In South Africa, social distancing to bring down COVID-19 infections takes a decidedly local shape. In a racialized society, it manifests primarily as white melancholia and black Afro-pessimism.
More than a week ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a two-week extension to South Africa’s 21-day lockdown. Many South Africans took to social media to express relief for this announcement and appreciation for the president, with the word “leadership” being bandied about. What this sentiment suggests is that Ramaphosa’s shiniest hour is arriving as the world enters a blinding darkness. It wasn’t hard for Ramaphosa to rise to this occasion, considering the low standards being set by the likes of Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and Donald Trump. In this moment of profound disorientation, leadership has been depoliticized–people aren’t looking for leaders to hold accountable, but for a figurehead to tell them convincingly that “things will be okay.”
What does it even mean for things to be okay during a systemic crisis? The first casualty in an unprecedented crisis such as this one is any standard for measuring what it means to be handling the crisis well. At first, the lockdown strategy seemed doable in South Africa, provided one’s fingers were tightly crossed of course. More than three weeks have passed, and although it was arguably necessary, it has revealed the extent to which South African society was in some keyways ill-equipped for it. What it has revealed, to be more exact, is that there is no South African society to speak of in the first place.
To date, scant measures to protect South Africa’s poor and working class have been taken. Compared to the rest of the world, South Africa is one of the stingiest relative to other middle income countries such as Mexico, Turkey, and even Brazil in introducing measures to mitigate the lockdown’s effects on its poor and vulnerable. A proposal to increase South Africa’s child support grant as a means of effectively distributing urgent, additional income to precarious households has been before Ramaphosa’s cabinet for weeks, but they’ve faltered. Reportedly, finance minister Tito Mboweni is the one insisting on keeping the public purse tightly closed, hammering an outdated dogma of fiscal prudence (an article of faith in that ministry and the treasury since a few years after the end of apartheid) that appears to be successfully subduing his colleagues into paralysis.
Amidst all this, citizens continue to face brutality from the police and soldiers, who subject residents in townships and informal settlements to cruel and unusual punishments on the streets, and have now begun carrying out forced evictions under the pretense of a “de-densification” program. The state has so far responded to these facts with a shrugging indifference. Although the media continues to report on countless incidents of brutality, Ramaphosa—who initially presented the role of security as one to “save lives”—has so far failed to reign in the bellicosity of Minister of Police Bheki Cele, who continues to encourage a heavy-handed approach to law enforcement.
South Africans are historically primed to overlook these failings. The forever ruling ANC government has always fashioned itself as beyond reproach, and who blames them. They have, after all, managed to get away with murder successfully on one too many occasions. One of these, lest we forget, is our own president’s role in instigating the killings of 34 miners at the Marikana mine in 2012. Now, the government clings single-mindedly to a narrow logic of emergency, one pre-emptively absolving them from the consequences of their own irresponsible governance. Any shortcoming becomes justified through the rhetoric of “sacrifice” that Ramaphosa has ensured features in every address to the nation. But just how far should these sacrifices go?
As of writing it is difficult to have hopes that the crisis will prompt a more progressive direction in our politics. Already weakened by years of disorganization, the South African left now has to confront an era of demobilization. What hope is there for mass politics if the masses can’t take to the streets, the arena where it has most power and visibility? Although civil society has quickly coalesced around forming coalitions, to ensure that the interests of the vulnerable are protected and the state is held accountable (the most visible of these is the COVID-19 People’s Coalition), the role played here is a necessary albeit terminally limited one: to serve as a check and balance on the state rather than to be a vehicle for its transformation. In other cases, it has once again fallen on civil society to do the government’s job through organizing food parcels for the poor and other such measures.
The fighting battleground is now social media, the assembly points WhatsApp and Zoom. For the time being, politics has to be replaced by “raising awareness.” The audience for these pleas are the government and the South African public, the message simply being to not forget about the poor and needy. Protests become petitions, songs and chants are likes and retweets. If social media is a reliable barometer of public opinion then, a surprising number of South Africans have cheered some of the lockdown’s harshest restrictions. Many have supported the alcohol and tobacco prohibitions on purely moralistic grounds, and at their worst have already defined a troublesome “them”—the millions of South Africans in crowded living conditions who, spilling over into the streets, “get what’s coming to them.” Their daily plight under the lockdown generates not compassion, but contempt.
Whether COVID-19 has dealt neoliberalism its final death blow remains to be seen. It’s shadow, however, still looms in the crisis’s main injunction for people to “stay at home.” In South Africa, this is still viewed in the mainstream as ultimately an individual responsibility, hiding from view the limitations of circumstance faced by many, and the government’s clear lack of a strategy to ease these limitations—at the moment it’s too little, and by the time they’re ramped up it’ll be too late. This is not just a humanitarian concern, but affects the success of quarantine measures which are likely to continue periodically into the future. Compliance has to be made possible, not simply demanded. Although, for those who can comfortably stay at home, compliance has become a glamorized act, producing a new collective subject of sorts—a community of the great indoors, of law-abiding citizens, juxtaposed against the law-breaking.
The cultural artifacts of this community are already in production, and consist mostly of viral TikTok memes, Instagram live-streams and commentary about Netflix shows (the flavor of this month is the docu-series Tiger King). Here the goal is simply to distract, to soothe and placate, to foster belonging simply through content that is “relatable.” And what can be more relatable than millions of people around the world being in their homes at the same time? Make no mistake, the togetherness felt by the privileged in this moment is illusory, a community formed out of the precise lack of it, the inability of us to take part in that basic human action of socializing. As the political theorist Anton Jager recently tweeted: “The fact that we collectively agreed to call it ‘social’ instead of ‘physical distancing’ shows we were all already secretly yearning for the pod.” Put differently, we have normalized our anti-social desires.
But this anti-social tendency takes a decidedly South African shape. In our racialized society, this form is in white melancholia and black Afro-pessimism. This phenomenon is perhaps best exemplified by the South African government’s decision to ban dog walking during the lockdown. A fierce debate was unleashed, wherein walking dogs was viewed as a symbol of whiteness. Some relished in the fact that this could no longer happen, while others lamented the loss of an enjoyable, recreational activity. A similar debate followed the food retailer Woolworths’ decision to ban its popular rotisserie chicken, following a warning from government that prepared food should no longer be sold.
In manically defending these items of everyday suburban life, white South Africans reveal their self-imposed position in South African politics—that of defense. That longstanding complaint, that white South Africans are always having to justify their existence and habits, in fact betrays a sense of guilt and responsibility—of which one wonders, for what exactly? Yet, rather than prompting action, the responsibility to do anything to transform this position is suppressed all the same, since it is conveyed fundamentally on the basis of race—the one fact people hopelessly do not control.
On the other hand, a black Afro-pessimism is poised in relation to and depends on white melancholia. This takes issue not with generalized exploitation and domination, but rather with who appears not to be subjected to it. And so, it wants an equal distribution of repression instead of taking issue with it in the first place. For this reason, when an errant white woman was caught walking her dog by police in Cape Town, it was this that dominated the whole of social media for an extended period, with her imminent arrest and detention widely cheered. The logic of this, is one that thinks it impossible to create a non-racialized world, instead accepting as ontological fact the suffering of black people. The most we can hope for, is that this suffering is not mitigated, but inflicted also on others. These squabbles are at best middle class preoccupations, an intra-class war between the one of old, and a new or aspirant one.
The more important point, is that to focus too much on who isn’t suffering, means we too easily forget those actually suffering, and the important question of why they are suffering. To ask that question means to discover that this suffering can be changed. What the pandemic has exposed is how hollow our concern for the poor is. To think of the plight of poor South Africans as something to primarily be angry about, only entrenches an affective politics where what matters is how we feel about the issues facing us, and not what we collectively do about them. Righteous anger without a proper target quickly fizzles out into apathy. Compare the start of the lockdown, when social media was buzzing with viral images of squatter settlements with questions of how social distancing was supposed to happen there, to now being mostly indifferent to the continuing struggles of people living in those conditions. For instance, calls for the child support grant to be increased have been met largely with conservative tropes about the money being mis-used for drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.
To be sure, the mediatization of politics which has birthed this style of facile political engagement is nothing new. Indeed, the pandemic arrives just in time at the end of a decade of intense and emotive political activity, most of it online. At this juncture in most of the globe, the right is consolidating its power, with the progressive left in sharp decline after suffering a series of big, symbolic defeats; Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have been rejected whether by the electorate as a whole or in political party leadership contests. In South Africa, the verdict of our fiercest political struggle in recent history, the student movements of the mid-2010s, also seem apparent now. Fees have not fallen, but society’s political spirit and enthusiasm has.
And so, at the heart of pandemic politics, is the collective urge to withdraw. This urge has been in the making by years of neoliberalism which devastated social bonds by postulating that the individual competing for their interest is the only way for people to exist alongside one another, as isolated atoms. The social order here takes on an anarchic quality, as a nasty war of all against all. It is the sheer rootlessness of social identity which is being uncovered now, and in times of uncertainty makes a further retreat into the private realm seem all that we can do.
And this presents one of the gravest dangers of the status quo—that suspension means the suspension of interest in what happens around you. That the injunction “stay at home” becomes, as we are already seeing, a new iteration of that old South African pathology: “Stay at home and mind your own business.” During this, the pandemic is giving states in collaboration with profiteering communications companies the opportunity to strengthen technologies of surveillance, an indication that far from weakening them, the pandemic is strengthening ties between the state and capital. Already, Ramaphosa has enlisted donations from South Africa’s super rich towards a “Solidarity Fund,” and has adopted a business-centric approach in economic relief packages, paving the way for a new Covid corporatism where government and the private sector explicitly collaborate in managing and administering life as co-partners in governance.
Under our noses, Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe published regulations to the Mineral Petroleum and Resources Development Act which defines consultation with affected parties in ways falling short from the standard established by the Constitutional Court. Environment Minister Barbara Creecy has greenlighted the expansion of an Australian mine on South Africa’s West Coast. That this very pandemic is borne from ecological devastation is lost on our government.
We must insist on the possibility of politics again, to not withdraw, but to demand more—from the government and fellow citizens, and for everything to be subjected to vigorous democratic scrutiny rather than executive and technocratic fiat. It is here where historian Benjamin Fogel’s simple corrective is crucial: “That we embrace a collective hope for a better future as united subjects rather than isolated individuals.” Once again, to view political struggles in South Africa as framed only through race, has proved a dead-end, unable to grasp that the driving force of our inequalities is class, imbricated with race—and although the racial composition of our country is something that cannot be changed, we can work to abolish class divisions. It is this that can form the basis of a solidarity politics, towards a shared political goal that begins by insisting that there is an alternative: a society constructed in common without exploitation, domination and alienation.
Anything else risks giving impetus to what political psychology calls “the authoritarian personality.” After the horrors of World War II, critical theorists like Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno became interested in exploring the origins of fascism in democratic societies. What they found, was that the psychological patterns characteristic of this included a tendency to be on the lookout for people who violated laws, a disposition to think in rigid distinctions of good and bad, and the conviction that life is determined by occluded and irrational forces outside the person, outside their wishes and interests, and that the only possible happiness consists in submission to forces that can bring about order.
It is impossible to predict what comes next. But nothing good comes out of a society that mostly chooses to look away, where its population surrenders to the impossibility of change, lowers its expectations and lives by resignation. Our apartheid history means that we know this quite intimately. And it is in large part owing to the legacies from that which means we have no South African society to speak of. But we must insist again and again, on our ability to build one.