The pandemic has pushed the state towards effective action, but this is simultaneoulsy taking both repressive and potentially progressive forms.
In South Africa, and around the world, old certainties, many of them already a little brittle, are rapidly crumbling. The velocity of the changes taking place in the state, the economy and society are extraordinary. In recent days all kinds of writers, including many on the right, have cited Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s observation that, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
None of us know how the South African government’s Covid-19 lockdown will unfold, how long it will continue and what society will look like when it is lifted. But already we can see contradictory tendencies. What French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the right hand of the state, including the police and other organisations of armed men available to the state, has been massively strengthened. There was never a serious attempt to make a decisive break with colonial forms of policing at the end of apartheid and our police service, and other groups of armed men operating through or within the broad ambit of the state, are simply not equipped to undertake a progressive social function. On the contrary, corruption, brutality, illegality and sadism are widespread, along with a set of ugly prejudices such as sexism, xenophobia, hostility to people organised outside of the ruling party, and the like.
From the police officer demanding a bribe from a migrant shopkeeper to keep trading to militarised raids on buildings in which Chinese people live or work, or the crude xenophobia of Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, the right hand of the state has frequently mediated its conduct through chauvinism rather than the law or scientifically informed considerations with regard to public health.
However, there is also a significant degree to which what Bourdieu called the left hand of the state has been strengthened. It is often argued that amid the dismal failures of the ANC in areas like housing, employment and gender-based violence, its one shining achievement has been the roll-out of treatment for people living with HIV. Although the struggle that won this huge social gain, a gain that has kept millions of people alive and in good health, has ebbed in recent years, it left a considerable “intellectual sediment”, to borrow a phrase from revolutionary leader and thinker Rosa Luxemburg. That progressive intellectual sediment is now a significant force in shaping responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in the state and may continue to have wider influence with regard to healthcare.
We’ve also witnessed rapid gains in areas where stasis and rot had seemed permanent. For 25 years, the state has failed to provide adequate water to millions of people living in shack settlements. Suddenly, in a matter of days, taps have been fixed or installed and water tanks provided. This progress has been extraordinarily rapid and shows that the failures of the past 25 years were not consequent to objective limits on budgets or bureaucratic processes but, rather, a simple lack of political will. Now that people have seen what is possible, it will not be easy for the state to revert to the old forms of contempt to which impoverished black people have been subjected.
There is also what appears to be a small step towards opposing the impunity that has long been guaranteed to senior members of the ruling party for incompetence, crude forms of populist posturing and various kinds of scurrilous conduct. In this context, the decision to place Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on special leave has been widely welcomed. But in this regard, developments are also contradictory. A minister such as Minister of Police Bheki Cele, whose enthusiastic attraction to authoritarianism is seriously alarming, does not appear to have been subject to any form of democratic restraint.
There are similarly contradictory tendencies in the elite public sphere. Some commentators see the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to push through measures that will lessen social control over capital. Others are embracing the prospect of the arrival of the International Monetary Fund in the Union Buildings. But there are also potentially promising discussions being had about how to use existing funds and the existing infrastructure around grants and unemployment insurance for new forms of social solidarity, and some interesting ideas about new forms of macroeconomic policy aimed at bailing out society in the context of mass impoverishment and rapidly escalating retrenchments.
When a crisis makes the established ways of doing things unsustainable, it is often those who are best organised or most effectively able to shape what Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called the “common sense” of society who are best able to shape the resolution of the crisis. But collective action requires assembly, the public manifestation of the strength of people resolved to hold a shared position and disruption.