Masks off

The revival of an elite technocratic rationality is starting to undo South Africa's lockdown, now in its second month.

President Cyril Ramaphosa in a Zoom meeting. Image credit CGIS via Flickr CC.

More than seven weeks into South Africa’s lockdown, the economic hardships of a sustained strategy are proving untenable while the public health imperative of suppressing transmission of COVID-19 remains. During the initial stages of lockdown, people were at pains to point out how sustaining the economy and containing the spread of the virus should not be viewed as dichotomous; now, this repressed dichotomy has ruptured, polarizing pundits not on the basis of what we should be doing, but according to what we can’t avoid—imminent economic crisis or mass death. At their extremes, the arguments say that we should cut our losses and get on with things already—whether it’s remaining indoors for a little longer, or reopening a little faster.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s official opposition party, was initially the leading proponent of a phased return to “normal” economic activity, and is now urging that it happens more swiftly. In an “announcement of national importance” that was roundly mocked on social media, its leader, John Steenhuisen, began sensibly, pointing out that the lockdown was not meant to go on in perpetuity. However, it quickly devolved into the kind of right-wing denialism that we’ve come to expect from the likes of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and their followers, with Steenhuisen claiming that “the coronavirus is not as deadly as we had feared.” Squared with the alarming rate at which the virus is spreading in the Western Cape—the only province where the DA governs, and where it has long flattered itself as the champion of competent administration—these statements are right to evoke outrage.

With just over half of all confirmed cases and around half of all confirmed deaths, the Western Cape is the virus epicenter. What’s more is that the DA is itself complicit in carrying out the very brutality it accuses the national government of. Earlier in the lockdown, the City of Cape Town demolished shacks and evicted residents in parts of Khayelitsha, a large township on the city’s “outskirts.” It also proposed amendments to a streets and public spaces by-law that empowers officials to conduct searches and seizures without a warrant in some circumstances, one that rights-groups have pointed out will disproportionately affect black people, the homeless and sex workers. It is truly only when the DA’s constituency of mostly white, middle class South Africans started to get restless with the lockdown’s restrictions that it started caring.

The most objectionable restrictions in this constituency’s imagination continue to be the state’s cigarette and alcohol prohibition, and the imposition of limited exercising hours and a curfew. These—rather than the state’s cruel and barbarous treatment of poor and working class South Africans—are taken as signs of authoritarian creep. However, the underlying logic they share with the state action ostensibly taken issue with is that the population under lockdown ought to be controlled—just in a manner that is sensible and evidence-based.

A few weeks ago, the political theorist Anton Jager tweeted that, “You can tell how many politicians are relieved they can just listen to and enact what the technocrats tell them to do. Fed up and tired of governing. Once things go back to normal, the reality of representation will be hard to handle.” The South African state is using the crisis to avoid all oversight and transparency, hiding behind the experts—and even then, often publicly contradicting what their experts are saying.

What makes this an incredibly muddy debate is that every side views itself as being the proper practitioner of science-enlightened defense or critique—whether in pushing for the extension of some aspects of lockdown, or its relaxation. In weaponizing science, economics or mathematics, the assumptions are smuggled in and asserted as fact, when more often than not they are a merely an opinion of this or that expert. But the question of what ends we seek is not answered by economics or science; it is a moral and political debate. The science and economics can only attempt to describe what is, not what ought to be.

Yet it is the revival of a high-minded, elite technocratic rationality that is proving to be what undoes the lockdown. As Thomas S. Harrington writes in Counterpunch, “The central conceit of technocratic thought was, and is, that there exists in data-based, scientific knowledge, a clarity, that if bottled and distributed correctly, will free us from all types of noisome and unproductive debate.” The irony is, that in aiming to be “above politics” and hiding from view political commitments under a false “neutrality,” what is already a complex debate becomes more incomprehensible, and is oversimplified across unhelpful lines.

In South Africa, this happens through hyper-racialization. The most visible voices critiquing the government, such as disgruntled surfers or irrelevant radio personalities, only become famous because they are what most people choose to focus on. And so, anyone else making good-faith critiques of the government are thrown under the same tent, accused of failing to appreciate their privilege and publicly dismissed. Social theorist Andries du Toit is right when he says that this all deflects “attention away from the genuinely alarming extent to which the current implementation of the lockdown is becoming counterproductive and damaging.”

By circumventing questions about concrete, material interests and whose we should prioritize, a similar desire to go above politics is expressed by making the realm of politics limited to affective concerns about “perceptions” and “discourses” (mostly mediated online). Unsurprisingly, the voices of the “underprivileged” always spoken on behalf of hardly feature in these conversations. The fact is in South Africa’s public debate, the working class lack a voice and we don’t actually know what the majority of the country thinks about the lockdown now. The Economic Freedom Fighters, which styles itself as the tribune of the working class, has been glaringly absent from civil society mobilization. Instead, from its armchairs and in between its online book club sessions, it has been calling for a harsher and prolonged lockdown.

Expertise provides the important basis upon which a discussion is made possible, at its best giving us insight into what is the most efficient way of achieving a result. But when its non-transparent, it can easily become weaponized for oppression. The ANC government is limiting access to the scientific data upon which it is basing its decisions, effectively excluding everyone from participating in this debate. Here, a professed reliance on “science” becomes a mystifying rather than a clarifying force. And it is in this darkness that fatalism settles in among elites; or put another way, a decision to avoid political responsibility. That’s why we now hear that suffering wreaked by the virus is inevitable, but we can save the economy; and suffering wreaked by the economic fallout is inevitable, but we can prevent COVID-related deaths.

That this binary emerges as the prevailing framework to evaluate the way forward in South Africa reveals how our society is predisposed to accept suffering. The question becomes not whether we should tolerate suffering, but what level of suffering we can tolerate. That we have collectively given up on the alternatives ensuring that lives and livelihoods can simultaneously be protected, makes clear the direction that our post-COVID world is entering. Ultimately, a capitalist society that already presented the choice of work or starve to the masses, was far more likely to mutate to what it is becoming now, which is one that presents that “choice” in a different sequence: starve or work, and now possibly, die.

In an address to the nation on Wednesday evening, Ramaphosa announced that it is likely that the majority of the country would move to a more relaxed phase of the lockdown at the end of May, while some hard-hit cities would not. Ramaphosa compared South Africa’s approach to other countries, indicating that our country had fared better. He shared some insight into how the government was calculating its projections–but did not reveal what those models actually are. While scores of South Africans on social media were beguiled by Ramaphosa’s delivery, praising his soft admission that the government made some “mistakes,” for the South Africans at the devastating receiving end of those mistakes, it is too little, too late.

As Ramaphosa now himself concedes that an increase in infections is “inevitable,” for the many South Africans who will be returning to work in both hazardous and precarious conditions and with scant details of what comes next, the road ahead looks treacherous.

Further Reading

Out of sight

In South Africa, social distancing to bring down COVID-19 infections takes a decidedly local shape. In a racialized society, it manifests primarily as white melancholia and black Afro-pessimism.