When things fall apart in the era of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter

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A sign reading "Black Lives Matter" is painted in orange on Fulton Street in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

The world is crumbling amid Covid-19, and the global economy is on the verge of a depression that has not been seen since the second world. The spectre of unemployment, inequality and poverty that is staring at the world population will be unprecedented. In South Africa, we are expecting an economic contraction of 7% this year. There is no end in sight, and the popular opinion is that the Covid-19 is here to stay and that we will have to live with it. At times like these, I am reminded of, The Second Coming, the poem by W.B. Yeats, which starts as follows:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre  

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst  

Are full of passionate intensity.”

This poem so much influenced one of Africa’s foremost writers, Chinua Achebe, that he took an expression from this poem when he wrote one the most famous novels, entitled Things Fall Apart. This is a book about the transition from independent people to colonised people. The main protagonist in this story is an Igbo man called Okonkwo, who had three wives and ten children in Umuofia village (in present-day Nigeria). He was a respected leader of Umuofia who earned his worth by his prowess in wrestling. His biggest fear was to be like his father Unoka, who was deemed to be feminine and was so disrespected that when he died, his body was left to rot in the forest without a proper burial. Because of his hyper-masculinity and the advice of the village Oracle, Okonkwo killed his adopted son Ikemefuna because he did not want to appear feminine and weak in the eyes of his community.

Later, Okonkwo accidentally killed a member of his clan and, consequently, he was exiled to Mbanta, his mother’s place for seven years. While he was away, his community changed and started to adopt the Christian religion, much to Okonkwo’s dismay. While in exile, Okonkwo’s son Nwoye, whom he deemed to be feminine like his father Unoka, adopted Christianity. As a consequence, he disowned him. When Okonkwo returned to his village from exile, he found the village entirely changed by Christianity and the British settlers. The British and Christians had taken a firm foothold of Umuofia. One day Okonkwo and members of the village burnt the church, and he and other men were incarcerated by the British colonial court, humiliated and physically beaten. They were then released, and at a village meeting, Okonkwo – seething for Umuofia to revolt against the white establishment – killed one of the colonial officers who was trying to stop the meeting. Everyone seemed to be disappointed with his actions and to avoid being tried in a British court, he hanged himself, something that was scorned in the Igbo culture.

So, what is the moral of the story? Okonkwo was a man at the period of a transition between independent people and colonised people. Transitions are hard and are often fraught with dangers. In Physics, there is a concept called phase transition when an object change from one state to another. For example, water undergoes a phase transition at a temperate of 0oC to become ice. Unlike water where the transition to ice is perfectly reversible, societies transitions are not entirely reversible. For example, the transition from independent to colonial society is not entirely reversible. The African independence movements did not reverse colonialism entirely. However, at independence, colonisation was in many ways replaced by neo-colonialism. Paraphrasing the South African activist and intellectual, Harold Wolpe, colonialism became “colonialism of a special type”.  

These transitions mean something has to “fall apart” or die, and in Okonkwo and his community’s case, his culture and independence died. What was the fault line with Okonkwo’s village? Poet W.B Yeats surmised that societies collapse or fall apart because of two forces, and these are internal contradictions and external forces. Umuofia died because this village could not defend itself from external forces such as British colonialism and Christian invasion. It also died because of internal contradictions such as deep superstitions and hyper-masculinity, which is violent towards women and men who are seen as weaklings and excludes them from decision-making to the detriment of society. Why were outside forces more powerful to displace an existing culture that had been around for a long time? Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo surmised that the trinity instruments of conquest are guns, bible and coin, whereas Jared Diamond thinks they are guns, steel and germs. Umuofia collapsed because of guns, bible and commerce.

We are also living in an era where there is a phase transition to the post-Covid-19 world. Covid -19 is a coronavirus that has spread across the globe and led the world economy to a halt. Globally, by the 22 June 2020, Covid-19 had infected 9 million people, and 471000 others had died. Of course, the statistics are much worse because many people who have been infected are asymptomatic and, therefore, show no signs of the disease and therefore are neither tested nor counted. At the same time in South Africa, Covid -19 had infected 102 000 people and killed 1991 others. This pandemic has spurned the birth of a new culture and has destroyed some aspects of our culture.  For example, social distancing, wearing of masks and using online platforms such as zoom and MS Teams for meetings, teaching and learning are becoming the standard practice. Some of these practices are transitionary and will disappear, but much of them shall remain as the new normal.

At the same time in Minnesota, an African-American man George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman, and this led to the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement has become a global phenomenon with significant protest actions in Europe, America and New Zealand. Why this movement has not gotten a foothold in the African continent, is an interesting sociological phenomenon that requires an in-depth study. The confluence of Donald Trump-style of politics, police violence, economic hardship and Covid-19 has led to the downfall of statues such as those of Christopher Columbus in the US, mass murderer Leopold in Belgium, and slave trader Edward Colston in the UK. Today the bust of Winston Churchill in London is guarded because of the pressure for it to fall. What do all these mean? We are entering a phase transition to the new world that hopefully freed itself from the past atrocities? Can past crimes ever be exorcised from our collective consciousness? Does the ensuing chaos offer us an opportunity to create a new and better world, where exploitation is the thing of the past? These are hard questions that need to be studied. In response, the University of Johannesburg will be establishing an Institute for Gender, Race and Class specifically to investigate the person that shall emerge out of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Covid-19.     

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.  He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.