Elmien du Plessis: We must lay the foundations of a more equal, just society

Integration is difficult if economic power is concentrated in the hands of few people, says the writer. (iStock)
Integration is difficult if economic power is concentrated in the hands of few people, says the writer. (iStock)

Most of us will survive this, although the collateral impact of Covid-19 will affect us each in different ways. It would be good to remind ourselves, when things get tough, that many of us share the grief, the fear, the heartache, writes Elmien du Plessis.  


As I write this, we are on Day 40 of our national lockdown, where we all had to adapt to doing things differently. Many of us are grieving the loss of life as it was before.

Of routines and the familiar, that we had to give up, for now, for the greater good.  

We stumble through the various stages of grief asynchronously, each in our way. Grieving is lonely, but the thought that many of us are going through the process is somewhat comforting. 

Sometimes it is a painful process to adapt to change, and even more challenging amid uncertainty.  

I am mindful of this, and that any opinion piece that ponders on South Africa after Covid-19 can do so only tentatively based on the currently available data and knowledge.  

While the scientific data surrounding the virus is ever-evolving, there are a few things that we already know about our society. 

Recent reports showed the top 10% in South Africa owns 85.6% of the wealth.

Covid-19 emphasised we live in two South Africas - those who have the means to survive in the lockdown with all its challenges, and those who struggle just to survive.  

During this time, we often speak about the "new normal", and imagine what life will be like after Covid-19. As if the situation before Covid-19 was normal.

It was not, it was unsustainable. 

High inequality also has an impact on social cohesion as it prevents integration. And without inclusion, any project of nation building becomes almost impossible.  

All indicators show the impact of Covid-19 will worsen  existing inequality (and create new ones) unless measures are taken. And in that sense, it also provides us with the opportunity to lay the foundation of building an equal society and an inclusive future. 

The disproportionate effect of Covid-19 

The news from other countries indicates Covid-19 does not discriminate who it infects, but affects  more impoverished communities disproportionately (see for instance communities in Paris and Chicago). 

This should not come as a surprise.

These communities have inherent disadvantages: crowded housing conditions; underlying health conditions leading to susceptibility for getting sick when infected; living standards not conducive to good health; and greater reliance on public transport, to name a few. 

People in these communities also make up a higher percentage of frontline workers - people who do not have the luxury to work from home.

People who live in poverty are, therefore, likely to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the impact of the virus.  

While we share the fears and anxiety about the virus and the impact that it will have on our loved ones and us, our experiences will be remarkably different. 

And in South Africa, with 47% of households headed by black South Africans being poor, in comparison to less than 1% of households headed by white South Africans, the disproportionate impact will have a racial element to it. 

This frustrates, if not prevents, racial integration and inclusion. We need to be careful.   

The road ahead 

Before Covid-19, social cohesion in South Africa was already fragile.

The Constitution is often blamed for failing to bring profound transformation to society and did not prioritise the redistribution of the economy.

Covid-19 shows again just how critical socio-economic rights are for the basic survival of people. 

Leaving it unaddressed will undermine social cohesion. 

The urgency of redistribution of wealth and resources is evident. 

It can be done in various ways through the government or private initiatives.  

Where it is done, through the government, the government will have to earn the trust of citizens that in this redistribution process, corruption will be addressed (in both the public and private sector).

Much of the inefficiencies in the redistribution process to date stems from the mismanagement of funds. We have to hold the government and private sector accountable collectively. 

Corruption halts equitable redistribution.  

Linked to this is the need to democratise knowledge.

To ensure the government provides information on which it bases its decisions. To be given opportunities to contribute to this knowledge, and to contest ideas in ways that are respectable and constructive.  

In this process, collective, democratic decision-making might even limit individual rights at times. 

But when done with openness, honesty, inclusion, and constructive accountability, citizens will have the buy-in.

We have a responsibility towards each other and to ourselves.  

Social cohesion does not mean that we all agree.

It requires inclusion. 

It requires addressing inequalities.

It requires shared goals. 

Covid-19 provides us with a unique opportunity to reconsider what these goals are, what we as a society deem important, not only for survival, but also for the thriving of us as a collective nation.  

A study by the HSRC showed 99% of us adhered to the lockdown and largely stayed at home. 

We stayed at home not only for ourselves but also to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a collective effort.

But lockdown can only work if we are all able to stay home. We must ensure that come the next pandemic, this is possible.  

The solving of immediate and long-term Covid-19 problems requires a collective effort, co-ordination and solidarity. It requires integration, which will ensure social cohesion.

Integration is difficult if economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few.  

It also requires that we unify around certain basic principles, even if they do not affect us directly.

During Covid-19, those who can work from home should advocate for the safety of those who must return to work.

Those who have security of tenure in their property should ensure people who do not, are not evicted from their homes during this time. 

Wealthier people must ensure that poorer people receive adequate support from the government, or support one of the many organisations or programmes that provide people with food. 

Those with the means to redistribute wealth in their immediate environment should do so, especially in, the instances where the state fails whether it is by ensuring that all pupils have access to food, data and devices, or supporting local businesses. 

Long-term and social cohesion will require co-operation, just like addressing this pandemic and minimising its effects will.

This needs to happen across boundaries, it cannot be done by coercion, and cannot only be driven by self-interested motivation. 

A "we, the people of South Africa" require connection and an understanding of the challenges of others - and a commitment to ensure deep transformation in our society.  

Solidarity and self-organisation can lead to long-term transformation.

And the changes in behaviour that Covid-19 forces on us should lay the foundations for a future South Africa. It shows us that we, as individuals, stand in relation to others.

Our common humanity inescapably binds us. There is no going back to what was before.  

And our only way now is forward, through the challenging time that lies ahead. 

Most of us will survive this, although the collateral impact of Covid-19 will affect us each in different ways. 

It would be good to remind ourselves, when things get tough, that many of us share the grief, the fear, the heartache.  

And as we experience this together, perhaps we can also take time to hope for a kinder, more humane society.

One that is more just and more equal.

And then start to lay the foundations for that. 

 - Elmien du Plessis is an associate professor of constitutional law at North West University.

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