July 16, 2021
See how the media works hard to avoid connecting social protests around the world? It’s all about Zuma, Macron and Le Pen, and countless local squabbles. In Britain it’s almost always about hanky-panky or someone’s knickers not being fit for purpose. The spirit of Benny Hill lives forever.
Funnily enough, in October 2019, the BBC was all in favour of seeking out commonalities: Do today’s global protests have anything in common?
Not today. The state and corporatist media are looking for any excuse other than lockdown or the rollout of the Covid shot for the disturbances in South Africa. The country’s poor have demonstrated growing alarm at food shortages for more than a year. Now the press is linking it to the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.
Reality is complex. Rioters have attacked farms, reportedly closing sugar mills in the industry’s heartland Kwazulu-Natal. Other farmers say trucks and transport routes have been attacked, halting exports of citrus fruit.
Like the 2020 protests in American cities the cause and the effect are often quite separate and seemingly contradictory. Protests organized in the name of Black Lives Matter led to riots that burned Black American businesses.
Event Covid is closely linked to the economic dislocation that underlies the South African protests. They began last year when South Africans burned masks in opposition to what they suspected to be the experimental vaccination of those with the weakest voice, the least able to make their concerns heard except by scenes of physical disturbance.
Writer and political commentator Phapano Phasha, one of the organizers of the 2020 protests, said at the time: “The people chosen as volunteers for the vaccination look as if they’re from poor backgrounds, not qualified enough to understand. We believe they are manipulating the vulnerable.”
Since then food shortages have worsened, exacerbated by one of the harshest lockdowns that began in the second quarter of 2020 and by an intermittent drought that has lasted for three growing seasons. Violent attacks on farms accelerated last year and long pre-date Zuma’s arrest.
In 2018 already more than one in 10 South Africans suffered from hunger, according to Statistics South Africa, while more than a quarter of children were afflicted with stunted growth.
In Phasha’s view, the economic dislocation and the arrest of former president Zuma are linked. If Zuma is corrupt, he is hardly alone among the political elite. She says his prosecution is a distraction, perhaps a sop, to divert attention while “black children [go] to bed hungry and stunted because of malnutrition while minorities and the new black elite continue to live their best life.”
Western media has tended to report on the disruption to food supplies from the perspective of farmers. Yet in Durban, the coastal city of KwaZulu-Natal, people now have to queue outside the few shops that are open. Bread is in short supply. A three-month “social relief of distress” grant of 350 rand, about $25, ended in April and has left some people reliant on soup kitchens.
Lockdown has disrupted society and pushed up unemployment to an official rate (almost certainly an underestimate) of near 33 per cent. The country had already banned gatherings on the pretext of Covid and extended the curfew.
Zimbabwe, facing similar social pressures, has an even earlier tocsin, forcing businesses to close by 15:30 and all to be indoors by 18:30. Companies have to operate at 40 per cent capacity, with most staff working remotely — and too bad if their job can’t be done online. Intercity travel is banned except for food and medicine.
It is hard not to see Covid restrictions as a cover for political suppression. Countries too numerous to mention are extending curfews — Rwanda, Guinea, Bhutan and Nepal, Brazil, Philippines, parts of Australia — and who knows which of these lockdowns serves to restrict dissent.
There are always protests, and reasons for officials to want to squelch them. As I write:
Colombia has protests against tax reform and the further privatization of health services.
Iran’s retirees plan nationwide protests for higher pensions and better healthcare, while in the southwest street protests have erupted over water shortages.
Peruvians are disputing election results.
Lebanon’s demonstrations continue after Saad Hariri failed to form a government.
Indians are protesting rising fuel prices.
Most tellingly, lockdown took the steam out of several long-running protests including the French gilets jaunes and the Hong Kong protests over extradition laws. That didn’t stop Kowloon marchers returning to the streets in September 2020 and French citizens have added to their campaign the issues of mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers and plans for a two-tier regime for those who decline the Covid shot.
Protests around the world have condemned official over-reach, especially with regards to government denials about vaccine passports which clearly have been in the planning for years. Israelis have managed to defeat their Green Pass, so far, through non-cooperation.
Governments remain vulnerable to the building of coalitions between those fighting the restrictions to fundamental liberties that have only increased with the Covid lockdown. Protest platforms that pre-date Covid are now linked with those that resist the agenda to degrade living standards, along with barely-concealed plans for austerity and privatization in education, health care and other public services.
We should be cautious about simply giving governments a bloody nose. The powers behind Event Covid may be quite happy to let governments fall if it accelerates the shift to undemocratic rule by mandate.
Still, it is clear why the state-corporatist media has an interest in portraying protests as single-issue campaigns on disparate domestic issues unique to alienated and isolated populations. The last thing they want is for diverse peoples to build cross-border coalitions that unite them in fighting for livelihoods, health and children.
Globalism is, it seems, is narrowly defined by the media as a network of corporations and financial institutions; a confluence of interests of concern to the supra-national rich, aka stakeholders. Globalization is not welcome if it represents the coming together of ordinary people who see a common interest in standing up for their rights.
If you have read this far you’ll probably have noted that South Africa is one of the continent’s countries best able to feed its people. You see the protests on your television screens because it has a large and international media pool. You also hear about the civil conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, though significantly less about the conflicts in Uganda, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, let alone the food shortages in Madagascar and Kenya.
Many of these countries suffer from foreign meddling driven by grabs for resources – to which they can now add the diversion of the international financial institutions away from development to the official Covid agenda, along with whatever covert pursuits may be undertaken in its name.
Hundreds of millions of people are underfed according to the United Nations. Its answer, not surprisingly, is to call for a universal basic income, confusing a means of monitoring and exchange with means of survival.
Africa has seen unusual mortality in its political class this past year. Despite its low incidence in the general African population, we are told that Covid carried off Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, Tanzania’s John Magafuli and numerous senior African officials.
One month before Magafuli’s death in March 2021, The Guardian wrote:
“He knows Ghana’s former president, Jerry John Rawlings, has died from the virus. So too has former Congo-Brazzaville president Jacques Joaquim Yhombi-Opango. Last month four Zimbabwe cabinet ministers, including Sibusiso Moyo, the army general turned foreign minister who helped oust Robert Mugabe, died of Covid. In Malawi, four government officials, including two cabinet ministers, succumbed.
In Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), the prime minister, Ambrose Dlamini, fell to the virus. Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, has died, as has Libya’s former prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, and Somalia’s former prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein. In Burundi, Tanzania’s neighbour, two former presidents – Pierre Nkurunziza and Pierre Buyoya – have died from Covid-19. The African Union secured 270m doses of Covid vaccine for member states to supplement their efforts, highlighting the strong resurgence in cases and deaths that is sweeping through the continent.
Yet Magufuli sticks bizarrely to asserting that Covid is a hoax.”
The toll among African politicians is markedly higher than anything seen in the Western nations where Covid is supposedly rampant. Still others died by mysterious hand, such as Chad’s Idriss Déby. With such turbulence on the political level, it is hardly surprising that an air of unease should spread among the populace.
The economic and political consequences of Event Covid have yet to reveal their full impact. The rioting and unrest in parts of South Africa may be just a foretaste of what is to come among its neighbours and further afield — perhaps closer to home for those of us in Europe and the Americas.