On 10 February 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa teased the country with the announcement of a conditional end to the state of disaster. As I sat there listening to him explaining the technicalities, my mind drifted towards reflection: this is potentially the beginning of the end of the lockdown restrictions for Covid-19.
Covid-19 was devastating. Economic fallout, the instability of job security, and the monumental increase in dependency of debt to keep households running. The phone did not stop ringing. Funerals became a staple in our public spaces. Such loss of life: Gita Ramjee, Clarence Mini, Kenneth Mthiyane, to name a few of the 101,000 deaths due to Covid-19.
Covid-19 and lockdown, our decade’s great struggle. Can we equate this to other zeitgeist moments: the bubonic plague, the end of slavery, the “World” Wars, the end of apartheid? Often the appropriateness of a moment is measured by the spontaneous response elicited in its people. With the end of lockdown looming, I did not find myself shouting from the rooftops. Instead that Iron Maiden song, A Brave New World, sang through my head: “Wilderness, house of pain, Makes no sense of it all. Close this mind, dull this brain. Messiah before his fall.”
This song is a tribute to the dystopian science fiction novel Brave New World by English author Aldous Huxley. The narrator, Bernard Marx, is a psychologist, and realises that his lifework (justification disguised as therapy) combined with a happiness-producing drug called Soma, allows the government (aptly called the World State) to artificially keep its citizens peaceful and apathetic through entertainment and conditioning.
The dream of this World State was to create a world without suffering. Othered people live outside of the World State, called Savage Reservations, exposed to the state-identified vulnerabilities of life: disease and diversity of thought and language. Bernard, threatened with exile for his critical thinking, seeks re-acceptance when he brings back a savage from the Savage Reservations whom he must condition into the societal norm. He sacrifices his critical engagement in order to gain popularity through his willingness to conform. Sound familiar?
For the majority of South Africans, the state of disaster brought back memories of a previous lockdown: apartheid. A probable reason why the lockdown was greeted with suspicion and angst. Apartheid was a real-life example of the Huxley World State. A society hellbent on creating a state without conflict, without poverty — for a white minority at the expense of the majority, using the pulpit to condition and conform the masses: religion as opium for the people.
What about apathy?
At Stellenbosch University rests peacefully the PhD of the architect of apartheid, HF Verwoerd. It is titled: Die Afstomping van Gemoedsaandoeninge (The Blunting of Mood Disorders). He proceeded to build his laboratory research into a full-blown political system, described by Steve Biko in I Write What I Like as a system “producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form. This is the extent to which the process of dehumanisation has advanced.”
On 27 April 1994, apartheid officially ended. South Africa heralded a new democratic republic: a redistribution of political and economic freedom not determined by the colour of our skin. Warnings from Robert Sobukwe and Biko were ignored. Sobukwe warned that freedom requires the unshackling of the mind. Biko stated: “Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills”.
We find ourselves living in a quasi “welfare state”. This came at the cost of the self-emancipation proposed by Black Consciousness. Neither freedom nor independence can be given from the outside, for if freedom is given by the state, then we become dependent on the state for our freedom.
Those previously deprived of freedom, but maintaining the nationalist ideology, create an unfortunate consequence: we become prejudiced towards and exclusive of “the other”. Frantz Fanon warned in The Wretched of the Earth that “if nationalism does not become humanism with programmes and practices that give it genuine social and political content, including real citizenship for all, it leads from national liberation to national chauvinism.” As a result, citizens “will be equally quick to insist that the foreigners go home to their country”.
This has unfortunately come true with the increase and consistency of xenophobic attacks. Our anger was used to divert us from confronting the corruption which has crippled us. The Messiah State, meant to liberate us from the greed of the World State, before their ethical fall.
Lockdown exposed the deep inequalities and structural violence within our society. According to Imraan Valodia and David Francis, from the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at Wits University, “lockdown has illuminated how the spatial, economic and social inequalities which were characteristic features of the apartheid period have persisted in post-apartheid South Africa.” We were confronted by how easily we blunted our humanism towards each other.
In May 2020 I wrote: “As a South African, your reality is determined by your socioeconomic level. If you are middle class, you suffer a threat to your autonomy and possibly your long-term financial independence. However, if you live hand to mouth, your basic needs are threatened and you starve. And herein lies the true rock and a hard place: finding the balance between lowering the curve of mass infection, and lowering the curve of impoverishment.”
In July 2021, we were exposed to the harsh reality of this imbalance. The contrast of the image of suburban men holding weapons around fires, provided with coffee and soup, to the image of a man arrested in front of his shack for looting nappies and food. The choice of these two images in light of many others is purposeful. One violent, interpersonal, heard, while the other, structural, ignored and silenced.
As Iron Maiden sang, “What you see, it’s not real, Those who know will not tell, All is lost, sold your souls, To this brave new world”.
Lockdown has accelerated us into a world in flux. Online meetings, hybrid learning — out of necessity we have embraced the Fourth Industrial Revolution, changing the landscape of opportunities and possibilities. Many have embraced this by starting new business ventures. We ventured financial emancipation by no longer depending on the employer through meaningless incentives, or chasing promotions within bottleneck organisational structures. The communal need for mental health care has been deafening on the airwaves. The irony of the lockdown is that through restricting our autonomy, it inadvertently forced many of us into braving our new skins of self-emancipation.
But what will happen when the pandemic ends? Will we be tempted to return to working environments that again restrict and micromanage us into conforming apathetic machines? Will we allow ourselves to re-sell our souls and become blinded by the apathy of economic inequality as long as we are on the right side of the dividing line? We gained something, and at the end of Covid, we could lose it again.
We lose our collective connectedness. Through lockdown we spent more time at home, being with our families, feeling human connection. Struggle and conflict bonded us, reminding us that we cannot survive alone. Collective struggle provides moments of compassion. When the struggle is no longer collective, then we are blinded to believe it is no longer our struggle.
In prosperity we become individualistic and selfish, concerned with our sandcastles of future prosperity, and created delusions of security in the form of suburban roadblocks. Compassion leaves and turns into charity. When we are concerned for the plights of our brothers and sisters in need, our concerns are not with the gross economic inequality still rife under our watch. Instead, we measure the gratitude of those subjected to our superiority, disguised as charity, in order to justify our prejudice.
We lose our self-emancipation. The state knows best, providing an umbilical cord of co-dependency. Co-dependency to our employers for financial security, to our government for solutions to inequalities, and to politicians to critically engage. When society failed us, we cut our umbilical cord. Will contentment tempt us to plug back into the matrix system? Co-dependency to an induna that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart?
The end of lockdown is an opportunity to think differently about our own emancipation. In the spirit of Sobukwe, it starts with our minds, finally addressing the toxic inferiority-superiority complex stunting our great country. For the historically privileged, to humble ourselves from interacting from a position of superiority — superiority served to disguise our shame through denial. Robbing us of the ethical richness to allow a humanistic perspective of responsibility and opportunity.
For the historically disadvantaged, patient with justified anger, to transform a brainwashing of inferiority towards people infused with dignity and pride. The pride of a provider bringing food and a home to their families. Of a nurturer raising up confident and innovative children free from the chains of the past.
South Africa is a sleeping giant. The effects of our trauma have worked as mass anaesthesia. But we have diversity and an ability to struggle in the face of adversity, which will serve us well to finally become the kind of ubuntu state that our pan-African fathers foresaw. DM