• Vusi Zion

From Natural Acts of God, To Unnatural Acts of Government

The Covid-19 pandemic – like a massive tectonic shift – has displaced the stability of the world. Including our country, and, like any earthquake, it's not only displaced the ground we thought was secure but has exposed even more dangerous fault-lines deep below the surface.

"Acts of God" (to use a term beloved of insurance policies) – like storms, droughts, floods and yes even deadly viruses – are a natural part of human existence. Warnings of impending Level 1o hurricanes, bush fires in Australia that quickly flare into unmanageable infernos, tsunamis in South-East Asia and disastrous infestations of locusts (as East Africa is currently experiencing) strike randomly. When they occur, we have to accept that these things are uncontrollable and often unpredictable and must simply do what we can to start building all over again. We have the comfort of an angry or vengeful higher power to blame. Placation is called for. If we prostrate ourselves, plead for clemency and promise to amend our ways, we feel as if we have a fair (or at least, fairer) chance of a happy outcome.

However, disasters that stem directly from human guile, sloth and lack of integrity are a different kind of phenomenon, and not as easy to ascribe to celestial, mythical, religious or even primordial forces. Their origin is far less cryptic, far less spontaneous and adds intolerable insult to injury. Into this category fall wars, acts of terrorism and criminally negligent handling of catastrophes that compound the problem. Think of the mismanagement of self-styled messiah David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of almost all the inhabitants, rather than their rescue. Or the stupendously evil handling of the SS Titanic's sinking, where the (illegally few) lifeboats on board were reserved for the First-Class passengers, while hundreds of passengers in Steerage were locked inside their berths and left to drown. Or Marikana, where armed police opened fire on helpless individuals. Or Esidimeni, where arrogant bureaucracy saw fit to treat vulnerable (and expendable) human beings like garbage, with the sanction of rubber stamps and titles.

Now we have the Coronavirus, which broke out in Wuhan, China. Within weeks, it reached Europe, then North America and Australia. And then our shores, where it found us – like the rest of the world – wanting. And by no means on in PPE and healthcare facilities.

In our 26-year democratic history, we've seen several national disasters that have left us reeling. However, in almost all of them, we've seen South Africans (often from the most unexpected quarters) showing the best in them and behaving heroically. At present, we see astonishing courage from essential frontline healthcare workers risking their own lives to assist others and a plethora of community-led relief movements doing their utmost to provide basic foodstuffs to starving people.

Tragically, what we're also seeing are the yawning gaps between the haves and have-nots in SA. We're seeing the poverty that's usually hidden behind the bustle of daily life. We're seeing families suddenly deprived of the right to make a living and put food on their tables. We're seeing communities where the lack of basic facilities like running water, adequate housing and electricity – dating back to pre-apartheid days and never addressed – make a mockery of lockdown regulations like handwashing, social distancing and obedience. Above all, we're seeing those responsible for their continued existence, even after 26 years of liberation and a Bill of Rights that promised equality of opportunity and access to shelter, education, food and work for all.

The Madiba dream has ended – and what we've awoken to is an ugly, unforgivable reality. The "invisible enemy" of the Coronavirus, so named by President Cyril Ramaphosa, isn't affecting all South Africans the same way. Far from a great equalizer, it's a great revealer of disparity. What's more, it's exposing the fact that far more people in this country are likely to die of malnutrition-based diseases like tuberculosis than of Covid-19. One would have to be absolute denial or wholly removed from the daily accounts of people driven to financial ruin and desperation pre-democracy are bearing almost the entire brunt of the virus. While our President and his Cabinet dispense platitudes in national addresses, they're talking to a rarefied audience of people with enough food, shelter and other resources to get by. They're not talking to people roaming township streets searching in garbage bins for food, or mothers defying lockdown regulations to hustle a cupful of mealie-meal for their children, or fathers standing in line for woefully inadequate food parcels (if and when these aren't grabbed by others first or filled with sub-standard, maggot-infested products), or grandparents trying to disguise their emaciated torsos behind blankets. It seems our esteemed President and his cohorts have no idea of what life truly means in Mzansi. Or, worse, that they don't want to know.

To be fair, Ramaphosa is by no means the only state leader is reading the Vodi-19 situation. Look at American President Donald Trump, who in many opinions is not only unfit to rule but certifiable, making ludicrous statement s(press briefing after press briefing) about detergent injections, non-existent ventilators and face masks, pulling out of a concerted global scientific effort to fund a real vaccine on the deranged grounds that the World Health Organizations is "favouring China "and has now embarked on a witch-hunt against China itself, as if it matters how or where the virus started. Trump's only concern is using the virus is a campaign grandstand to look like the "good guy" who's putting America first"- a tactic which has backfired catastrophically – and is completely indifferent to the damage he's doing to his nation.

Then there's Boris Johnson, blustering, vainglorious elitist who only started taking measures to protect the UK when it was too late, and the virus had already struck. And Russia's Vladimir Putin, who also completely missed the boat.

Against all this, it would be irresponsible to single out Ramaphosa for myopic leadership. While his speedy reaction to the pandemic has, correctly, been commended internationally, what's less admirable is the license he's given some of his Cabinet to behave like sheriffs. This, together with the glaring oversight of SA's starving millions, is the most dangerous spin-off of his Covid-19 policy. We have a police chief playing cops and robbers, threatening adults as if they were children. We have an army and police force who are untrained in crowd control and are trigger-and truncheon-happy, humiliating and assaulting citizens recklessly. We have Cabinet ministers making arbitrary, capricious decisions which fly in the face of all economic logic, such a banning the sale of tobacco and liquor, which would add R 1,5 billion to our desperately struggling revenue. That would go a long way towards preventing the need to take loans from world bodies, for which our children and grandchildren will still be paying in decades to come.

Ramaphosa's imposition of necessary health and safety regulations to ensure low virus transmission rates and facilitate optimal preparedness for the health system has been exemplary. However, the debate also rages on regarding the reliability of reported cases of the virus around our provinces, given the logistical challenges of testing and the many thousands of people who have symptoms but are managing them without intervention. Or who simply aren't prepared to mention them because of stigmatization and the very real fear of being bullied into the quarantine while their dependents are left to fend for themselves. SA, like other countries, has very few controllable options. Making personnel and health facilities available is a crucial consideration. But so is ensuring that our defunct economy can stagger to its feet again at some point and attempt to function.

The overriding reality is that the lockdown has cleared away the noise and distraction which usually disguise the economic fault-lines and inequalities in this country. With each new day comes news of more businesses shutting down and more people losing their jobs, primarily the same people who've been on the ropes of this underperforming economy, as Ramaphosa acknowledged in his address to Parliament in February this year and echoed by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in his Budget Speech.

The Department of Correctional Services is facing the crisis of overcrowding in prisons where thousands of offenders are in danger of contracting the virus. This has been compounded by the spike in detainees (most of them for petty offences, like being outdoors in contravention of lockdown regulations or buying be=a beer or packet of cigarettes) since the lockdown. Mboweni's stimulus rescue plan peaking at around R800 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are terrifying since they'll further advance the national budget deficit to 14%.

Previously disadvantaged individuals in this country are the most vulnerable not only because of poverty but because of their higher risks of diabetes, tuberculosis and other immunocompromising illnesses. These are the people who are overlooked in that now-dreaded preamble, "My fellow South Africans…".

Suddenly, social issues that were irreparable and intolerable some five months ago – including water, schools, food, healthcare, power supply, etc. – are receiving stimulus packages and debt breaks with millions of rands available for improvement. The deployment of JoJos is straight out of the typical playbook of political leadership handing out emergency "supplies to demonstrate the political will to serve the needs of the people, but it's too diffuse and too irregular to make any real dent in the problems plaguing our communities. The same applies to the generous funding meant to aid the growing number of businesses going under and the rising unemployment number. The cost of the funding will hit devastating, crippling force further down the line.

The praise heaped on Ramaphosa's leadership during Covid-19 obscures the reality of inequality. When people are arrested for trying to sell food, and beaten, humiliated and even killed by uniformed thugs, something's very wrong.

What will come of this disaster? The World Bank estimates that global poverty will increase for the first time since 1998, while the United Nations expects about half a billion people (8% of the World's population) to be plunged into destitution largely because of unemployment brought on by the Coronavirus lockdowns. Both organizations concede that it's the Developing World (notably Africa) which will be hit the hardest hit. At a recent press conference, Ramaphosa suggested that South Africans have an opportunity to rebuild "virtual bridges" to catapult our people to a better life. He also appealed to young people to come forward and put new ideas on the table to help our economy turn around. His speech gave the illusion of an equitable status quo. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of our citizens will be left to manage the fallout alone, with no support, infrastructure or access to aid.

It seems that the visions embodied by those who led our nation to freedom and entrusted to our ruling party, have long been abandoned. Those who try to wear both a revolutionary beret and capitalists' suit at the same time are in fact to wearing either of them. They are naked emperors.

To this, I say: not yet Uhuru!

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