through subcontracting, outsourcing and the scaling down of production to reduce labour costs have increased income inequality and practically eliminated work-related social protections.

The systemic insecurity of low wages and high unemployment makes South Africa, with the highest income inequality in the world, politically unstable. Despite the expansion of democratic, constitutional rights in 1994, we have never had a completely quiescent population. Our show of national consensus to the rule of law has always had to pretend to ignore the unrest on the margins. Rule of law was not accompanied by a concerted alleviation of the misery of mass poverty, in fact, it cloaked an increase of socioeconomic inequality. No matter how much we have lauded the rainbow nation, political conflagration has always been only a few steps away.


Once I accept this premise, I find myself in a strange place. I find myself beginning to admire Ramaphosa’s ANC, despite the party’s unsavoury past of defending the indefensible and forcing its leading members and supporters (of which I have long not been one any more) to put party loyalty above country.


The lockdown has stripped away the rainbow nation blinkers. We can see the system in our country for what it is. One week of reduced movement and economic activity, and people begin to starve in earnest. Three weeks into this, the anger begins to rise.  If these two contagions coincide, uncontrollable political instability will undermine the prevailing, tenuous national unity. The country’s most vulnerable will be pitched against tightened authority of a government with all its security forces deployed. If movement cannot be contained, the spread of the virus could swiftly catapult the death toll into thousands. If mass rioting commences, the violence of a security clampdown, an army turning on its civilians in the poorer areas while the wealthy are cocooned, safe and unharmed in their suburbs, will lead to hardening of attitudes and increased suffering.

The question is, can we afford an undermining of this government’s authority during the time of Covid-19? Do I want it? Having been someone who has adhered to the basic tenet that socioeconomic change is desperately necessary and any real change is only possible when the status quo is shaken through considerable instability, it is difficult to admit that I, in this time of corona, for the first time in my life, am not prepared to advocate or cheer on spontaneous, violent eruptions and heightened instability. That instead, I’m prepared to settle for transparent, responsive, good governance, guided by the overwhelming global scientific consensus that the devastation of this global pandemic must be averted at any cost. That the country, the world as we know it, will never be the same again, and that we need to do everything in our power to effect the changes that we require to ensure that this situation will never occur again.

Once I accept this premise, I find myself in a strange place. I find myself beginning to admire Ramaphosa’s ANC, despite the party’s unsavoury past of defending the indefensible and forcing its leading members and supporters (of which I have long not been one any more) to put party loyalty above country.  

Thanks mostly to Ramaphosa’s leadership, the values and ethics that will drive this crisis are stated clearly and upfront. A call for unity, empathy and compassion frames every statement. Scientific advice and research are the premise of policy formulation, informing the inevitable political trade-offs necessary to win sufficient support from powerful stakeholders in our society. Scientists are given sufficient public space to explain the situation.

Cabinet ministers face the public and the media to present their department’s policies. Planning is phased, careful and transparent. Rival parties are consulted. Inclusivity is paramount, respecting the tensions in this divided, unequal society. The national broadcaster remains open and responsive to the multitude of voices. Press freedoms are safeguarded. There is a complete absence of state-engineered, negative, anti-press rhetoric, as in Zuma’s day. There is fearless reporting and exposure of inconvenient news, investigations into exposures on social media, while accompanied by stern warnings against fake news.

I am not saying everything is perfect. I am saddened and appalled by the restriction of relief measures to registered South African citizens and to enterprises owned exclusively by South African citizens. Is this a battle lost within his party by Ramaphosa, the former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers when it fought for and won, equal wages, conditions and social rights for migrant workers as well as SA citizens? SA’s economic migrants are often the most vulnerable and least resourced in our communities.  I feel we should raise our voices to challenge this ridiculous but prevailing government opinion that good stewardship of public goods in this country means that relief should go exclusively to its registered citizens.

Most of all though, I am thrilled by the heightened social solidarity which is accompanying the social and physical distancing during the lockdown, the overwhelming public response to hunger in our communities through a multitude of soup kitchens and feeding schemes that are operating, the Community Action Networks mapping the neediest households in our communities and providing this information to the feeding schemes and food parcel deliveries, the vigilance with which the police and military are being monitored in the communities, the system of reporting abuses of power that are emerging, the building of local, regional and national support groups, funds and campaign activities against domestic violence, police and army violence and social support. A national project is being built, both from above and below, in a time of great need and heroism, on the best of basic principles.

I am even prepared to tolerate that, due to his leadership in these circumstances, Ramaphosa is well on the way to becoming a national icon. Even bad and weak leaders increase their approval ratings in times of crisis. I am relieved, given this iconisation of leaders in times of crisis, that he is no Jacob Zuma, who would reduce press and judicial liberties so that he and his carefully selected accomplices, in the name of rooting out corruption, could loot even more. No Duterte, or Orban, increasing authoritarian control to actually increase its misuse in the interest of maintaining power. No Trump, or Bolsonaro, hell-bent on opening up the economy, regardless of the consequences.


If this is a war, we cannot appeal to the most deprived within our population to endure heightened levels of control, with armed forces in their neighbourhoods, to endure heightened levels of hunger and deprivation, while the wealth of the 1% remains buffered and protected.


It is inevitable that there will be problems arising from the measures announced last week. Army training does not facilitate goodwill and compassion in action. Many will inflict harm on those they are meant to protect. Then there will be those who will execute more subtle forms of looting, of the public coffers, from above. Most of all, there will be so many who will suffer much more than inconvenience, who are already in distress, who will suffer pain, loss, hunger, cold. We cannot dismiss the enormity of suffering that is occurring now, and might get worse before it gets better.

We are at war – with a disease that has no cure, no treatment. War is terrible, and brings with it great suffering. We cannot afford to get all happy-clappy in this situation, even as civil society steps up in the noblest of ways to compensate for systemic state inadequacies. As we relinquish rights and protections, we need to increase our vigilance. We should step up our watch and raise our voices against those who now have extended power and resources and will wield these in the interest of their own ends, especially the hawks in the security forces and the 1% protecting their fiefdoms.

I do, however, see no option but to keep the lockdown going. The deploying of the army has sinister implications. Still, despite our fears and misgivings, it is difficult to see how maintaining stability during an extended lockdown is not a justifiable act of a responsible government. The signs are clear, chaos lies ahead. The national project of securing the lowest number of deaths over the next three months is in jeopardy. Let’s, during this time of heightened awareness, put the security forces in their place, by making them accountable to civilian oversight and ensuring that their presence and actions in our communities does not heighten the number of deaths, but serves the interest of the population by protecting our public goods and the safety of all.

Let’s raise our voices against the continued cosseting of the 1%, who own 67% of the country’s wealth, and open up the option of commandeering some of the massive wealth they have accumulated. We need government assessment on whether their contributions to the voluntary emergency fund measures up to the urgency of the situation and what they are capable of offering. If they improved their contributions, we might be able to expand the reach of the current relief measures and see more resources going to maintaining livelihoods and food.

If this is a war, we cannot appeal to the most deprived within our population to endure heightened levels of control, with armed forces in their neighbourhoods, to endure heightened levels of hunger and deprivation, while the wealth of the 1% remains buffered and protected. They too will have to make real sacrifices. To give up their rights and their protection of their enormous wealth.

I was listening to Andrew Cuomo on CNN field aggressive attacks from spokespersons who were advocating a full return to business. Every time they raised the unfairness of this reduction of individual liberties, he answered that governmental responsibility is to the common welfare of all its people. This is the overriding imperative. As governor, his responsibility is to act to avoid mass deaths. He would ask them, why is this not your imperative? Every time they raised that the common good would be harmed if economic activities did not resume, that the continued lockdown is an infringement on democratic rights and freedoms, he concurred. He kept repeating that this was bad, but death is worse. Every time they pointed out that it is leading to hunger, to misery, to increased anxiety for the future, he concurred, saying this was bad, but death is worse. Mass death is worse. He kept coming back to it, asking them to respond to this question – what is worse, suffering or death?

I am forced to agree. Death is worse. And we have a government which is trying to avoid this. So let’s do what we can to alleviate the suffering of those around us, to raise the voices of those who cry out in pain and despair. If the world will never be the same again, let’s design a future by making sure that the current levels of poverty and inequality are eradicated forever, that they do not shadow our future, that we build a more stable political dispensation based on good governance and socio-economic justice and equality.

If this is a war, let us emerge on the other side as victors. DM


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