Corona wealth crisis

 In Africa, Coronavirus, Health, Politics

As we are being abruptly rushed back into workplaces and schools and shared transport even while infections rise – or hustled out of employment with no social support as the economic collateral damage of the lockdown – let’s remember that the richest 3200 people in South Africa own as much as everyone else here put together.

Socialism or barbarism is not a prediction but our current address. Both the scale of possible disaster and the possibility of averting it are larger than ever before, but the contrast between the potential to save lives and the actual handling of the pandemic is breathtaking.

On close inspection, the coronavirus crisis reveals a very great excess of money in the global system alongside a very great incapacity in our state’s physical organization for delivering social support.

Therefore the corona crisis immediately gave rise to an enormous reshuffling of resources within the proletariat – an emergency R50 here and a R20 there – and from the well-meaning middle classes, while various forms of non-state organizing, including the C-19 people’s coalition, stepped into the gap to distribute food parcels.

This necessary survival work staved off real hunger for some people and, crucially, spread awareness without rubber bullets,  but the strategy is limited by the reality that most of us are already poor or stretched financially, by the fact that self-organised community groups such as Makause’s soon run out of sympathetic shops within reach to collect donations from, and by the fact that now, as Ramaphosa’s government eases the lockdown, people are under pressure to return to work even if they understand the dangers. We need to build a movement against the systemic misappropriation of society’s resources.

Public capacity is low everywhere because states have limited spending on every aspect of the public sector except police and military for decades, as an element of creating a ‘competitive climate for investment’ which keeps company taxes low (and tolerates disrespect of workplace rights in practice if not in law). Everywhere, corporates have rewarded society’s not-quite-willing sacrifice of public care during the decades of neoliberalism with unflinching loyalty to corporate interests alone.

The biggest corporations in South Africa donated R1 million here and there to the official coronavirus solidarity fund, like an elegant man in the back seat of a Mercedes offloading brown coins on the government at the traffic lights.

By comparison, Netcare, Mediclinic and Life, the private health chains, paid out an average R92 million a week to their shareholders between 2016 and 2019. Both private and public patients were thus robbed of all of that possible reinvestment into health care.  

It seems self-evident that a Covid crisis plan could begin by diverting shareholder profits back into health care for, let’s say, one year, or for, let’s say, ever.

But government is leaving the vast surpluses concentrated at the top of society untouched. Solidarity is circulating at that altitude too – a R2 million here and a R38-billion stimulus package there. But neither the handouts nor the economy we are now being asked to risk lives to save are for everyone: despite the handouts, Educon has delivered retrenchment letters to 20 000 employees.

As we are being abruptly rushed back into workplaces and schools and shared transport even while infections rise – or hustled out of employment with no social support as the economic collateral damage of the lockdown – let’s remember that the richest 3200 people in South Africa own as much as everyone else here put together. (Needless to say, many on this list owe their wealth to apartheid’s violently uneven playing field).

Let the record show that our rulers have chosen, rather than tax that lofty comfort, to advise the public – actually the proletariat – to resign ourselves to ‘learning to live with the virus’ (read, learn to live with your people dying from it).

No-one is disposable!

Even in the richest nations, most states have already arrived at the barbaric calculation weighing lives against livelihoods (as if the two can be separated) to reopen inessential parts of their economies before truly bringing the virus under control.

It is all the more barbaric because it signals the disposability of Black, women’s and proletarian lives, both in the selective policing of the lockdown and in being herded back to work, as these groups are overrepresented amongst the people with the fewest alternatives to returning to physical workplaces and the people who have continued to do essential and risky care work during the pandemic, and the people with the greatest burden of poor health. Deaths in the US and UK were already out of proportion for these groups before lockdowns were eased.

In South Africa, despite taking the sensible step of slowing the inessential economy early in the outbreak, government then relied on brutalizing people rather than appealing to informed self-preservation on the ground plus practical support such as universal income grants to enforce the lockdown, and then pissed on the resulting hardships and deaths by allowing gold mines to reopen within just four weeks, with hundreds of infections turning up in that sector in the following weeks and an epidemic now threatening mining towns.

It was not only corporate bosses whispering in government ears that motivated the premature lifting of the lockdown but also the spectre of people becoming accustomed to a basic share of what society produces collectively. Without a decent sized universal grant, how were people going to stay home?

So it is both the years of neglect of public care services, and also that government has consciously accommodated corporate interests at every turn of the crisis, that is setting us on the road to disaster.

The commercial food distribution system is in a better state, in many ways, than government systems, having been profitable over past years because it’s a necessity. Government could have used the crisis to commandeer the food distribution chain and cut the big supermarkets’ stranglehold over food production, distribution and prices, to ensure no one went hungry during lockdown. This is something that would have benefitted society long after the lockdown, by reducing food insecurity and opening up some space for smaller producers.

Instead, government went for food parcels distributed through hastily formed networks, which often were ANC patronage networks, in the early days of the lockdown. These were too few, too slow and many went astray, and they treated those in need like children. Of course neighbours should take food parcels to households who are self-isolating, but for people who are healthy and losing their livelihoods so as not to lose their own and other lives, direct money would surely have been better, as each of us knows best where the crisis is pinching us. People still have to cook that food, for example. Food parcels send the message that people in need can’t be trusted to spend money wisely.

The pandemic should have seen every elected official take to the streets again in a public health campaign to rival elections, with teams carefully trained for safety to educate and consult about our response to the pandemic. Instead of public education, explanation and consultation, instead of bringing soldiers to rapidly expand the number of houses and to lay water pipes and sewers to every home which doesn’t have them, instead of emergency land reallocation for housing in the heart of cities and towns where everything is accessible for those who are least mobile because of money, and instead of taking a lead from people about how a stay-at-home could work in their particular circumstances, government allowed police and army to keep people of the townships indoors by rubber bullets and beatings, even when indoors might have been more dangerous than out with numbers of people crammed into tiny places. But provisions for people in informal settlements were hopeless even in conception (such as water tanks that people would still have to queue for which didn’t go everywhere water was needed, but boosted JoJo’s profits wherever they went).

Instead of demanding reparations from the world and from the local companies that supported apartheid, the government went looking for loans from the IMF to fund the stimulus packages that have gone mainly to companies, who were also given control over our UIF payouts at first. The ‘extra’ grants from government to people on the ground fall dismally short of what is needed to achieve an effective stay-at-home.

Sensible measures to suppress the spread of the virus would not be cheap but they would be pocket change compared to the amount of profit exported legally and smuggled out of the country by the corporations that dominate our economy.

A destructive spiral

Long before the Covid crises, capitalism has been in a destructive spiral of blind expansion which fails to produce abundance or universal comfort. The South African economy is dominated by a cabal of big mines, banks and energy producers, which built their size by intruding into every corner of the market, from food to gold, during the apartheid years.

Now that apartheid is over, most have trimmed their operations, listed themselves in London and other far-flung capitals, and begun to export profits. They are not therefore reinvesting in the local economy in a stable and lasting way, and they don’t invest to create jobs or in socially useful production, yet they continue to squeeze out small producers, shrinking the space in which people could make livelihoods for themselves, turning millions of people from humans into surplus people.

Pick n’ Pay, for example, plans to drop satellite container shops in the township to seize the spaza shop market. Others such as SAB, cellphone providers and supermarkets such as Shoprite have used their South African base to elbow small producers and providers aside all the way up the continent, spreading the South African corporate disease.

Increasingly, in South Africa and globally, investment is diverted from the physical economy into financialisation – making money directly from money through banking and services, or by getting their fingers in the pie of providing social services such as grants. More and more companies which are not in banking are also getting into this, such as supermarkets offering money transfers and getting a bigger share of their profits from interest on customer credit. With money chasing money in this way, investors everywhere expect higher and higher returns on the money they put in. instead of long term investment they suddenly pour money into the latest opportunity and pull it out just as abruptly to go after something more promising, destabilizing economies.

When there is investment in the physical economy, much production is oriented towards consumerist crap – things which are not designed to last, things which we don’t really need, and things we can’t live without produced in unhealthy ways which are also destroying the very environment we depend on.

We are either surplus to this insane spiral unless we are called on to briefly ease a short-term expansion in production, or working till we die, exploited at work and whipped to buy more and borrow more. Some of the things we can’t live without, such as a stable climate conducive to human life and the life that supports us, can’t easily be bought in individual chunks and will soon be off the market, except for some of the very richest who may fortify a corner somewhere to live (probably well enough, but at a much lower quality of life than they do now, living off our current collective capabilities which produce plentiful energy, a great variety of consumables, quality if you can pay for it and health technology unimaginable a century ago for those with the credit).

This system is spinning out of control. It’s time to throw a spanner in its spokes and head as fast as we can for rebuilding from the wreckage collectively, and for collective benefit. From where we stand now, however, we have to increase the demands on the state to value each and every life and build around those, resisting the temptation to try and fill in for the state’s inadequacies (except for survival) in favour of sharpening and exposing the limits of capitalism.

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