Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Werner Hills
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Werner Hills

Just over a week ago, Julius Malema’s EFF roused itself from its lockdown sabbatical.

After weeks spent swotting seminal texts for its online book club – including, recently, The Communist Manifesto – the party leadership surfaced to concern itself for a moment with a spectre haunting SA: that of white monopoly capital.

In a virtual press conference Malema, SA’s Breitling-wearing Everyman, railed against the lifting of the lockdown to level 3. “We are led by fools, non-thinkers and people who are sitting on top of their brains,” he said, before urging workers to stay home. “If this white economy collapses, let it collapse. If we are going to die of hunger, let us rather die with our boots on than dying protecting the white monopoly economy.”

You can’t fault his logic in its entirety. And it did draw some support. Initially, at least, the effortlessly insincere mayor of Ekurhuleni, Mzwandile “I will resign if Cyril is elected” Masina, seemed quite taken with the sentiment, advocating his own version of economic collapse by “nationalising the commanding heights of the economy”.

But as myopic as their longer-term visions may be, both are underpinned by a valid central concern: decades of political freedom in SA have done little to unwind the structural inequalities that consign the majority of South Africans to penury and expose them to the systemic violence that accompanies economic exclusion.

So it was surprising, on Sunday, when President Cyril Ramaphosa, once a staunch supporter of the capitalist economy, told a meeting of the SA National Editors Forum that “we have been operating under an economy which has been colonial and racist”, before going on to advocate “a new economy” based, of course, on an increasingly threadbare “social compact”.

It was yet another of those moments that makes you wonder where Ramaphosa has been hiding for the 26 years in which his party has controlled the economy. Tabula rasa.

To get a snapshot of your own level of privilege, it’s worth checking out the Income Check tool from UCT’s Southern Africa Labour & Development Research Unit (Saldru). You simply enter your household’s take-home income, estimate where you think this places you on the earnings continuum, and watch as your illusion of being a member of the middle class evaporates.

For example, a combined after-tax income of R30,000 for a family of three makes for a monthly distribution per person of R10,000. That’s a bigger amount than roughly 94% of the population earns, by Saldru’s estimate. Half of the people in SA earn R1,166 a month or less on this scale. That’s a whisker away from the upper-bound monthly poverty line (R1,227). And, by Saldru’s measure, a quarter of the population lives on the food poverty line (R561 a month).

A pandemic fuelled by inequality

What does this have to do with Covid-19, you ask? Well, the pandemic isn’t simply a mirror that reflects society’s fault lines; it’s a magnifying glass that’s growing them ever larger. And it’s becoming clearer as the world burns.

It’s a point made with frightening clarity in this free-to-read article in The Washington Post.

“People are focused on policing,” Brookings Institution fellow Andre M Perry is quoted as saying. “But this is much broader. This is about a fatigue of policy violence in all areas of life.”

Perry is commenting, of course, on the protests that have shaken the US in the wake of the senseless killing of George Floyd by white policeman Derek Chauvin. “There’s nothing that says you don’t belong in an economy more than a police officer shooting you dead in the street,” Perry says. “It is a symbol of exclusion.”

The article goes on to quantify the effects of this exclusion. For example, in Minneapolis, the city in which Floyd was killed, black households’ median income is $38,200, against $85,000 for white households; in Washington DC, out-of-work black residents outnumber white ones six to one; across the US, white households earn about 10 times more than black ones ($171,000 against $17,150); in New York 32% of black residents own homes – less than half the percentage of whites; and in San Francisco 28% of black residents have college degrees, against 61% of whites.

These cleavages cut across income, housing, employment, education – life chances. They’re structural, systemic and, for the disempowered, largely inescapable.

It’s clear that black Americans are also disproportionately affected by Covid-19, in terms of both health and economic outcomes.

As the article points out, data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention suggests the mortality rate among black Americans is higher; they’re more likely to work in the sectors hit hardest by the virus (hospitality, for example) or to be engaged in frontline work that puts them more at risk (in grocery stores or transportation); and April statistics showed the unemployment rate for black Americans increased 16.7% against 14.2% for whites.

It’s a situation that led a group of infectious disease experts at the University of Washington to write an open letter endorsing the nationwide protests: “Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of Covid-19 on black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”

In the two days the letter was open for public support, it attracted more than 1,200 signatures (the creators shut it down after the alt-right, unsurprisingly, entered the comments thread). The letter can be read here.

This article from Slate provides one of the few rundowns I’ve seen on this particular story.

The SA experience

Of course, in SA there’s arguably not the same clear causal line between race and those members of the security forces perpetrating violence. But the targets are the same: poor black residents who tend to lack both voice and economic access.

It’s an awful irony that they’re made vulnerable to acts of direct violence by the structural reality of their lived experience (Stellenbosch University’s Lindy Heinecken explores the typologies of violence in SA in this article on The Conversation Africa website).

Without access to the levers of economic power, their access to housing, employment, education and health care is compromised. They’re left vulnerable in the usual course of events, but more so in the face of Covid-19.

There’s no doubt that something has to change, that SA needs a turn to inclusion, and fast. And Ramaphosa did this week announce some plans around economic reform – though, as usual, they seem long on idealism and short on detail.

It’s just a pity it’s taken 26 years and a pandemic for the government to wake up.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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