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Culture and Covid-19: Can socially ‘loose’ SA ‘tighten’ up its response before the third wave?

From the outset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have failed to turn to their citizens, the people themselves, for their views and advice, or included them proactively in strategies to combat the pandemic. However, it is not too late. Something can still be done before the third wave arrives.

In 1994, the world-renowned South African novelist Zakes Mda said it was imperative that South African elites wean themselves off the liberal notion of “doing something for the people”.

“Sustainable development”, he said, “is meaningful only if we do something ‘with the people’… to promote a spirit of self-reliance among the marginalised.”

From the outset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have failed to turn to their citizens, the people themselves, for their views and advice, or included them proactively in strategies to combat the pandemic. However, it is not too late. Something can still be done before the third wave arrives.

Rule makers and breakers

It has been a top-down biomedical response and yet death rates have been so different across the globe. Why have only about 8,000 died in Japan with a population of 126 million, while 191,000 have died in Mexico with a similar population size, or about 266,000 in the more populous Brazil, and more than half a million in the US?

How does South Africa fare by global standards? Officially, we have just more than half the population of Japan and Mexico but 50,000 deaths, although unofficially the number is well over 100,000. How can we bring this number down as the country heads towards a third wave in May?

In her 2018 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand argues that the willingness of citizens to adhere to strict rules (such as wearing masks and physically distancing in public), is a product of whether they come from cultures that tightly or loosely abide by social norms, laws and government rules.

The degree of social cohesion and “tightness” in a society, she argues, is a function of a complex set of factors, which includes the extent to which the society has recently felt under threat of disaster, famine or invasion. Societies with less social cohesion and more “looseness” are those that have experienced less threat in the recent past and enjoyed longer periods of affluence, such as in Europe and America.

Where does South Africa fit in? And what do the high rates of infection tell us about social cohesion in the country?

How ‘loose’ or ‘tight’ is South Africa?

According to Gelfand’s classification, South African society, since the introduction of democracy, could be said to have become much “looser” as it moved away from the “tightness” of ethnic nationalism repressively implemented under apartheid. Greater “looseness” was a requirement of freedom and democracy and has been a hallmark of popular social struggles since.

This “looseness” has been particularly evident in the urban areas, where the historically disadvantaged majority have resorted to continual insurgency to lay claims to their basic rights as citizens. Most of the many hundreds of service-delivery protests in South Africa every year occur in the towns and cities, where citizens are most aware of their constitutional rights and most insistent that they be honoured by the state.

However, a different conception of rights, which produces and expresses greater social “tightness”, tends to hold sway in the rural areas.

In Xhosa-speaking communities the term irhayti (derived from the English term “rights”) is used to express the individual rights of citizens and their demands from the state. Kathleen Rice (2017) claims that the meaning of this term, which has been popularised since 1994, differs significantly from the conceptualisation of rights conveyed by the terms amalungelo (moral rights) or abantu (people, in a collective sense), which are more widely used in rural areas and suggest that rights can only be realised in relation to others within a defined moral community.

The term amalungelo is derived from the verb ukulungisa, which means to make things correct and good in the moral sense. The term is used to highlight the moral content of personhood, especially the idea of “moral rightness” in relation to kin. The critical point about the difference between irhayti – individual rights as reflected in the liberal discourse of the Constitution – and the notion of amalungelo is that the latter does not assume that all individuals do or should enjoy the same rights.

In contrast to the cities, the relative “tightness” of rural areas in South Africa around ideas of tradition, custom and social reproduction has meant that, even though poverty and social inequities are most evident in the countryside, there has been far less social upheaval and insurgency against the state and its rules. Rural social cohesion is augmented in the countryside through traditional structures, which rely for their authority on old-fashioned forms of moral “tightness”.

At the same time, this strategy has caused considerable confusion as chiefs and elected officials, both of which groups are paid as civil servants, opt for different political styles and often clash over development mandates as they navigate the space between rights and obligations in the rural context. Meanwhile, there are also growing demands from the young and women for individual constitutional rights to be delivered on both sides of the urban-rural divide.

The tensions between the more traditional and modern visions of rights have been further inflamed by the failure of the state under democracy to deliver jobs, houses and improved living conditions for the rural poor. This has generated a politics of nostalgia in some rural areas, where residents reject the liberalism of the Constitution and demand a return to the African virtues and values of tradition and amalungelo, which, it is believed, will restore dignity and a historic and cultural sense of “tightness”.

Galvanising ‘tightness’ for a third wave

In his 2009 book on Aids in Africa, Unimagined Community, Robert Thornton, an anthropologist from the University of the Witwatersrand, argues that one of the reasons that HIV and Aids spread so rapidly in South Africa, relative to other African countries, was the relative openness (or “looseness”) of sexual networks here. In Uganda, by contrast, Thornton claims that ethnic and clan affiliation and social hierarchies restricted sexual networks, making targeting and treatment easier.

Thornton suggests the response to the pandemic was often based on a Eurocentric moralism which focused on individual behaviour, such as the need for monogamy and condom use, rather than trying to intervene in sexual networks to encourage greater “tightness” and contain the spread of Aids.

In a recent path-breaking book on Ebola in West Africa, Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, Paul Richards argued that the containment of the disease in the absence of a vaccine was largely based on the effective use of “people’s science”, a type of everyday science of practice that emerged when communities were actively involved in working with the state and the biomedical experts to co-produce evidence-based preventative approaches at the local level.

Richards argues that because Ebola was so deadly and killed so many, much as Covid-19 has in the second wave in South Africa, households and communities took on board the evidence of bio-science and worked with government and international doctors and experts to adjust local-level practices of care and protection.

The response was not based, Richards emphasises, on a return to the “tightness” of traditions, but on making changes to practices such as funerals and how home care was implemented from below based on accurate medical evidence on the nature of transmission and impact of the disease in rural areas.

Given that there will almost certainly be a third wave in South Africa, that each wave is more deadly than the previous one and that it is unlikely that the majority of the population in South Africa will have been vaccinated before 2022, the government and the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 would do well to encourage a “people’s science” approach, working with, rather than for, the people, especially in the rural areas of places such as the Eastern Cape where the second wave was so deadly. 

DM

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