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2022-12-26 at 17:09 #387144Nat QuinnKeymaster
The Covid pandemic freshly queried how we define ‘freedom’ and ‘to live’. Meanwhile, political actors sought to shape and exploit such views.
A year ago China’s high command could smugly presume its Covid policies evidenced superior leadership. As their recent reversal leaves only one country, North Korea, still relying on a zero-Covid strategy, we should be able to objectively consider some reasonably straightforward insights. Yeah, right.
How people around the world reacted to the pandemic often reflected their wanting ‘to live’. For some this meant dodging death; for others it was about embracing life. China used the pandemic to further institutionalise its leaders’ contempt for freedom and individual rights. South Africa’s initially favourable response to the lockdown showed how a desperate longing for public sector delivery capabilities could trigger tolerance for authoritarian controls.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in the direct aftermath of its ‘no limits’ alignment with China has reframed the global dialogue – while choking food and energy supplies. Meanwhile, left versus right cleavages are so adversarial in so many countries that it’s difficult to objectively learn from how nearly all governments have stumbled badly in trying to balance individual freedoms with a formidable threat to public health and economic well-being.
Pandemics challenging societies and governments is not new. However, 21st century political debates have become polarised to the point that we have wobbled inconclusively when trying to distinguish what works from what doesn’t. The causes include politicians seeking to both shape – and exploit – attitudes toward freedom. This is particularly familiar here, as our ruling party has long referenced its struggle credentials while routinely ignoring how successful countries achieve high growth.
Now, with China’s sudden abolishing of its zero-Covid policy, the pandemic’s legacy is even more likely to be seen as a trade-off between the freedom to live life versus authoritarian efforts to minimise deaths. For over a generation, China’s prosperity has been roaring amid ever more ubiquitous surveillance smothering personal liberties. South Africa’s situation has been nearly the opposite.
Have oppressive regimes in countries like China, Russia and Iran limited freedoms beyond what is sustainable? Is South Africa’s political economy on a non-viable path as expressed by our obscene level of entrenched youth unemployment? Which way is up? By what stars are we to navigate?
We celebrate universal voting rights yet a majority of South Africans are entrenched in life-long poverty while none of our leaders offers a viable solution. Freedom requires more than an impressive constitution.
In many European and North American universities, graduates have long been expected to appreciate how the journey from might-is-right to constitutional democracies was navigated. The ancient Greeks and Romans got the ball rolling but then the Church advanced an ethical doctrine which long coexisted with monarchies and feudal structures.
The transition has long been taught using a somewhat standardised reading list that spans Machiavelli and Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and so on. These political theorists were as creative as Jobs, Zuckerberg or Musk – and far more impactful.
This year we began exiting both the pandemic and the relatively benign three decades of post-Cold War global politics. Political polarisation has impeded our agreeing on insights from either event. By way of contrast, when Francis Fukuyama began developing his ‘End of History’ argument prior to the Berlin Wall’s fall, he built on GWF Hegel’s contention that the pursuit of freedom was the central concept in human history.
Hegel is a towering figure in modern philosophy yet he doesn’t sit among those who built the signature achievement of Western political thought, constitutional democracies. Rather, thirty years ago Fukuyama was making the case that Western liberal democracy, and the freedoms that it affords, had prevailed over alternative forms of government and that this represented the ‘end of history’ in a Hegelian sense. Given subsequent events, Fukuyama has backtracked.
It was amid this historically effusive moment that South Africa pivoted to embrace universal suffrage enshrined by constitutionally instituted protections. We judged our challenges to be predominantly political and this pivot was to provoke true freedom.
Our current response to a majority of South Africans being trapped in poverty is to find the funding for basic income grants. This signals acceptance that a majority of our healthy young adults must contend with dreadful lifetime employment prospects.
Our New South Africa was born amid a uniquely optimistic point in human history. Political freedoms were peaking globally while the percentage of humans living in harsh poverty was plunging.
Our Covid years need to be remembered as the phase that sparked a reawakening. Being locked down is not living. Relying on subsistence payments is not living.
This year will be remembered internationally as the year when the post-Cold War era ended. Here in South Africa, 2022 needs to be seen as the last year when our ruling party’s dated liberation credentials could cloud awareness of how their policies preclude a majority of South Africans from being able to achieve economic freedom.
We should start next year by freshly assessing what we mean by ‘freedom’ and ‘to live’.
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