South Africa

How do we move forward as a society?

Pandemic, War and Xenophobia. A conversation with Koketso Moeti.

medico: Could you give us an update on how people in South Africa live in this moment?

Koketso Moeti: It's bad. It's so many things that were taken away and then you're being criminalized for trying to survive this situation. In South Africa, a significant amount of people are informal workers. Because you're taking away people's livelihoods on the spot and you're not providing any compensation. And suddenly, these people are arrested and get a criminal record for being outside. In April 2020, after South Africa recorded the first death related to Covid, the police and soldiers had killed three people already while enforcing lockdown regulations. The police brutality was just hectic.

And then there are staples that have just gone up ridiculously in price – in the pandemic and now even more with the war in Ukraine. Even I can't buy eggs anymore. They are too expensive.  Fuel has also gone incredibly up. We've got another fuel hike that's coming up that is pushing things over the edge. Now imagine, if you, who is quite stable financially, are already struggling, imagine what's happening with the more than 50% if the country who isn't.

People are buying food on credit now. Small amounts of credit, low credit is now triple the size, because access to credit hasn't helped you. It has put you in a worse position. But it’s getting more complicated from the loans South Africa received from the World Bank: We, the people, have to pay it back.

How do global actors such as the World Bank and also South Africa’s political leaders imagine that people can survive? What's the social imagination?

I don't think there is any. And especially here in South Africa, there is the long “tradition” to build gated communities and let people die at their gates. Think about a city like Johannesburg and how it was designed so whites wouldn’t see what’s happening in the rest of the country: They have schools and infrastructure in the place so you actually don't have to leave. Yet, the existence of that city stems from our public resources. We're subsidizing these enclaves of the mega wealthy. And there is this idea that the poor can always survive. Which is not true.

Now with Covid, it was alarming to see people actually don't care. Where I come from, which is in the Northwest province, I got tested when my Granny got Covid and eventually my mother. Getting them tested was hell. Also, vaccine sites were not easily accessible for someone who earns a daily income and can't just take the day of, e.g. a domestic worker. They won’t afford the transportation costs of getting to the place anyway. And so the discourse was that people don't want to get vaccinated.

At the same time, white right wing groups started saying that the lockdown situation was “worse than Apartheid”. And there rose an anti-vaccine-resentment which is completely new in South Africa. It is in that surroundings that right wing groups, but also the government, started to search for scapegoats.

We heard a lot, that the pandemic has mobilized xenophobia against migrant communities?

There's something about the pandemic that has made the situation for most people more desperate. Before the pandemic, things weren't great – but the desperation wasn't as bad. You would kind of know the hotspots with social tensions. Now, it just feels like anything may rapidly happen any time anywhere.

This time around, it feels so different. Tensions are mainly centering on xenophobia. There is so much misinformation making it very difficult to distinguish what's real and what's not. There's been this movement of "Put South Africans first". They successfully organized marches to the Nigerian embassy, to the Zimbabwean embassy.

You also see it with the institutions. One thing about xenophobia I find very interesting is that it is often talked about as being a "poor people thing" like "poor blacks attacking other blacks". But on an institutional level, you can see institutions are doing things like "South Africans only".

That seems quite a lot like alt-right slogans?

Yes, definitely. The right project is exporting its hate all around the world.

If you also look at how funding flows for some of this stuff, it also gets interesting. There are a couple of new organizations that have been formed. All of these activities are US evangelical right-wing funded. As an example, attacks on sexual reproductive rights and the right to abortion that we see in South Africa – but also in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana –has been funded by US evangelical right-wing forces. You can even see the anti-rights actors in multilateral organizations such as the UN. Multilateralism has gotten profound cracks, even from within the institutions. A whole world order is crumbling and there seems to be a lack of ideas how to tackle it.

So now we have to come up with new political thinking beyond “traditional” left-wing positions: For me, it's important to really understand what it means to be anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and pro-black in today's world – as today’s world is not an obvious colonial world. Look at South Africa: We're suddenly in a country like South Africa where you have wealthy black folks, you have a black government. But the balance of power has not fundamentally changed. We, too, have to build new political imaginations.

What does it mean to be anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and pro-black and pro-poor in this modern world?

In South Africa, we are very sensitive to racial segregation. Also in the midst of the war in Ukraine, it's still to condemn the racism of Europe. We can say: “Okay, now that we see that you have space, why are you letting people on those boats die?” This is a moment to properly mobilize around the Xenophobia we're seeing in the world and build a counter-project against that global right-wing movement we see. 

If we start on a small scale – with ourselves – it’s to ask yourself how your internalized white supremacy is reflected. Together with this assumption goes the idea that the world is neatly divided into good and bad. Which is so false. An example I could use is NGOs. There was a big thing about sexual misconduct in South Africa's NGOs. Black women have been saying for years, by the way, that there is a problem with men in these organizations. People often speak about this sector and say just because you work in an NGO, you're inherently good. So, what does that mean when you're progressive to the outside but not inside? It's about your daily interactions and your practices every day. Of course, you cannot get everything right but you should always strive to be better.

Your organization, – a network that connects more than 100.000 members for digital activism and campaigning on radical social issues – is thinking and doing politics from a specifically black women's standpoint. What does this mean for concrete interactions?

In South Africa, people understand social issues but they are often devoid of a class analysis and an understanding of how they are interconnected with racialized or gendered dimensions and so on. We see the interconnectedness of issues. So for us, the first question is always: how does this impact, low-income black women? It will always be our position and we do get a lot of push back about this. If this group wins and moves forward, we will move forward as a society.

The Interview was conducted by Julia Manek.

Published: 13. October 2022

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