Opinionista Brett Herron 4 May 2020

Covid-19 pandemic will leave political parties less wriggle room in 2021 local elections

Local government elections in South Africa are to take place in 2021. The depth of social and economic inequality — which the Coronavirus pandemic is radically exposing — is going to put political parties under pressures they haven’t before experienced.

In about 18 months, South Africa is scheduled to hold local government elections. Whereas past elections have revolved around questionable service delivery, governance and perpetual promises of a better quality of life for all that never materialises, next year’s event will be seen through the lens of the coronavirus.

The pandemic’s impact is generally being measured in health and economic terms. In South Africa, its most telling impact could flow from the deeply rotten societal foundations it has exposed…

To some extent, it can be argued, the virus has done the nation what the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation described as a “ghastly favour” by underlining the extent of inequality we all knew existed, but have collectively done little to fix.

People without food cannot stay inside and starve. People who live in Wendy houses and shacks, on top of one another, cannot successfully observe social distancing regulations. How do you wash your hands continuously if you don’t have any water, and how should you maintain high standards of hygiene when your family shares a toilet with 20 others?

South Africa has misdiagnosed its greatest challenge over the past several years as corruption. Former President Jacob Zuma and friends are said to have stolen from the state and its companies. Until these charges are proven in court they will remain allegations. That they have stolen the national narrative is an incontrovertible fact.

Let’s be clear: There is no doubt that the less money stolen from the state, the more money is available to the state to spend righteously. But corruption is not to blame for the chasm in living standards between rich and poor. Corruption is not to blame for children in “world-class” Cape Town dying each year of easily treatable illnesses such as diarrhoea. Corruption is not to blame for gang-infested townships or gender-based violence — or disgraceful public transport, or under-educated school leavers…

Yes, we must demand functional and accountable law-enforcement agencies to stop politicians and bureaucrats from looting the state. But with much louder voices we should be demanding a change to the reality that the poor among us continue to live in conditions in which the rich would not keep their animals.

Until we develop a nation in which all people feel dignified and acknowledged as equal human beings, we’ll remain a fundamentally imbalanced society — perpetually at risk, insecure and unsustainable.

I have spent much of the coronavirus lockdown attending to crises relating to hunger, food and water insecurity, and overzealous police and City of Cape Town law-enforcement officials. It has been a deeply disturbing experience. When doctors and scientists have spoken of vulnerability in the context of Covid-19, the vulnerability they refer to generally relates to the aged and those with underlying health issues such as diabetes. In the South African context, you can add the millions of citizens (and non-citizens) whose daily lived reality is one of extreme hardship and poor nutrition.

From the outset, when — less than two months ago — South Africa’s first coronavirus case was identified, politicians and socially conscious people have raised the alarm about the virus’ potential to cause mayhem if set loose among the people living cheek-by-jowl in squalid circumstances.

Raising the alarm is good. And the swift lockdown imposed by government has by all accounts played a pivotal role in slowing the surge of the virus, enabling our health system to prepare. If the next stages of the pandemic are equally well-managed — and well-observed by the citizenry — perhaps we’ll avoid the doomsday scenarios that many experts (and non-experts) have sketched.

However, what we won’t be able to avoid much longer is addressing the radically lopsided nature of our society. Everyone’s saying that things may never return to how they were in the past, but what does that mean in South Africa?

This is where next year’s local government elections enter the fray. I’m no Nostradamus, and Covid-19 has by all accounts just begun its journey across the country… But I anticipate that the depth of the social and economic pit that we’re in — which the pandemic is radically exposing — is going to put political parties under pressures they haven’t before experienced.

Many, including the president, expressed disappointment on Freedom Day at the country’s progress in rectifying the imbalances created by our past. 

Few will argue that we haven’t made the progress we might have. The proof of the pudding is in the puddles of sewage, unemployment, insecurity and destitution that millions of poor people must daily navigate.

Now is not the time for political debate. But when the time comes, and it’s not far away, I expect the pandemic will have left little wriggle-room for old party posturing and promises. Perhaps we’ll look back at the 2021 election as the threshold of our political maturity. We’ll be 27 years old. A good enough age to be settling down. DM

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