Guest Column

South Africa beyond Covid-19 | Nicole Fritz: Striving toward a more just and equitable society

2020-05-12 18:57
Diepsloot residents queue for food parcels. None of our lives are arbitrary, says the writer. (Gallo Images, Sharon Seretlo)

Diepsloot residents queue for food parcels. None of our lives are arbitrary, says the writer. (Gallo Images, Sharon Seretlo)

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What the virus has shown clearly is that deliberate injustice and its effects and injustice done without deliberation - arbitrarily - work together to compound suffering and misery, writes Nicole Fritz.


I would wager a bet that just about every child-related middle-class WhatsApp group has had a video entitled The Great Realisation posted to much acclaim.

It appears tremendously popular, even among my more hard-edged social media groups.

Notwithstanding the rather smug-faced storyteller of the video, who looks as if he might spend a good portion of his time reporting on his neighbours, I understand its appeal.

Ostensibly a bedtime story for children, relayed in rhyming couplets, The Great Realisation suggests that the pandemic is a great corrective - that we will emerge to a world better than the one before, one in which we are kinder to our planet, our communities and our families.

It's a narrative that we want, of course, to tell children: that events, such as the pandemic, which bring with them impossible hardship, suffering and misery are not of an arbitrary nature that we are required simply to endure and survive as best we can.

Rather there are benign forces at work that will make for us of this apparently arbitrary event future advantage.

It's a story that we adults also desperately want to believe - that our lives are not hostage to random, capricious forces. If we are not captains of our own ships, than at least the tides work in our favour.

But the hard truth is that we are prisoners to arbitrariness.

Whether deliberately laboratory-bred or, far more likely, haphazardly wet-market-catalysed, the virus' reach is arbitrary - who it infects, who is asymptomatic, who dies.

The wider consequences of its spread seemingly just as random: who goes hungry, who loses their job, who is made destitute.

This arbitrariness even produces disparities in our imaginations: those of us in our comfortable homes can imagine, a la The Great Realisation, that this emergency and resulting confinement might produce a better work-life balance.

You can be virtually certain that no one living in any squatter camp imagines that somehow the pandemic will produce a similar result for them.

But if The Great Realisation tells of a comforting, if delusional, impulse on our part: our hope that forces which are arbitrary are not in fact so; it also speaks to a genuine impulse (more truly comforting in that it can genuinely be realised) to limit the felt effects of arbitrary forces and events.

Limiting the effects of arbitrariness may not at first seem the most inspiring principle by which to organise our state and society, and yet it is fundamental to any system of just laws.

It lies at the heart of the substantive outcomes to which our Constitution aspires: that everyone, irrespective of their arbitrarily allocated circumstance, should have access to food, water, health care, social security, housing; that everyone is equal - meaning not that we are all entitled to equal treatment but that we are owed treatment which values our lives equally.

This principle of limiting arbitrariness also conditions the type of engagement those we elect as our political leaders are required to have with us, the governed.

Non-arbitrariness requires participation and deliberation in their decision-making and compels justification from them for their decisions.

But in that case, the ark which our government has built to save us from the worst Covid flood seems to have sprung innumerable leaks.

From the initial regulations - which prohibited the operation of spaza shops or disallowed the transfer of children between separated parents; to the instances of brutality on the part of security services; to the failure to make safer provision for the distribution of social grants this week and hundreds of pensioners incurring transport costs and risking infection standing in long queues needlessly when there were no grants for them to collect; to the specification that our exercise should only happen within a three-hour, congested duration; to the refusal to provide the public with the models informing the government's decisions or even clear, consistent data about those infected and those who have died, so much of government's response has seemed arbitrary.

Those regulations and measures have seemed arbitrary in the general sense that no credible explanation or justification is provided.

They have also seemed arbitrary in the specifically legal sense that the regulations and measures adopted bear an insufficient relationship with the state interest that is behind the lockdown regulations - that the state seeks to slow transmission and buy the time needed to prepare for the worst effects of the virus.

Some of the pensioners left without social grants earlier this week are reported to have said that they felt they were being punished by the government.

Because, of course, whether your hardship is the result of deliberate malice or random carelessness, it registers just as much as hardship.

But if it is entirely right that we demand of our leaders that they not act arbitrarily, if we insist on consultation and participation, as we must, we must also show ourselves capable of appreciating that what may seem superficially arbitrary is in fact not so.

The danger posed by the pandemic is real and grave.

There can be no question that severe, extensive measures must be taken in response.

If those measures are successful, if they work as hoped and intended, then ... nothing.

Well, not nothing (we're long past the point of being able to hope as a country that we can escape the grip of this pandemic), but as little bad happens as possible, as few transmissions and infections as we can achieve, as few resulting deaths as possible.

That's a real risk for any government, however responsible, attempting to provide leadership at this time - that they will seem arbitrary in demanding such enormous sacrifice when the resulting harm they appear to be warding off seems small.

This is especially true in South Africa right now where the number of infections and deaths is relatively low. However, low numbers of infections and deaths, slow rates of transmission, are no sign of arbitrariness but of careful success.

Unlike in a war situation, we won't get reports of the numbers of troops pushed back, the skirmishes won, the defeats suffered on the other side - obvious indicators that the sacrifices demanded of us are worth the cost.

If there are any silver linings here, and as all indications are that we are only at the very beginning of our pandemic trajectory it would be foolish to place any wagers, but my money's not on any future storied work-life balance.

Rather this pandemic and our leaders' response to it might allow for more careful appreciation of the importance of limiting the effects of arbitrariness and its resulting injustice in our country.

From this we might more carefully seek to make of this country and the fates of its people something that is not arbitrary: a country not merely ordered, which would simply give a veneer of stability to arbitrariness, but a country that is more fully just.

It may be that we have been less acutely attentive to the injustice of entirely arbitrary allocation of resources, opportunity, circumstance because so much of our history has been about the deliberate imposition of discrimination, repression and subordination.

What the virus has shown clearly, however, is that deliberate injustice and its effects and injustice done without deliberation - arbitrarily - work together to compound suffering and misery.

As the pandemic spreads, there's no hiding from the painful recognition that the forces touching on our lives are arbitrary.

The story we will want to tell ourselves of this time, and of our government' response, is that we, ourselves, were not arbitrary, random, spare.

- Nicole Fritz is the CEO of Freedom Under Law.

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  justice  |  pandemic
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