JUSTICE MALALA: Pandemic exposes painful truths – we are a country of two nations

A man walks in empty streets in Sandton, Johannesburg on the first day of the 21-day lockdown.
Abandoned A man walks in empty streets in Sandton, Johannesburg on the first day of the 21-day lockdown.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

SA cannot continue to turn away from the reality of its ugly and inhuman face. We can try to run from it, but we cannot hide. Former president Thabo Mbeki was correct back in 1998 – we are a country of two nations.

The Covid-19 pandemic and our responses to it these past few weeks underline the painful truth of his words. If we do not take heed of his words today and tailor our responses to the pandemic to accommodate both these “nations” we will fail to halt its devastating march through our country.

In his May 1998 speech, Mbeki said we were making no progress towards nation building: “We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations. One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure ...

“The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure.”

The speech was delivered before the economic boom that Mbeki led in the 2000s. Those economic gains were obliterated by the kleptocratic Jacob Zuma administration, leading to the downgrade to junk status by Moody’s this past weekend. Except for some (sometimes significant) shifts in the racial and gender composition of wealth, we are pretty much where we were in 1998. This has huge significance for how we have dealt with Covid-19 and the evolution of our response to the pandemic.

Our country faces a humanitarian disaster if the lockdown imposed by government last week fails. The first consequence of failure will be a massive spike in infections. Then there will be a run on hospital beds. From there the strain will jump to intensive care unit beds, where many of those admitted to hospital will have to be housed. Then there will be the need for ventilators, which are in short supply across the globe.

People in their thousands will die because there will not be enough beds, ventilators, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers to treat them all. It reads today like a horror story, but that is where a so-called developed country like Italy is right now. Many of the sick will die alone, at home or in the streets, unable to breathe and shunned by fellow human beings afraid to contract the virus. Our system will simply be overwhelmed.

Spare a thought for the shelf packer at your local supermarket. She is broke. She couldn’t do her shopping before pay day, so she had to take her chances at a shopping mall in Alexandra township, where police threatened to shoot shoppers.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was absolutely correct to institute the lockdown. If we all follow the rules, even in the most testing circumstances, then we have a chance to get through this.

Following the rules is easier said than done, though.

The lockdown has revealed major flaws in who we are and how we do things. Our past, our failures, our incompetence: all have been laid bare by this shutdown.

First of all, SA is not one country. For the rich, the middle classes and some of the upper working classes, it is relatively easy to comply. Even before payday, many had the money to stock up on food, for example. Many have cars to go to work if they are needed. They live in areas where social distancing is possible.

Spare a thought for the shelf packer at your local supermarket. She is broke. She couldn’t do her shopping before pay day, so she had to take her chances at a shopping mall in Alexandra township, where police threatened to shoot shoppers. She has to get in a taxi to get to work – and probably gets arrested as so many others have been for being in an overloaded taxi. When she gets home she is in a shack shared with six others. There is no yard. The next shack is 50cm away.

Many elderly people will only have a chance to get paid a government grant this week – and then go shopping for meagre groceries. They will stand in crowded queues for taxis and at pay points.

This is our reality. Rules lifted out of the SA or the UK which only the well-off can comply with will not work. We need to engage with our own reality, our own terrain, our own “two nations”. Our leaders need to be sensitive to this and educate our people about what this lockdown is about – actions and consequences. The kind of police violence exposed on social media is not the way.

If we are to learn anything from Covid-19, and if we are to win this war, we need to acknowledge this: this is a country of extremely poor people, not just the rich. All our responses to this pandemic need to be tailored towards that.


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