Covid-19 and the quest for freedom: A matter of life, land and liberty

Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

It is highly appropriate and of significant symbolic value that President Cyril Ramaphosa should preside over the 26th anniversary of South Africa’s “moment of freedom”.

Ramaphosa is widely credited for prominent contributions to both the pre-election Convention for a Democratic SA, as well as the eventual delivery of the final Constitution in 1996. Moreover, having entered the Union Buildings as South Africa’s first billionaire president, he is well-placed to appreciate the dilemmas, eeriness and opportunities that are invoked by the Covid-19 coronavirus.

As the virus spreads across the planet, Ramaphosa, as other global leaders, is forced to make irreversible decisions without a choice. In their scrambled quests to protect human lives, governments have presided over a radical and sudden reconfiguration of human society. The moment has convinced citizens across the world to offer their civil liberties at the altar of perceived safety.

Above all, and amid all the instabilities that snowball into and out of this health crisis, it is apparent that the socialist-orientated fiscal relief packages released in irrecoverable sums across the world pose a real threat to global capitalism and promise a radical disruption of its system/s.

Covid-19 is a global disaster of unforeseen, unprecedented and irreversible consequences. With international trade routes shifted and local economies halted, economists are now forecasting with more certainty the inevitability of a global economic crash and the possible dismantling of the world economic system.

In addition, the UN has warned of looming famines of biblical proportions.

In the Bible, famine goes together with epidemic diseases, war and death, as the hazards of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These, in summary, signal the end of the world as we know it.

Yet even through this common calamity and uncertainty, the winds of life blow differently for the global South. The devastation predicted for, and awaited by the developing world, is yet unimagined.

For the already volatile East-Africa, for example, the impending famine is exacerbated by the infestation of desert locusts which have swarmed the region at a scale unseen in 70 years, destroying fields of crops and vegetation.

South Africa will be unable to avoid the consequent effects. To this pursuant common future, the disruption of global food supply chains as a result of Covid-19 adds a sinister context.

In the pre-Covid-19 era, the South African agricultural sector contributed about 10% of the country’s total export earnings. Although government is set to relax some regulations against exports from May 1, the effects on the industry have already and will continue to change South Africans’ consumption patterns.

READ: UN Human Rights Office condemns SA's "militarised" enforcement of lockdown

In addition, the Land and Agricultural Development Bank of SA, which accounts for 30% of all loans received by the agricultural industry, last week defaulted on bonds worth R50 billion.

This has grave implications for the bank’s ability to extend loans to small and medium-sized farmers during this vulnerable time, and poses a threat to food security in areas that are not within the easy reach of commercial farmers.

But it is not all doom; optimists are calling this moment a reminder of the cultures we have gradually lost as we have struggled endlessly, and aimlessly, to run the capitalist rat race – ubuntu, imfino (vegetables), and corn growing in back yards, all left behind as we dragged our burdens through glass and insatiable quests towards western sociality.

In South Africa and in Africa as a whole, the expansion of the middle class as well as rapid urbanisation largely account for the reduced production of food over decades and for the increase in the import of food. It is laughable that we have spent our freedom on the import of maize and other unnecessities.

On this 26th year of national freedom, Covid-19 propels each of us to redefine the meaning of what it means to be alive and free. Importantly, all attempts at this task require, as their premise, a confrontation with the question of land.

Although international organisations such as the UN and the World Health Organisation have commended government’s response, the internal reality differs
Philile Ntuli

In light of this, the ANC’s unfulfilled mandate of land expropriation wrings tightly around government’s public performance of care, control and authority during this era.

Although international organisations such as the UN and the World Health Organisation have commended government’s response, the internal reality differs.

Former president Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” are in full display. For the black majority, the very idea of social distancing is a practical impossibility caused by landlessness.

Within this context, what sense does it make to halt economic productivity to save a people whose majority cannot be saved because they live in conditions that force them to pile up on each other? If the government is not addressing how people live as the primary response to this crisis, for whose benefit are the structural adjustments?

What will it matter how much money the government can throw across the land if that money loses value? Why borrow from the International Monitory Fund and the World Bank money that will be impossible to pay back when said money will be distributed to a people whose vulnerability was caused by your institutional failures at land reform?

Only a radical response will carry the nation out of this global moment.

The government has within its reach, through the process of expropriation of land without compensation and other measures provided in legislation, the power to allocate arable land to those in need. This this allows for both social distancing and gardening as effective measures against the virus.

If the country is expecting food shortages and famine, we can expect that the next decade will require national unity and the common pursuit of development. Our immediate national goal should be to distribute the land and to usher in a dispensation of sustainability through a nurtured culture of back yard and community farming.

If our government would remember why the struggle against colonialism and apartheid was waged, South Africa would be well positioned to triumph over this period
Philile Ntuli

The filth of post-1994 ghettos and the congestion of the concrete jungles of the metropoles can be a thing of a past. If we are to take caution in line with the UN statement of impending famines, in the next decade there may be a dramatic reduction in the global population, which may consequently change everything we have previously known about the experience of living. If our government would remember why the struggle against colonialism and apartheid was waged, South Africa would be well positioned to triumph over this period.

If the government acts immediately, the inevitable can be replaced by a global model of resilience, innovation and imagination, self-sufficiency, sustainable food production systems, equality of land distribution, as well as a sustainable national economy and environment.

Whatever path the president and his executive lead the nation to and through, the processes invoked have already sparked debates among legal scholars, political scientists and social theorists alike on the question of whether South Africans have a right to be protected from death by the flu and to what extent such right may be weighed against the notion of freedom, especially in light of the economic consequences it delivers.

In other words, is what we have given up worth what we are getting and what is to come?

Some analysts and forecasters have pointed to the Orwellian-ness of the moment. In 1949, George Orwell published his eerily insightful novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which depicts an era of supersurveillance and deep authoritarianism.

In this world, “par is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, and “ignorance is strength”. This reference compels us to imagine a possible world where Silicon Valley is the government of global society, and in which technology permeates every arena of human existence.

Read against the current fourth industrial revolution and its associated artificial intelligence, the shifts enforced by Covid-19 towards online market productivity suggest that we have arrived.

It is too early to know with certainty what outcomes await the post-Covid-19 era, but what we do know is that this moment calls to attention serious questions about global capitalism, democracy and public administration.

READ: 'Dear Mr President, your government does not care about its people': Lawley resident

For all it does, the moment allows an opportunity to imagine alternatives to globalisation and its historically abundant innovations and versions of colonialism.

The pandemic has also forced behavioural changes which can help South Africa take big steps towards the attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

To achieve this, the moment calls for a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions. Government’s intellectual and economic resources would have to be collectively employed towards national efforts to nurture a culture of food production.

This requires us to imagine, for example, varieties of scrumptious indigenous vegetables and herbs growing at the lawns of the Union Buildings.

If we work with common interest, South African street corners and back yards can be filled with fruits and vegetables. We can transform our balconies and windowsills to sustainable spaces for food production.

To aspire to these goals is to reach towards a return to community-based experiences of living and to a world free of the constraints of capitalism, of the burdens of debt, and of incarceration within the mental health disorders caused by global economic insecurity.

May God bless South Africa, and may freedom come.

Ntuli is a feminist. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town


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