Opinionista Barry Mitchell 6 August 2020

Covid-19 corruption betrays the proud legacy of Rivonia

Revelations that government officials and their families have used this pandemic to loot Covid-19 relief funds have exposed a new level of Orwellian irony. Any notion that authorities are remotely interested in building a society based on the inspiring principles of the Rivonia Trialists has faded.

 

“Who needs enemies, when you have comrades.” 

This was the reaction of the late anti-apartheid stalwart and Rivonia Trialist Denis Goldberg. I sat with Ntate Goldberg in his kitchen sipping coffee and eating biscuits. We had just watched the latest revelation related to wide-scale corruption and state looting in former president Jacob Zuma’s administration. Goldberg was fearless in his condemnation of corruption. He sat stoically, watching as the sacrifices he and many other liberation heroes made, were turned into an Orwellian reality – pigs gorging at the table once occupied by their enemy. 

A few months later, a confluence of activists, students, religious folk and ordinary citizens gathered in Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral to bid farewell to another Rivonia Trialist, Comrade Uncle Kathy Kathrada. This was by no means a sombre affair, it was a platform for many of us to channel our disappointment and anger, it reignited and energised us for a new post-apartheid struggle – the struggle against corruption, looting and thievery. Uncle Kathy was also fearless, openly criticising what the organisation he had represented for the better part of his life had become.

With the passing of Uncle Kathy and the impetus growing to actively root out the source of corruption – womxn, youth, civil society, faith-based organisations, trade unions, political parties, former Struggle activists (the organic “motive forces”) mobilised and organised calling for the recall of President Zuma. While the momentum increased, the “leader” of society deliberated behind closed doors. Who can forget the leaks from ANC NEC meetings? Antagonistic factions attached to a continuation of comprador-patronage politics and tenderpreneurism, the other, a tentative ray of hope and stability.

With mass protests on the streets, opposition parties baying for blood and an international political economy hesitant to have any dealings with our government departments, the walls closed in on the ANC NEC and we were again privy to a late-late-night resignation announcement.

No-one could have expected a new contemporary challenge in the form of an incurable global pandemic, and at the onset of our own first infection being reported, our government under Cyril Ramaphosa acted swiftly and with considered confidence. But the clichéd analysis that later emerged declaring that the virus has exposed many socio-economic challenges in fact reveals the very distance between authorities and the people. 

The quadruple crisis of inequality, unemployment, poverty and gender-based violence had been prevalent in SA long before the virus hit our shores. Debates related to privilege, class, race and gender later flooded various platforms, partly fanned by the happenings in the US and partly sparked by the brutality of recent GBV crimes.

With the last living Rivonia Trialist having recently died and being unable to actively voice and demonstrate our concerns, it seems we are once again awaiting the outcomes of NEC deliberations. 

Covid-19 and the experiences we have faced as South Africans vary, in relative terms, dependent on one’s race and class. The quadruple crisis and the entrenched systemic legacy of our history are bound to irritate these antagonistic experiences in our society. Our lived differences are stark, some have lost a portion of their income, forcing them to adjust their lifestyles – cancelling their DSTV accounts or shopping at Pick n Pay, instead of Woolworths. 

Others, such as the over nine million beneficiaries of the school nutrition programme lost a vital meal, others face homelessness and a degradation of their dignity as they are thrown (naked at times) out of their living spaces by state-sponsored evicters.

Finding synthesis between the needs and aspirations of the different class-race relations in South Africa used to be buttressed upon the inspiring principles of building a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, united and prosperous society based on justice, equality, the rule of law and the inalienable human rights of all. Those veterans and stalwarts that guided us during the Zuma administration, feeding us courage, despite their age and frailty, provided us with the notion that we can reclaim our voice and active participation in this democracy. 

South Africans are resilient people, we find hope and courage, regardless of the challenging circumstances. During the lockdown, many of us believed that a new, more equal and just social, political and economic situation would be on the cards post-Covid. But while we were enlightening ourselves, staying focused on trying to scrape a living to pay rent or put food on the table and adhering as best as we could to the directives of the National Command Council, recent revelations have exposed a new level of Orwellian irony. Government officials and their families have used this pandemic to loot Covid-19 relief funds, and any notion that authorities are remotely interested in building a society based on the above inspiring principles have faded.  

Womxn, youth, civil society, faith-based organisations, trade unions, activists, former struggle activists and ordinary citizens are not able to coordinate a response to open theft of state resources. We cannot stage peaceful protests and participate in the People’s Parliament in Wale Street, Cape Town. We cannot do these things because we are abiding by regulations to protect the vulnerable during this pandemic.

With the last living Rivonia Trialist having recently died and being unable to actively voice and demonstrate our concerns, it seems we are once again awaiting the outcomes of NEC deliberations. 

After a three-hour conversation with Denis Goldberg, he picked up my empty coffee cup, looked at me with a smile and quoted Bertolt Brecht: 

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes. Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.” DM

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