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Ways of understanding Ramaphosa’s bizarre declaration of war against Covid-19


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

How are we to understand President Cyril Ramaphosa’s tough talk of being ‘at war’ with Covid-19? Is it bluster, mere pretence? Or could it be megalomania, capriciousness or unlocked hypocrisy? While none of this can be ruled out, a much more benign explanation is possible.

“We are at war,” Cyril Ramaphosa announced on 5 June. Referencing Covid-19, he continued:

“We are fighting a life-and-death war… Cost is not the issue here, saving lives is the main issue… Funding should never be a problem; if it is a problem it is a momentary problem. We have decided that Covid-19 is a war that we need to fight and win and therefore we are going to allocate the resources that are necessary.”

Really? Surprisingly, his declaration of war went virtually unreported when first made and it disappeared thereafter.

How are we to understand the president’s tough talk? Is it bluster, mere pretence? Or could it be megalomania, evocative of when he recently decked himself out in full military regalia? Is he being delusional, or might it be capriciousness or unlocked hypocrisy? While none of this can be ruled out, a much more benign explanation is possible. Could Ways of Seeing be involved in this declaration full of promise but (almost) empty of reality?

‘Ways of Seeing’ – a recapitulation

In a previous Daily Maverick article, I drew on John Berger’s book, “Ways of Seeing”, along with epistemology, the science of perception and psychology. These sources show how our individual experience of the world, and the identity/ies we choose to share with others, can result in “I” unknowingly becoming “We” and “We” unknowingly becoming “Everyone”. In this way, the customs, traditions and values particular to specific identities, groups and classes are generalised and projected onto the whole of society. My way is seen as being your way: the more powerful the group or class the greater is its reach over others.

I suggested in this article that Ramaphosa’s immediate, almost visceral, response to coronavirus was to implement lockdown to protect a collective “Us”. In this respect, his response was no different from all other governments for whom lockdown has been their first response. Crucially, none of these lockdowns saw – or, concurrently acted on – the innumerable divisions within the collective “Us”’ created by Ways of Seeing; a fragmentation that manifests as inequality in all its various forms. In this way, a reflexive response intended to protect all of us equally has unavoidably had impacts everywhere in manifestly unequal ways; the only variations being the specificities of the inequalities of each country.

The collision between the lockdown intent and the inequality reality

How does all this help explain Ramaphosa’s bizarre declaration of war? In his replying affidavit, to what turned out to be the successful court challenge to Levels 4 and 3 of South Africa’s lockdown, the director-general of the Department of Cooperative Governance explained:

“I submit… that the powers the Minister exercised in the regulations were necessary to assist and protect the public. The objective of the lockdown is to save lives and to provide relief to the public.”

What meaning can “to protect and provide relief to the public” have for the homeless initially expected to remain house-bound; or for the often large numbers of people – especially children – living in small homes; or for the millions whose homes are shacks that, at best, provide little more than minimal protection from the weather? How is the “public” expected to maintain physical distance in the townships and slums, or in the taxis transporting essential workers? Or to carry out handwashing without water? Or to buy facemasks and sanitisers when they can’t afford even enough food? (Yet, the judge hearing the case ruled that all these provisions were rational, unlike most of the rest of them, which the judge ordered the government to fix!)  

The enormity of the contradiction between reality and what I’m arguing is a genuine desire “to provide relief to the public” and a well-meaning Ramaphosa, when he declared that “Covid-19 is a war that we need to fight and win and therefore we are going to allocate the resources that are necessary”, is highlighted by two examples, taken from a possible plenitude, that attracted public attention recently.

Jeremy Seekings, a professor and director of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town, concludes his 4,500 word Daily Maverick article of 2 June, “Feeding poor people: The national government has failed,” with this sombre observation:

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the national government had no plan, shut down its massive school feeding programme and impeded its regular food parcel scheme, has failed to provide much funding for food parcels and has played almost no part in delivering them to poor people.”

(Robyn Vorster’s almost equally long and even more recent Daily Maverick article, “The Horror of Child Hunger Stalks Our Land” tells a similarly sobering tale.)

The second example concerns the R350 grant the government said it would pay all those people who had no income, either from employment or state benefits. The number of people in this category is unknown – which itself is very telling – with the government acknowledging 6.3 million valid and completed applications. Lockdown was implemented on 27 March. On 27 May the government asked the very people it recognised as having no income to “give the payment process more time”. The supposedly good news came on 6 June: “Over 100,000 grants of R350 paid out, nearly 1.6 million declined.” Ten weeks for a notoriously dysfunctional bureaucracy to say “no” to 1.6 million people! Of the other approximately 4.5 million valid applications received, only a further 1.2 million are still waiting to be finalised by a bureaucracy predisposed to saying No. Suggestive of the urgency given to providing money for people defined as having no income is that it took until 22 May for the grand total of 10 people to be paid this special Covid-19 grant.

Ramaphosa’s bizarre declaration of war

Cyril Ramaphosa knows all this and much more. Could this be the reason for his 5 June declaration of war – regardless of cost – against Covid-19?  Yes! is the answer. But it’s an answer shaped by Ways of Seeing.

The occasion for Ramaphosa’s patently extravagant commitments was the announcement of nothing more than that there had been an agreement with the private health sector for beds, along with doctors and some medical equipment to be made available for public use at an agreed price during the emergency.

The extraordinary narrow focus of Ramaphosa’s dramatic declaration of war – it even omitted saying anything about integrating private laboratories for Covid-19 testing – is underlined by Dr Brian Ruff, in another recent Daily Maverick article. In addressing the Covid-19 emergency, he shows that: 

“If organised properly, the capacity of the private system should serve over 20 million people, rather than the current 8.8 million.” 

The war talk made no mention of the actual number of private-sector beds that would be available. This is not surprising as the potential number is tiny. Against the 20 million people the private sector could serve in the coronavirus emergency, it is infinitesimal. However, even without an emergency state takeover, harnessing these facilities would require actions beyond words declaring war. (An alternative approach to Ruff’s, but with the same objective, is to be found in another Daily Maverick article.)

Why, then, the seemingly phoney declaration?

Phoney does not signal insincerity, but impotence. The desire is real but a much greater and harsher reality mocks the good intentions.

While the focus is on Ramaphosa it is important to remember that he speaks for the government. Listen, therefore, to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, speaking on 2 June, in anticipation of the deal with the private sector Ramaphosa announced a few days later:

“There will also be one protocol for the patients. So there’s no such thing as ‘this one will be treated differently because they come from a public hospital [or] they’re from a poor community’. Everyone’s going to get the same treatment. That is an undertaking we are making.”

There is no reason to doubt Mkhize’s sincerity any less than there is to doubt Ramaphosa’s. Given that invoking “human nature” – invariably selfishness – is often the protective response for not contemplating a better, more equitable and just society, an even stronger case can be made for most people, who, wanting to think well of themselves, would like to do things that are indeed in the interest of people other than themselves. This instance of “I” being a more or less genuine “We” is almost certainly why the private health sector has been ready to open its facilities to the public: it doing so was more than just thinking about the good business opportunity of cashing in on the possibility of otherwise empty beds and idle facilities.

Seeing without seeing

Ways of Seeing provides an understanding of how all these recognitions of what is desperately needed by the much broader “We” is unavoidably and substantially circumscribed by seeing with wilful blindness.

The awful pickle Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga has got herself into, is a case in point. Alas for her, her desire to open schools doesn’t and cannot allow for the fact that education reflects many of the inequalities that characterise South Africa. Just take school infrastructures, for example. Against the private schools and former Model C schools raring to reopen are the township and rural schools, many of which have no – or inadequate – electricity, water or sanitation and all of which are far short of the number of classrooms required just to make physical distancing a practical possibility.

These inequalities are so deeply embedded in the structures and institutions of society that they can be changed only as part of a fundamental system change. (The full enormity of what is needed will be exposed when schools are reopened for all 12 grades, rather than just the current two. The British government is facing a not dissimilar problem in its attempts to open all primary schools in England.)

The dilemma everywhere facing all privileged groups is how to “see” their opposite, the Other, who bears the burdens of the inequality they enjoy as privileges. The white South Africa of apartheid South Africa reconciled the contradictions that unavoidably force their way into consciousness by denying the humanity of the Other. When forces independent of their will no longer made this denial possible, very few of the formerly racially privileged claimed to know anything of the horrors that had been in plain sight for nearly 350 years.

Similarly, Ways of Seeing make comprehensible the imposition of lockdown worldwide, notwithstanding the known (or easily predictable) unequal consequence of measures taken in the name of a “We” seen to be equally exposed to and threatened by Covid-19. Ramaphosa’s declaration of war can thus be seen as a genuine declaration of an intent that could never be anything other than still-born; of an earnest wish to do right to the collective “Us”, particularly because, in his colour-coded eyes, the heaviest price is paid by “his people”, by those most ill-suited to afford anything more than poverty.

Ramaphosa needed to believe what he was saying. Ways of Seeing allowed him to do so. It did this in the same way as Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Literature prize for his songwriting, asked rhetorically, in 1964:

Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

He answered his own question in another of his songs:

As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Well, Bob, you wrote that in 1963, and we’re still waiting! My answer for the delay – “For the loser now will be later to win” – is because those who are privileged by inequality see without seeing, a blindness that protects them from what is too challenging to their psychological health. They’ve been kept in this win-win Way of Seeing – of simultaneously seeing themselves in the collective “Us”, in whose name they act, while filtering out the uncomfortable contradictions – by the unequal power relations reflected in and maintained by inequality. This is unlikely to change until the Other, the 90% or so of the population, say: Enough!

Might the worldwide protests against the US police and the inequality Trump represents be harbingers?  DM


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