College of Humanities

Professor Saleem Badat
Professor Saleem Badat

The COVID-19 Crisis: From Winter of Despair to Spring of Hope?

We currently live, in the words of the memorable opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, in ‘the worst of times’, a ‘season of darkness’. Yet, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, can there be a ‘spring of hope’, an ‘age of wisdom’ where we have ‘everything before us’? 

In the current epoch of globalisation, with extensive and rapid movement of people, ideas, information, capital, services and technology across countries, the world has shrunk through the rapid increase in the speed of air and other travel, the revolution in communications, the internet and huge computerised information systems. At the same time, globalisation has brought with it growing inequalities within and between nations whilst affording opportunities for the few.

Despite much greater contact across regions, nations, cultures and languages, we have witnessed a closing of minds and hearts and the negation of important human values. There is an all too evident lack of respect for human dignity, for people who are different from ourselves and the trampling of their human rights and a seeming rejection of the idea of the oneness of humanity.

The idea of a common public good nationally and globally and the ideal of everyone leading rich, rewarding and productive, healthy and secure lives free from hunger is eschewed in favour of the rich, who already monopolise an obscene share of wealth, and pursue self-interest, more profits and more wealth.

Almost everywhere, governments rule in the interests of big corporations like Amazon, preside over massive environmental destruction and promote cultures of unbridled individualism, survival of the fittest, greed, corruption, conspicuous consumption and crass materialism While the rich flaunt their wealth, their hired help pour scorn on redistributive policies to advance a more egalitarian society.

Populist right wing nationalists selfishly focus on their countries and people alone (“America First”, “Make America Great Again”) and stoke destructive economic, political and religious fundamentalism, intolerance and prejudice.

Instead of ‘development as human freedom’, as ‘a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy’, as Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist puts it, development is reduced to ‘growth of gross national product, industrialization, or technological advance’.

Many countries have become less humane and just, more inhospitable, less safe and more insecure places, especially for workers, colonised and black people, refugees and, often, women. The fractures of class, “race”, gender, disability and geography and their link with wealth, income, living conditions and opportunities are plain for all to see.

This reality predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet judging by the social media that bombards us daily it is only now, when we are all challenged by the pandemic, a lockdown and its grave economic and social consequences, that some middle-class people in South Africa appear to have become aware of the inequality and poverty that stalks our land – which have been glaring features for a century.

The lockdown is, of course, causing great economic, social and personal hardship. More pain will follow through business closures, job losses, difficulties in paying bonds, car loans, school fees and the like. But not everyone is affected in the same way. How, in what ways and to what extent we cope is strongly determined by class, “race”, gender, geography, age, whether we are employed, the work that we do and whether we receive social grants.

Some economists and business owners demand that government end the lockdown. They point to the hardships experienced by those who are poor – largely, but not exclusively, black South Africans. The same poor, who with no or little safety nets, crammed into RDP houses and shanties and reliant on daily or weekly shopping, are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

Their newfound concern for the poor is welcome – but also galling and hypocritical. For they are usually silent about inequality and poverty, living wages and the lack of opportunities for those who are poor. And they also strident in opposing a universal basic income grant as a right and national health insurance for all South Africans. It remains to be seen how strong and consistent their newfound concern for the poor will be.

Imagine if the long called for basic income grant and the associated infrastructure for its provision were in place. Our ability to target support to those desperately in need during this time would be much simpler. But our new political and economic elites continue to balk at ensuring that those in need receive support from the public fiscus.

A former finance minister claimed that he wished to discourage a welfare mentality. The reality is that unemployment in South Africa is not only cyclical but also structural. Under current economic policies a proportion of South Africans, through no fault of their own, will never find employment. It is cynical to pretend otherwise. It is social grants, limited as they are, that prevent more people from dying from malnutrition, as they did under apartheid.

Imagine too if the long and much needed national health insurance was up and running. Our health system would potentially be much better equipped to serve the needs of all South Africans. Instead, we must tackle the pandemic with resources and facilities highly skewed towards the privileged, affluent suburbs and urban areas.

In Dickens’ terms, the global COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social consequences is ‘the worst of times’, ‘the season of darkness’, ‘the winter of despair’. And yet, this crisis could also become ‘the age of wisdom’, ‘the season of light’, ‘the spring of hope’, a time when ‘we have everything before us’.

The current crisis requires South Africans who are genuinely committed to social justice to forge a new imagination, to see through the storm that is still gathering and to envision what can lie beyond. It should be a space for new ideas and for embracing the values of social solidarity, human development and social justice. It should enable us to think about and forge a different kind of country and world.

This can only happen if, as a broad movement of workers, the unemployed, women, youth, professionals and students, we put an end to the soulless economic and social policies that have been dominant globally since the 1970s and for the past 25 years in South Africa. Policies that have put profits before people, the rich before others, growth before the environment, economic calculations above social justice and political power before meaningful democratic participation.

Whether this happens, whether amidst these ‘worst of times’ we move into ‘the spring of hope’ depends on whether, as government, civil society, social movements, organisations, universities and citizens, we have the will and courage to re-think and re-make our society on the basis of a different logic and compass.

One multi-billionaire captain of industry has been referenced prominently and approvingly on social media about the need to “reset” how we do things. It is unlikely that the “reset” he has in mind will create a South Africa that is humane and just and that ensures a “better life for all.”

The new logic that must guide us must prioritise people’s needs and development and social justice and make them the centre of all our actions. Instead of self-serving rhetoric on ‘radical economic transformation’ it must, in deeds, progressively eliminate the obscene inequalities, poverty and inequities that prevail. This means a new economic model and approach to how we organise and distribute goods, services and opportunities.

It must understand that we are custodians of our planet for future generations and abandon reckless environmental degradation in the name of “growth” and “progress”. The new logic must value knowledge and education as cornerstones of human development and support our schools, colleges and universities to cultivate knowledgeable, skilled and decent citizens.

The new logic also requires citizens and activists across society to work and act together to collectively prise open the power of economic and political elites who have been closed to needs other than those of their own.

Saleem Badat is Research Professor in the College of Humanities at UKZN, former Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University and past head of the advisory body to the Minister of Higher Education and Training.