OPINION | Post Covid-19: Will South Africa slide into a xenophobic and authoritarian state?

Members of the army force two men to the ground in Alexandra township to punish them for breaking the country’s lockdown rules. The SA National Defence Force has been accused of being heavy-handed. (Trevor Kunene)
Members of the army force two men to the ground in Alexandra township to punish them for breaking the country’s lockdown rules. The SA National Defence Force has been accused of being heavy-handed. (Trevor Kunene)

It is vital that all progressive forces, especially those that, like social movements and trade unions, speak for a mass base, oppose the slide into xenophobia and authoritarianism with all the force at their disposal, writes Imraan Buccus.

The global media is awash with articles trying to predict how the world will look after the Covid-19 crisis has passed. But in most cases analysts are doing little more than projecting their own political hopes into the future.

We see a similar tendency here at home.

Neo-liberals imagine the world after Covid-19 as one with in which the regulations imposed on capital are loosened, trade unions have their power restricted and the free market is the engine of growth.

Socialists and social democrats look forward to the opposite.

For the left the crisis has shown the limits of the markets and the future will see more regulation of the market and a greater role for the state in ensuring social welfare. 

For the environmentalists the shutdowns around the world have shown that it is possible to intervene in the economy and society in radical ways that could open the door to a much greener future.

Many have argued that, for instance, there is no need to go back to the dependence on private motor vehicles and that green forms of public transport will be developed.

 But projecting one’s own political hopes into the future is not the same thing as doing serious analysis.

Around the world, and here at home, many left economists gleefully predicted that the financial crisis of 2008 would lead to social democratic or even socialist outcomes.

The reality, as we all know, is that the crisis ended up with a global surge of the far right. 

In any crisis it is usually the social forces that are best organised that are able to exploit the crisis to most effectively advance their agenda. And while the left has grown in much of the world, especially among young people and intellectuals, the reality is that the right is dominant in many countries including the United States, to the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, the Philippines and Hungary.

Here at home right wing ideas, like xenophobia and a general turn towards authoritarianism, are being rapidly normalised in the highest reaches of the state.

History shows that in times of epidemics it is very common for minorities or foreigners to be scapegoated for the crisis. When the black death devastated Europe in the 14th Century Jewish communities were repeatedly scapegoated.

There seems to be an irrationality lodged deep in the human psyche that associated outbreaks of serious disease with the ‘other’. The lessons of this history gives no grounds for progressive optimism.

It is quite likely that, around the world, it will be the right, with its xenophobia, racism and religious intolerance, that is most likely to benefit from this pandemic.

And, of course, we are not just facing a pandemic. The lockdown measures implemented to restrict the spread of Covid-19 have done massive damage to economies.

Around the world, including here at home, millions are set to lose their jobs. Numerous commentators have argued that the coming recession could be as deep and as devastating as the global recession of the 1930s.

The recessions of the 1930s did lead to a huge growth in left wing politics, including social democracy, socialism and anarchism. But as we all know in the end it was the far right that ultimately won power in many societies, including, most infamously, Italy and Germany. 

The left argued that the correct response to the economic crisis was to build international solidarity among the working class, and to support anti-colonial movements in the colonies.

The right argued that its mixture of racism and authoritarianism would protect national interests. That politics ended in carnage on the battle field, and the death camps.

We don’t know how long the Covid-19 crisis will last, or how many lives it will take. We also don’t know how severe the coming recession will be, and how long it will last.

But we do know, for sure, that we are heading for a serious economic crisis. We also know that after the years of looting under Jacob Zuma our state has very little in the way of resources to be used to stave off the worst effects of the crisis.

We also know that the authoritarians in the cabinet, people like Bheki Cele and Lindiwe Zulu, have had their power greatly strengthened during this crisis.

A future in which the army remains on the streets to contain food riots might sound dystopian but it is far from unimaginable.

The key factor that will determine whether or not we come through this crisis with greater commitments to solidarity or even more dangerous and authoritarian forms of toxic nationalism will be the strength of the different political forces contesting the battle of ideas.

In the United States Trump’s racism and xenophobia, with his crude hostility to Mexicans, Muslims and Chinese people, could well win the day.

The same is true of Narendra Modi’s fascism in India.

In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro looks weak, but the racist and authoritarian right-wing ideas that bought him to power continue to flourish.

In South Africa there are ominous signs - people like Tito Mboweni, Faith Mazibuko, Aaron Motsoaledi and Patricia de Lille - whose rush to build a border wall made Trump look like a lackadaisical xenophobe.

These are people with real power in society and there is a real danger that the state will respond to the coming economic crisis by trying to scapegoat African and Asian migrants. 

The other ominous sign is, of course, the brazen authoritarianism of people like Bheki Cele and Lindiwe Zulu.

People like Cele and Zulu clearly relish the opportunity that the Covid-19 has provided for the suspension of some basic democratic norms and clearly harbour authoritarian political desires.

Cele and Zulu are not outliers.

There is a strong current in the ruling party, and in the state, that hold equally dangerous anti-democratic views.

In South Africa and globally there is a genuine risk that we may come out of the immediate Covid-19 crisis with a serious economic crisis in which toxic forms of nationalism flourish.

For us that could take the form of an increasingly xenophobic and authoritarian state. 

It is vital that all progressive forces, especially those that, like social movements and trade unions, speak for a mass base, oppose the slide into xenophobia and authoritarianism with all the force at their disposal.

It is also vital that the progressive forces engage the battle of ideas, and offer a credible vision of a future based on solidarity. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. 

- Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad  program on political transformation


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