/ 23 April 2020

An inconvenient truth: Virus presents symptoms of socio-economic injustice

Alexandra township
Alexandra township with its own entirely different identity: a world within a world. Photo: (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


The age-old wisdom, attributed to sages, that, “when the student is ready, the lesson will appear” seems profoundly prophetic now that the world is caught in the maelstrom of Covid-19. No other “teacher” has been so determined to stay the course until her learners are ready.  That we are inextricably connected, is a lesson that we finally get. “I am because you are” is now firmly entrenched in our minds. 

Furthermore, we have learned that vexing and seemingly insurmountable challenges are overcome when resources are pooled and directed towards a common goal. 

So, this is an opportune time, while we are working towards flattening the curve of the Covid-19 outbreak, to turn our attention to other, equally pressing challenges.

On March 21, we celebrated the 26th Human Rights Day in South Africa. Although we’ve come a long way in many respects, research shows that when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, we are not doing so well. The rate of change in business, despite research showing diversity assists company performance, has been slow.

In contrast, response to the acute Covid-19 pandemic was swift and widespread. 

This disparity offers a lens through which to view responses to widespread, long-standing issues related to socio-economic injustices which are no less devastating and also with tragic consequences. 

Two observations impress, one being the expansiveness with which people demonstrated care and concern, and the other, the speed at which individuals and organisations made substantial discretionary wealth available. 

Although commendable, it would be remiss if we don’t use the opportunity to highlight that investment in social and economic transformation and justice does not enjoy the same humanitarian response. This makes us complicit in maintaining the social and economic subjugation of the majority of South Africans. This article aims to highlight inconvenient truths that compromise the efforts to achieve equality and justice in South Africa.

Inconvenient truth 1: income injustice sustains social injustice

Current data confirms that organisations are still primarily led by white males (McKinsey, 2020). The results show that South African whites, on aggregate, are faring better economically speaking since 1994. When diversity figures reflect an improvement, the research shows that white women benefited. With the fall of apartheid, South Africa’s global pariah status was removed and, as much of the expertise and means of production lay in the hands of whites, access to reopened global markets, further entrenched their economic dominance. This is further exacerbated by those white-owned organisations that made strategic decisions to include relatively few black South Africans in senior positions that allowed them to exploit the Broad-Based Black Economic (BBBEE) legislature and get a significant slice of state expenditure.  Although a few black South Africans benefited handsomely, the masses derived little to no economic benefit. Twenty six years into the new dispensation, South Africa still has the ignoble position of being among the most unequal societies in the world. 

Inconvenient truth 2: exclusion puts our survival at risk 

The pandemic reinforces that privilege does not protect, that kings and prime ministers are as vulnerable as a girl in the slums of Calcutta. We are all equal in the eye of the virus. The unbiased colour and status selection of the virus is in stark contrast with human behaviour. Systemic exclusion has created a large majority, who, by apartheid’s spatial planning, are unable to comply with the WHO key recommendations of social distancing and isolation to prevent the spread of the virus. Furthermore, the current pandemic has to compete with other long-standing social ills that result in far greater fatalities to many in the prime of their lives. So, it is in this context that we look on in horror at what we perceive as the flouting of social distancing and self-isolation. The police and army then have the unenviable task of enforcing the lockdown laws, giving us the illusion that structural and economic inequality will magically disappear. 

Inconvenient truth 3: lack of empathy by design

The generational socio-political divide has resulted in a gulf between the people of South Africa. The apartheid architecture had skilfully designed two parallel lived experiences whilst simultaneously maintaining segregation. Systems of privilege and oppression inherent in the design, created vastly different structural, social, educational, economic and psychological experiences. This schism has made it difficult, if not near impossible, to have empathy, particularly in areas that fall outside of the respective lived experiences. The process of facilitating empathy is largely avoided in the context of South Africa’s history, as it requires a conversation about a past that is heart-wrenching to hear, both for the speaker and listener.

Inconvenient truth 4: internalised experiences shape us all

Internalisation is a psychological process that involves the integration of attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others into one’s own identity or sense of self.

Research is replete with reports on the embodiment of what has been labelled as internalised oppression, that is, black people personifying low self-worth.  Conversely, internalised dominance, the sense of having high self-worth, is reported among whites. These are remnants of a socially designed system to reinforce the superiority of the “white man” and maintain the status quo both internally and externally.

To begin to address these inconvenient truths, collaboration and solidarity — as evidenced in the approach to combat the threat of the Covid-19 virus — is critical.  Suggested approaches to get South Africans to mobilise against the sustained inequality and exclusion should include a social contract, economic transformation and healing.

Develop a social contract

Drawing on constructivism/humanism theories, we need to determine what it is we want to achieve as a nation that ensures our collective well-being, then to apply well researched processes that are designed to achieve those. The value of a socially driven contract is that it facilitates active citizenship and accountability. And an engaged citizenry galvanises (think 1995 Rugby World Cup) and is the only effective means to achieve success (think Covid-19). Further support for this approach can be gleaned from business, where research shows that strategic objectives are best achieved when there is buy-in from all key stakeholders.

We are in a unique position in that the design of our widely acclaimed Constitution and its preamble offers a comprehensive roadmap. 

The government’s role remains the same — to ensure the well-being of the people,  but it rests upon the people to define what that well-being is, “by the people for the people”. 

Economic Transformation

The concept of radical economic transformation has become a hot potato in our country. The philosophy of Ubuntu that implies that one can only increase one’s good fortune by sharing with other members of the society and thereby also enhancing their status within the local communities, needs to become our galvanising mantra. “I am because we are” is now indisputable. 

Economic transformation can take many forms but inherent in many is the relinquishing or sharing of resources by those who have. It mirrors observations about the contradictions in human behaviour, where it is charged that everyone wants change but no one wants to change! In so doing, the status quo is maintained, even by those advocating for change.

High-profit-generating industries such as mining, agriculture and the wine industry for example, whose ownerships now include some black individuals or black consortiums, still have a labour force that remains largely unchanged.  Single living quarters for migrant labourers, minimum wages, outsourced work contracts with limited fringe benefits and poor working conditions are prevalent.  In contrast, the financial contributions to fighting the pandemic by many of the same leaders, upwards of billions, are made in the absence of protests. 

Perhaps it is when one’s own interests are at stake, there is an impetus to act … so, what appears altruistic is actually cloaked self-preservation. But this self-preservation can result in preservation for all and what ubuntu demands is acknowledging and embracing the fundamental shift in motivations for acting or doing right by our fellow citizens.

Furthermore we have double standards when judging health care workers and the patients they treat. Medical staff are now deemed superheroes and their resourcing is a global priority. Yet these are the conditions that most medical staff working in South African hospitals will attest to as the standard chronic state of work. There is, however, usually no attention to their working conditions or other resource needs.

Likewise, the many patients who die while in the prime of their lives, succumbing to poverty related illnesses that include gang, public and domestic violence, HIV and TB hardly get attention. 

Our complicity in self-serving values need to be confronted if we are to live the ideals many have fought and sacrificed for.

Nation healing before nation building

We are a wounded nation and our wounds separate us. We perpetuate past traumas through what has become known as micro-aggressions. This stands in the way of nation building. Flying the national flag and singing the national anthem with gusto at rugby matches may make us feel good and united, but it is transitory and it creates the false impression that all we need is to focus on that which connects us, and all will be well. Those who choose to speak of race or colour appear intent on focussing on the past and are therefore seen as against nation building. 

As with trauma recovery elsewhere, facing the pain and discomfort brings about healing. We need to talk, to acknowledge the indelible impact of apartheid on us all. Through courageous conversations we need to move through white guilt and black anger to empathy and compassion. It is through our collective healing that nation building will be possible.

Dr Sorayah Nair is a clinical psychologist and founder of Business Health Solutions which offers diversity training to effect change at the organisational, leadership and individual level.