Thuli Madonsela: Is this our shift moment?

Will history record this as the turning point that resulted in the people acting with the human solidarity underpinning the philosophy of ubuntu? asks Thuli Madonsela

Who would have thought that it would take a minuscule but vicious virus to inspire South Africans to begin to see themselves and start acting as a people?

That this is a defining moment for the country, and possibly the world, cannot be doubted.

Could it be a shift moment?

Is it a moment we will look back on and say it was the moment things shifted seismically in our quest to embrace the new identity we accepted for ourselves when we adopted the Constitution?

You will recall that the constitutional commitment is centrally about healing the divisions of the past and establishing “a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”.

If this does indeed turn out to be a shift moment, will history record this as the turning point that resulted in the people acting with the human solidarity underpinning the philosophy of ubuntu?

Will it be the moment all of us said yes #ThumaMina to fix our ailing social fabric and economy? Will we transcend the paradigm of justice as just us?

Grim in both content and tone, the president’s speech was simultaneously assuring at a time when the nation yearned for hope.
Thuli Madonsela

Not so long ago, I wrote an article arguing that the country needed a shift moment.

I clarified it by saying that when a seismic shift occurs in a prevailing way of thinking and conduct, it is a shift moment.

The most iconic shift moment was when Nelson Mandela seized the precipice moment triggered by Chris Hani’s murder on the eve of elections and successfully turned it into a shift moment of building a united nation.

Mandela equally shifted the mood and race relations in the nation when he donned then rugby captain François Pienaar’s jersey number 6 at the World Cup.

This simple, spontaneous leadership act contributed immensely to building a sense of national unity and hope at a time of visceral divisions, some of which were orchestrated by political entrepreneurs.

That we remained hopeful at the end of Mandela’s term is underscored by former president Thabo Mbeki, in his inaugural address as president in June 1999, praising Mandela and his generation for placing the nation on the pedestal of hope.

The national address by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday unarguably induced an air of unity across colour, religion, class, gender and other social cleavages.

It communicated the government’s decision to impose a national lockdown, from midnight on Thursday March 26 until midnight on Thursday April 16, to prevent the spread and level the curve of Covid-19 coronavirus transmissions.

Read: Covid-19: What you may and may not do during 21-day lockdown in SA

Many have described the address as “presidential”.

Grim in both content and tone, the president’s speech was simultaneously assuring at a time when the nation yearned for hope.

It gave a sense of hope that together we would beat this.

It was a uniting speech in terms of the actions that needed to be taken and the concomitant sacrifices made.

The president’s speech exuded a sense of compassion anchored in understanding that Covid-19 has triggered trying times beyond the heightened volatility, uncertainties, complexities and ambiguities of the digital age known as the fourth industrial revolution.

He seemed acutely aware of the unprecedented proportions of the disruption of lives that both Covid-19 and the measures designed and implemented by the state to combat its spread would engineer.

He showed acute awareness that, although all of us will suffer as a result of both Covid-19 and the bitter medicine entailed in measures implemented to combat it, it is the most underprivileged social classes who will bear the brunt of the socioeconomic challenges ahead.

Shoppers queue to stock up on groceries at a Makro store in Durban ahead of a nationwide 21-day lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19. Picture:: Rogan Ward / Reuters

Unsurprisingly, the immediate reaction suggested that the president’s message was appreciated across colour, gender, religion, age, political persuasion and other social divides.

Particularly appreciated was the human solidarity anchored in the socioeconomic package the government has designed with the help of the business community.

The package principally includes financial relief for small businesses affected by Covid-19 and the state-imposed draconian social restrictions aimed at social distancing.

It also includes measures to ensure workers are paid and that medical services, including private medical services, are available to all who need them.

One of my concerns in the previous article was the absence of olive-branch moments from the communities that benefited from opportunities and resources that were unjustly taken from others in the past.

In the president’s speech, we witnessed some glimmer of hope when he announced that the Rupert and Oppenheimer families had donated R1 billion each towards a solidarity fund established to contain the effects of the virus.

This indiscriminate help for all small businesses of citizens will contribute to limiting the vicious effects of the virus in the lower social classes.

The announcement that Mediclinic, a private medical services facility, will avail its centres to all in need, regardless of medical aid membership, also helps offset the class effect of Covid-19.

One of the realities we must sadly face is that the unintended effect of some of the measures taken to save us all will not just require sacrifices from all, some among us will be the sacrifice.

The same treatment, despite disparate circumstances, will have a far more devastating effect on those falling outside the paradigm that informed its design.

Inevitably those already left behind, mostly as part of the shadow of our unjust past, will be pushed back further unless that is noticed and addressed.

For example, if you are digitally connected and attuned to digital shopping, you’ll be better off.

If you have the financial, transport and storage means to buy in bulk, you’ll be better off.

If you own or live next to a supermarket, you’ll be better off.

We must anticipate that, by the time the government package kicks in, affected lives might be in tatters and businesses that operate on a hand-to-mouth basis dead.

Many of these are rural and township women who sell amagwinya (vetkoek), veggies, African crafts and other small things on the street.

They depend on daily takings for food and all family necessities.

They depend on daily takings for recapitalisation in addition to having to hawk on a daily or weekly basis.

Who would have thought that it would take a minuscule but vicious virus to inspire South Africans to begin to see themselves and start acting as a people?
Thuli Madonsela

The sad truth we must face is that the township/kasi economy will be the most devastated.

That does not mean we should not have acted.

It means in future we use the predictive analytics tools of the Social Justice M-Plan to predict if planned policy will produce winners and losers and, more importantly, undermine substantive equality or social justice.

If inevitable, as it might be in certain of the devil’s alternative circumstances as presented by Covid-19, we need to devise and implement a compensation strategy.

The M-Plan is about leveraging human solidarity at all levels of society with all contributing, including children, to ensure no one is left behind.

Ramaphosa has proved to be a confident leader.

The rest of the nation’s leaders, including political, business and faith, have also stepped up admirably to keep a sense of unity of purpose and hope amid adversity.

What then are to be our next moves?

The future shall be inherited by those who are agile enough to adapt swiftly to whatever life throws at them.

Heroes are made in, and defined by, battle.

Who shall be the heroes who will say #ThumaMina to ensure those left behind are not pushed further behind the grid of socioeconomic life during this moment?

Will you and I step up and play our part the way humanity stepped up in the post-World War 2 era?

Will this be our shift moment regarding becoming the South Africa we constitutionally committed ourselves to become?

Will history record this as the Ramaphosa moment? Is this our shift moment?

Madonsela is professor and law trust chair in Social Justice, and founder of Thuma Foundation and Social Justice M-Plan

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