Covid-19 and the future of sovereignty in South Africa

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Jonny Steinberg (Oxford/South Africa)

The story told here is about South Africa, but the two inter-related questions I tackle concern everywhere. The first: what happened to the authority of states over their populations as the pandemic approached? And the second, what is going to happen to sovereignty, to the capacity of those who exercise public power in nation-states to decide what happens once the pandemic recedes?

For those whose familiarity with South Africa is not granular, the following is necessary background: The country locked down early, when only a handful of cases had been reported. And the regulations were especially severe. People were allowed out of their homes to buy essential provisions, and no more. The sale of alcohol and tobacco was banned. The manner in which the lockdown was policed was also highly differentiated. The middle-class suburbs were lightly policed. The densely populated urban townships, by contrast, were subjected to something of a siege, as thousands of soldiers were mobilised to assist the police.

Some further background: the expanded unemployment rate was almost 40 per cent on the day the lockdown began, the highest recorded national unemployment rate anywhere in the world. This is offset by an extensive cash-transfer system which provides the mainstay of income for the bottom three deciles of households.


As was true across the world, the first days and weeks of lockdown brought with them a sense of strangeness and discombobulation customarily associated with dreams. Among the most disconcerting spectacles was the sliding of entire populations back into the past. Who would have imagined at the end of February 2020 that within a month the black urban townships of South Africa would once more be sealed, routes out blocked off, the streets patrolled by armed soldiers? It was as if these places had been airlifted out of the present and dumped into a parodic version of the 1960s, the apotheosis of high apartheid. Armed men swarming in without notice and chasing people off the streets; civilians being frogmarched through public space for daring to leave their homes, forced to do jump squats and push-ups as instant punishment; breadwinners cut off from their places of work; schools closed indefinitely; entire settlements forced to deal with rising hunger under armed guard.

How did those subjected to this martial invasion interpret what was happening to them? One would have thought that COVID-19 had stripped away democracy’s decorative frill to show how much of the past has always remained in the present. A quarter of a century into democracy, one would imagine that people were long past tolerating subjection to a dark old version of being black, all to ward off a virus whose existence would have to be taken as a matter of faith; for when lockdown was announced, not a single resident of a South African township had fallen ill from COVID-19, never mind died.

And yet how human beings come to interpret what is happening to them in unheralded times is, we learned quickly, unpredictable. In early June, the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council released the results of a survey of citizen attitudes to how they were being governed during the pandemic. The questionnaire was completed by more than 5,000 users of the popular social media platform Moya, used by 4-million South Africans, mainly black, under 40 and poor. The results, weighted for race, education and age, showed that by the end of May, just over two months into the lockdown, 78 per cent of people said that they were willing to sacrifice their human rights to help control the spread of the virus and 84 per cent thought that their president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was handling the situation well. People had resigned themselves to extreme suffering in order to combat the pandemic; 43 per cent of respondents reported going to bed hungry, up from 33 per cent at the end of April. Although almost no respondents knew of anyone who had fallen ill from COVID-19, nearly half reported being very frightened, and just more than half believed that the worst was to still to come.

There are so many things to say about these results. For one, they invoke in stark form the tricky relationship between coercion and consent formulated with such delicacy by Hobbes. In the face of what they had been told was a mortal threat, people were surrendering themselves to the most blunt and naked Leviathan, operating capriciously, callously and way outside of the law. And, perhaps more significant, a Leviathan that operated on the population differentially, for middle class people in the suburbs, both black and white, were most certainly not policed during the lockdown the way the townships were; if anyone had tried there would have been mayhem.

This acquiescence proved resilient even when confronted with a dramatic and unheralded test. Two months into the South African lockdown George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, footage of his death and the great rising that followed entirely accessible on media like Moya. And even before that, South Africa had its own George Floyd, its own martyr to state brutality, when, on Good Friday, a man called Collins Khosa was dragged from his dining room table in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and beaten to death by soldiers. The deaths of Khosa and Floyd both made headlines, of course; most South Africans know who they are and what happened to them. But they triggered no discernible township protest and no resistance to the lockdown. Indeed, the survey reported on above, in which three-quarters of people thought that their rights should be traded to fight the pandemic, was conducted a week after Floyd’s death.

The depth of this quietude is puzzling; the South African state does not boast the resounding trust of its citizens. Police officers are widely regarded as corrupt and incompetent. The thieving that has gone on in the highest ranks of the ruling party is the talk of the street. And the proposition that not nearly enough has changed for the poor since the beginning of democracy is common cause. Nor are South Africans new to protest. For nearly two decades now, poor settlements across the country have at regular intervals seen what South Africans call ‘service delivery protests’, many of them violent and carnivalesque, over housing shortages and inadequate infrastructure. One might also have imagined that in a country where ordinary people are pretty mistrustful of authority, the spectral nature of the threat, a virus that had not yet caused visible harm, might be greeted with more scepticism than it has been.

If the acquiescence is puzzling, it is also disturbing. For a population that has experienced democracy for a quarter of a century to submit so readily to an occupation that came from nowhere, an occupation reserved only for people who are both black and poor, does not speak of civic health.

From whence does this apparent acceptance come? One part of a possible answer is that Ulrich Beck’s risk society is ubiquitous now; it has been internalised by the preponderance of people even in the poorest settlements of South Africa’s cities. Beck’s risk society, as I understand it, is a cultural formation that has internalised the prospect that its own activity might come to destroy it; built into everyday thought is an anticipation of catastrophe and built into action is the means to mitigate it. Adam Tooze has recently argued that the global response to COVID-19 – the immediate shutting down of swathes of economic activity across the planet – constitutes the first occasion in history where the risk society has expressed itself on a global scale. What we are witnessing, he argues, is ‘the anthropocene for itself’, a worldwide emergency measure grounded in a collective understanding of ourselves as a species whose relation to nature might wreak our own destruction.

Far more empirical research would have to be done to give this proposition flesh. But it is certainly worth pause for thought. A president goes on live television and tells the nation that a virus is coming from China and from Europe and that if we do not shut the country down at once untold numbers of us will die. Nobody has seen this virus. No-one is ill. People have only the word of their president to go by, buttressed by innumerable voices coming from abroad. The country has never shut down before; the action the president is ordering is unprecedented. And yet, if the survey results cited above are right, the president is believed, immediately, instinctively; a sizeable number of people are afraid; a sizeable number agree, not just to a set of restrictions on their activities never contemplated before, but to being policed in ways that in normal circumstances are intolerable.

It is hard not to conclude that such a catastrophe already resided in the collective imagination. The president says a great many things people do not believe; South Africa’s political classes are not, of late, regarded by the poor as the most credible bunch. But this was believed at once.

There is of course no shortage of catastrophic imagery in everyday life. The independent African churches, which have existed for over a century and to which millions of people adhere, have long painted the world in the colours of a Manichean drama (Cabrita, 2018), as have the newer evangelical movements that have arisen in more recent decades (Van Wyk, 2014). And both have understood the body’s physical and moral health to be connected. But I would hazard a guess that the fear invoked by the president’s message comes from elsewhere. The president’s words interpolated people, not as South Africans or as Christians, but as vulnerable biological ensembles, as members of a species spread across the globe, a species aware that it is in precarious relationships with other species and with itself.

Oftentimes in recent years while in conversation with working class South Africans I have been struck by how quickly frames of reference shift; one moment the conversation is deep inside the familiar frame of an old national narrative; the next my interlocutors have placed themselves in a global drama. In early 2017, for instance, I was dumbfounded when the black working-class South Africans sitting around a dining room table told me that they identified with the white Britons who had voted for Brexit and the white Americans who had voted for Trump. We all want to close our borders and look after our own, I was told; we are all afraid of a globalisation that has gone too far. It may well be that the same fear of a globalisation gone too far induced people to believe their president when he spoke of the coming pandemic.

If all this is so, there is some irony in what happened when South Africa locked down. Identifying as universally as anyone might – as members of an eight-billion strong population of human beings – people submitted to being policed like black people under apartheid. Such is the enormous power conferred upon the Leviathan when existential matters are at stake.


It could be, though – and here this essay enters the realm of speculation, for what follows is about the future – that while in the immediate term, in the face of a coming pandemic, the authority of the state over its people showed itself to be great, in the longer term, the pandemic and its effects will have the opposite consequence. For what the aftermath of the pandemic is likely to show, acutely, perhaps intolerably, is the frailty of national sovereignty, and, thus, the inadequacy of the Leviathan to do some of its most fundamental work.

From the beginning of modern times South African statecraft has been consumed by the fear of a loss of sovereign control, a fear shared as much by the country’s newer black rulers as by its older white ones. And for much of the country’s twentieth-century history, the Gods shined on South Africa’s rulers, for the precarity of its place in the world was shrouded by a large dollop of good fortune.

The first to point this out was CW De Kiewiet, one of the country’s greatest historians. Writing in 1941, he marvelled at South Africa’s luck. Modern capitalism had just been through the Great Depression, and South Africa, by rights, ought to have been battered, except that it had gold. ‘Here was an industry,’ De Kiewiet wrote, ‘which feared neither locusts nor cattle diseases, neither drought nor summer floods. Its product always commanded a ready sale in the financial centres of the world… Although very intimately part of the world’s economic system, South Africa was spared the fluctuations and crises that occurred between the Great war and the war against Hitler… Like a great flywheel the mining industry gave stability to a country that otherwise would have been singularly sensitive to movements in the world economy’ (De Kiewiet, 1941, p. 156).

Over the following three decades, the luck of which De Kiewiet wrote only got better. After war’s end, the global economy entered a quarter century of unprecedented growth, its primary store of value the gold under South Africa’s soil. Thanks to its strategic significance in the Cold War and the demand for its minerals, the ruling regime could do as it pleased. Its ruling party implemented grand apartheid while keeping full diplomatic relations with all the Western powers. Foreign capital poured in. Off the fat of these good times a fabulous infrastructure was built. Behind an import substitution regime a powerful manufacturing sector grew.

South Africa’s luck began running out, as it did for much of the world, with the oil shocks of the early 1970s. By the mid 1980s, its growth sclerotic, the gold beneath its soil no longer a buffer against global fluctuations, its increasing reliance on external debt proved its Achilles heel and effectively ended apartheid; in 1985, Chase Manhattan cut its credit lines to South Africa, triggering a wave of similar action from other financial institutions. Although the government could have gone on much longer, the international isolation sapped from the apartheid project what remained of its spirit.

In the mid 1990s, the country’s new democratically elected government, brought to power by a landslide electoral victory, its energy elevated by the grace of Nelson Mandela, inherited its predecessor’s great obsession with its sovereignty. So much so that two years after coming to power it began implementing a self-imposed structural adjustment programme, slashing its deficit and promising to privatise many of the public utilities left by white rule, all to avoid the prospect of dependence on the Bretton Woods institutions. Luck would have it that this era of self-chastening coincided with a long commodities supercycle, and so despite the frugality, there was enough to go around. Inequality increased, as did unemployment, but redistributive cash-transfers grew considerably more generous. By the time the Great Recession came in 2008, pretty much everybody was better off than they had been under apartheid. The country’s 2011 census showed that household income for the bottom two deciles of the population had increased in real terms by some 25 per cent.

The Great Recession changed all of this, of course. From 2013, per capita income began declining for the first time since the 1980s. Various social pathologies grew. Having dropped spectacularly since the mid 1990s, the murder rate increased for the first time in the democratic era. But the ruling ANC, now in the hands the corrupt and profligate Jacob Zuma, appeared to be in a state of denial. The public sector wage bill grew steadily just as tax revenue flattened; the ruling party’s core constituencies thus spent seven years living in a bubble, unaffected by the decline around it. They in fact became a little wealthier; the real incomes of the country’s 2.1 million civil servants grew by 15 per cent from 2013 to 2019 while much of the rest of the country grew poorer. The poorest were also protected somewhat from the decline by moderate increases in the value of cash transfers. But the cost of sheltering these core constituencies from decline was of course a steady rise in sovereign debt. The debt to GDP ratio rose from 34 per cent in 2010 to 62 per cent at the beginning of 2020. The spectre South African rulers had been fleeing since the advent of democracy, the loss of sovereign control to the country’s creditors, was, for the first time since the ANC had taken power, a live possibility.

And then Covid-19 came and settled the matter in one fell swoop. As the country locked down, tax revenue plummeted. The cost of sovereign debt soared. It is the strangest moment. The country is in a state of suspension, living in what is to all intents and purposes the past, the reality of the present not yet playing out. Whether the country will default on its loans and end up in an adjustment programme is, in a sense, secondary. In every possible scenario, the country can no longer simultaneously do the three things that hold the current regime together: service its debt, ensure that life gets incrementally better for its core constituencies, and avert hunger among the poor. The structure of the situation erected at the beginning of democracy has broken.

It is so early in the day. It would be foolish to try to predict precisely what will happen over the next few years. The most helpful model to help think about the near future is surely the political turmoil of the global 1970s. A collective loss of faith in the future; a fragmentation and an unseemly scramble to get what one can from the present; industrial action on a large scale; an uptick in public-sector corruption; a private sector hungry to profit from the chaos; a weakening of the credibility of democracy; a growing threat to the independence of the courts.

A decade hence, when we look back at the way South Africans responded to the coming of Covid-19, the irony will surely be as sad as it is stark. In the face of a global threat long imagined, people took shelter under the cover of the Leviathan, notwithstanding its many glaring imperfections. People acquiesced, even as it treated them like third-class citizens, for it was, after all, the only protector at hand. And yet the very process of shutting down weakened the Leviathan, perhaps intolerably so, robbing it of the capacity to look after people as it has done for the last 26 years. Such are the costs of living in the vulnerable zones of an unforgiving global economy, zones in which the quality of stewardship demanded of those who run nation states is demanding in the extreme.


Jonny Steinberg is Professor of African Studies at Oxford University and the author of several books about everyday life in the wake of South Africa’s transition to democracy, among them The Number, an account of crime and punishment, Three-Letter Plague, about the AIDS pandemic, and A Man of Good Hope, which examines migration and xenophobia. Email:   Twitter: @JonnySteinberg 

The feature image used for this article is by Alex Oelofse. Alex’s photographs will feature in a forthcoming publication as a part of the Living and Thinking Crisis project.


De Kiewiet, C. W. (1941) A history of South Africa: social & economic. London: Oxford University Press.

Van Wyk, I. (2014) A church of strangers: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

One thought on “Covid-19 and the future of sovereignty in South Africa

  1. Pingback: Update: Living and Thinking Crisis online series | thesis eleven

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