COVID-19 in SA: A Rich Person’s Hell is a Poor Person’s Norm
Inequality is easy to ignore if it doesn't affect you. COVID-19, not so much.
This essay is the first in OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.
As a South African TV political satirist, the most common question I get asked during COVID-19 is: 'People are dying, how can you still tell jokes?' The reply to this is of course: "This is South Africa. People have been dying the entire time."
Yet, for many middle-class white South Africans, this is the first time they have been truly inconvenienced and even, gasp, had their freedoms limited! The reaction has been comical.
Inequality is easy to ignore if it doesn't affect you. COVID-19 however, affects poor and rich and has exposed the fragility of white comfort in South Africa. You can't catch poverty because you didn't wash your hands. You can, however, catch COVID-19.
So how did we get here?
A fractured world view and media bubble:
White South Africans never had the riot act read to us regarding our place in our sordid history when Apartheid ended, as happened, for example, in Germany post World War 2.
In fact, radio host and comedian Tumi Morake was accused of hate speech in 2017, after she compared proponents of Apartheid to bullies on a playground during a broadcast. Her views were met with an almost incomprehensible amount of outrage, for so obvious a statement.
It is a case study for Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge: What is truth? Power decides what is sayable, and that is how we decide on truth.
Then there's the filter bubble. You know the one: it's how white, and middle class, South Africans ringfence their experience—to click unfollow, to change the channel, which media houses of course to respond to, as per the above example. It's not just one's virtual experience: because Apartheid's spatial legacy is very much still intact—poor people literally live far away—you simply don't have to face what the other half is going through. The average middle-class white South African can live in South Africa with very little clue about what is going on in it, as a country.
Take a certain elderly (white) relative of mine—he has never been into politics, but amidst the current Covid-19 hysteria he suddenly is fascinated by the stuff. Like many novices, he grabs facts out of context and brandishes them as final truth, with too little nuance or historical perspective. It's a mix of political awakening and that old Apartheid bogeyman of "swartgevaar"—the fear of the Black and terrifying other. He'll read about 'radical economic transformation', the political buzz phrase politicians have been brandishing for years and assume this means South Africa is about to be torn apart. He won't see the phrase as a cross between a genuine desire to transform SA for the better and something politicians say instead of actually effecting change.
For this relative, as with so many white South Africans, a self-referencing media bubble, years of racism and having no Black friends means he has little perspective.
Seeing your life and view of South Africa as culturally relative requires you to take in perspectives other than your own. For example the minibus taxi industry, a product of apartheid spatial planning, being allowed to operate at 100% capacity means yet again Black lives will not be valued, in a country where human rights are entirely a function of who is seen as more human. My relative is unlikely to have this discussion forced on him via his preferred media outlets. In fact, if it is brought up, it'll be about how unfair it is that taxi commuters "get" to break lockdown gathering guidelines.
The unequal impact of lockdown:
In an unequal society, scarce resources go to an entitled elite, whose experience of pain is limited to not being able to jog. They experience this as tortuous oppression, while those who actually are being oppressed remain unheard, thanks to our divided social and media experience. Many poor people caught walking outside of South Africa's lockdown curfew have been punished with punitive, demeaning harshness, and in some cases even death, while the rich seem to get a slap on the wrist. Entitlement, race, class, ethnicity, gender and media meet in how fairness is defined during lockdown. One person's hell is another person's norm.
Take what's driving our major conversations as a country. Thanks in part to Covid-19, predictions are that South Africa may be closing in on 50% unemployment, on the expanded definition, with a recent survey finding that poor, Black people in the main were affected by COVID-related job losses. South Africa's recent IMF loan may include a debt ceiling along with moves towards austerity in our national budget. Read: cuts to social spending that would affect the poor most.
But of course the debate has been driven around middle-class and white concerns time and time again: the bans on cigarettes, alcohol, and at one point, not being able to purchase flip-flops (sandals). When rising unemployment and the plight of the poor are referenced, particularly in mainstream media, it's usually to make a point about… cigarettes, alcohol and flip-flops.
What those with money care about is what gets the attention.
How we get out of this:
The Financial Times of London's editorial board recently called for a new social contract. The current global economic system, which denies everyone access to basic healthcare and nutrition, needs to change. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also called for a revised 'social compact', which should be seen both positively along with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The good news is that the South African government has made moves towards implementing a basic income grant, and ramped up the social grants system, albeit by the small amount of R350 a month, to those not previously covered. It's worth noting our grant system is one of the most sophisticated in the world. While there is often a lack of capacity to deliver these grants, as well as cases of corruption, it's a step in the right direction towards a vision of a South Africa where we care for all who live in it.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has made the false advertising of the Rainbow Nation deal slightly more apparent. Could this be the needed step to creating a new deal? We hope so. On the bright side, my older relative has started reading books on racism. Perhaps more middle class white South Africans should follow suit.
Conrad Koch is a double Emmy-nominated satirist and a social anthropologist. He does live shows and TV work on politics and race, and his most famous character, Chester Missing, is a household name in South Africa.
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