The number of people in South Africa infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19), and the number of fatalities, has been relatively low, at the time of writing this article, compared to Europe, Asia and the Americas. However, South Africa’s Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has repeatedly cautioned the South African public that this is the “calm before the (inevitable) storm.” The storm, which is the peak infection rate, is expected in South Africa around September 2020. However, this may not be the only storm that South Africans or the rest of Africa or the world will face. It is very possible that a bigger storm may follow…one that may take more lives and cause even more social, political, and economic upheaval!
Studies have shown that in the aftermath of a conflict, where the actual or perceived outcome for individuals or groups is negative, whatever trust they had in leaders, and in the effectiveness of national institutions, breaks down. Very often the positive collective action and unity that existed in the fight against the common enemy, turns to negative mobilisation, that furthers erodes social and political trust.
In the three months that the virus has spread globally many of the consequences mimic those of a “war”. We are witnessing an unprecedented economic downslide, with repercussions expected to be the worst in living history. The consequence will be mass unemployment that is growing exponentially each day, putting millions of young and middle-aged people out of jobs, while collapsing pension funds and drops in interest rates have a negative impact on the economic survival of older people. Added to this is rising Government debt and falling revenues, all of which put social services at risk and which has a devastating impact on the most vulnerable in our society. The collapse of businesses, both small and large, is threatening the very foundations of the global economic system. Consequently, the gains made to alleviate poverty, reduce inequalities, and increase employment will be reversed and will spark competition over scarce resources that will generate new and complex conflicts.
#C19ConflictMonitor: In those countries that have already had pre-existing social tensions or violent conflicts, the spread of the #COVID19 virus, and the measures to contain it, can further exacerbate tensions and lead to an increase in tension or violenceTweet
All these factors reflect a legacy of political, social, and economic fragilities. In the wake of the pandemic, actions by politicians, government functionaries, religious and community leaders, business people, and civil society can either fuel social and political conflict or mitigate it.
Abuse by security forces, selective service delivery by Government officials, corruption, mismanagement of resources, lack of transparency and accountability by Governments, poor communication, a clampdown on the media and other information sources, will undermine the trust and confidence that citizens have in State institutions. Where Governments abuse measures that are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, to settle scores with their opponents, or make temporary postponements of elections semi-permanent, these actions will lead to social unrest and violent political conflict.
Marginalisation of communities by Governments, by denying them essential services, either for political ends, or through corruption, or mismanagement will create spaces for other actors to fill the vacuum. Some of these actors will be well meaning such as humanitarian agencies, civil society groups engaged in social services, and philanthropic businesses that are committed to the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.
However, there are many examples of where such vacuums have been filled by negative forces exploiting State weaknesses to advance narrow political and sectional interests. These include radicalised and extremists’ groups who exploit the vacuum to mobilise support for their cause. Politicians and negative forces, including community and religious leaders, who engage in populism for short term gain and advance nationalist or narrow identity sentiments, exploiting weaknesses and fragilities for political or sectional ends during this time, will all unleash forces that will be difficult to manage.
It is possible, despite the many challenges, to mitigate a negative spiral towards social and political conflict. Governments, businesses, and civil society can assist to ensure that the social cohesion that currently exists is strengthened. People have come together across racial, religious and ethnic lines, partnering with their Governments to assist those in need. Initiatives include, delivering food parcels to ensure food security, providing financial resources to ensure that small businesses survive, banks giving rental and mortgage holidays to ease the financial burden on people who have lost their income temporarily, and Governments are looking at a universal basic income or at increasing social grants for a limited period. These are positive collective and compassionate initiatives, among thousands of others, that can contribute towards building social cohesion.
Tracking these emerging social and political tensions, understanding how they will manifest themselves and preparing Government, the private sector and communities to mitigate these emerging tensions will help us temper the storm. The political, economic and social dislocation that we are witnessing is unprecedented. History does not have many examples of what the resulting landscape will look like. Consequently, now more than at any other time in history, global, regional and national unity and solidarity can be a huge opportunity to foster a more peaceful world!