Ron Derby | Thanks to the pandemic our inequalities lie exposed

Just what truths will the coronavirus pandemic expose about the experiment of the “new” South Africa? I remember that term well, a term which was supposed to mark a watershed moment in our most complex history where this country would be governed for all who live in it, but with a clear understanding that it would only come through some difficult reforms.

You know that dream where you find yourself stark naked in class or on a school stage, reflecting your vulnerability, according to those blessed with the ability to navigate our unconscious mind. What this pandemic has served to do is bring this dream into stark reality and expose the disparities in South African life. There’s many a nation, I suppose, that will be left undressed, stripped of the pretense of all being well… some more acutely than others.

We are in the latter category as, with buts clenched, we watch the daily coronavirus case numbers and hope that the worst ravages of this disease do not affect the most vulnerable among us.

So far, the pandemic hasn’t exploded in South Africa as it has in Europe and across the Atlantic. Our greatest fear is that if the virus spreads through our townships and rural villages across the length of the country, our health system would collapse and with it the economy. There’s no economy without a healthy populace, especially one that is powered by domestic consumption.

Just imagine the prospects for a company such Capitec – the fifth or fourth largest lender depending on the metrics you use – should our nascent health crisis cut much deeper in weeks and months to come. Already there’s a looming jobs bloodbath that will most likely affect the majority of their clientele, the blue-collar worker, that should be worrying the bank’s Stellenbosch-based founders. A health crisis on the scale of Italy, Spain and the US would be calamitous for a company whose shares since listing have outperformed that Silicon Valley giant that can do no wrong, Apple.

The bank’s growth and that of say Shoprite, has been based on a scramble for the biggest market share of a predominantly black and emerging mass market.  Capitec’s evolution has been at the expense of Absa in the main. Now, this is the selfsame market most vulnerable to the ravages of this disease in townships, where the idea of “social distancing” is wholly unrealistic.

Now I’ve just chosen to focus on the prospects of Capitec and the likes of Shoprite, but there are many other companies that have grown in leaps and bounds on what we’ve all known is a structurally and perhaps intentionally flawed economy. The rise of listed private schooling groups has been on the back of a struggling public service, which owes much its troubles to the racial inequities of our past and, more sadly, our present.

A divided society 

As everyday South Africans we live with these inequities in our society and whenever they pierce our consciousness through a violent protest over service delivery or xenophobia, it’s a problem put to the government of the day. And putting out fires is something that this state is well versed in, evident by the glee with which our Police Minister is undertaking his task of keeping us at home and away from alcohol and cigarettes.

This is how we live our day-to-day life on the southern-most tip of Africa, still a very much divided society which Covid-19 is laying bare. Perhaps I give too much credit to this pandemic. Perhaps a more acute reminder of this imbalance was the death of more than 200 fathers, mothers and children as a result of listeriosis outbreak just two years ago.

The source of the outbreak were plants belonging to Tiger Brands in the Limpopo province. What was the sanction? There’s a class action suit that, much like the silicosis case in the mining sector, will take an eternity to be finalised. But from the company perspective, no senior executive lost their role. The board didn’t step down en masse. It’s a story that still gnaws at me and makes me wonder what sort of society are we really?

Why those deaths came with no real consequences was because those most affected were from our most marginalised segment of society.  A segment whose best form of protein was the processed meats made at that plant. Now in a country, supposedly redefining itself for more than two decades, I would have hoped such a crisis would have warranted more from us all, including the state. Instead it was just a blip.

Covid-19’s only difference to the listeriosis outbreak of 2018, is that it’s spread has no class or race limits. The strength of South Africa’s defence in a world still without a vaccine will be the position of our most vulnerable.

It has to be our focus now. And when we finally overcome this crisis, it’s a focus we must keep if we are to restructure society and imbue it with resilience for the many storms still to come.

We are most likely to bare the worst of the ravages of climate change for example, already evident by the immigration patterns from the region into Noord in the inner city of Johannesburg.

At the end of the Great Depression in the early part of the last century, where millions were left unemployed and destitute, the world had two paths. There was the route of increased ethnic and social divisions, nationalism and with it increased isolation, chosen by Germany. Then there was a path towards building better social security measures, a route followed by the US under its 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now when Cyril Ramaphosa first became president, I challenged him to find his “FDR” moment. Nothing too original in that really, given that his predecessor was challenged by his trade union supporter in chief at the time, Cosatu, to meet his “Lula” moment, and of course failed abysmally.

Fiscally, Ramaphosa and his sixth administration may be in no position to embark upon a “New Deal” to the same degree as the longest serving US president, who oversaw the building of the world famous Hoover Dam. All the same, National Treasury is going to have find the resources to stimulate the economy after the ravages of this pandemic and at great expense, because of the “wasted” nine years.

The spending, combined with structural reforms that should follow in the wake of this crisis, should allow for the president to meet the challenge of pursuing social and economic justice for all. For nothing else, it has to be done for the resilience of our economy in the face of the many challenges that are still to come.

Our inequities are too vast to be overcome by market or policy choices alone. The pandemic may have alerted us to the flaws in our economy, but has also shown us a long ignored truth or an inconvenient one – we are all invested in each other.

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