This is the first of a series of occasional articles providing a snapshot of how the coronavirus is being experienced in different countries throughout the world, with a focus on how it is affecting the most vulnerable and marginalised.
Known as the ‘rainbow nation’ because of its diverse multi-ethnic society, South Africa has been a beacon of inspiration for many for its peaceable transition in 1994 from the grim legacy of the racist system of Apartheid and enforced white minority rule to a fully democratic and legally racially integrated society under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
Despite this remarkable achievement, South Africa remains a deeply unequal country, with an overwhelming gap between rich and poor. The economic legacy of Apartheid persists, with the great divide between rich and poor still very much on racial lines. The country is ranked in the top ten, globally, for income disparity.
Wealthy suburbs contrast with sprawling shantytowns, often with poor sanitation and other facilities, where residents may have to queue for running water from a communal tap. Many of the poorest citizens, especially those living in rural regions, suffer from malnutrition.
Crime, in particular, gender-based violence, remains an enduring problem, with rape, murder, and other crimes of violence against women and children at rates described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as comparable to that of a country at war.
HIV is also a significant issue in South Africa, with an estimated seven million people living with the condition, the highest in the world.
South Africa’s Response to Covid 19
On March 23rd 2020, with coronavirus cases escalating rapidly, Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day lockdown. This intensified existing restrictions since the declaration of National Disaster the previous week and the closing of schools. The already strained resources of the South African healthcare system, in particular, the lack of critical facilities, has meant that decisive action to halt the spread of the disease has been especially urgent.
Enforced by army and police with military vehicles entering many towns, the lockdown allows for only a small number of essential workers.
An impressive aid package amounting to £22 billion has been put in place to protect businesses and livelihoods, but as in the UK, there will be a delay in this being rolled out as well as anxiety about how to negotiate the formalities of making a claim.
The strict lockdown has been an undisputed success in slowing the rate of Covid 19 infection and mortality in South Africa with rates of infection low compared to Europe and North America. The relative prosperity of South Africa means it is able to offer its citizens a level of economic support and medical and testing resources beyond what is available to much of the rest of the continent. There has been a steep price to pay, however, for much of the country.
Six weeks into lockdown, hardship is kicking in and tensions are rising.
The already fragile South African economy has gone into freefall since the lockdown, with unemployment up to 40% and the rand down by 30% against the pound and the dollar.
Many people living in cities, such as women street traders and those providing domestic and other services, have lost their only precarious source of income. In rural areas, farmers have been hindered by the terms of the lockdown from going out and working on their land.
This situation, combined with the slowness of aid and food supplies to reach people has led to desperation, with reports of women raiding supermarkets for food, attacks on trucks delivering to supermarkets and outbreaks of rioting in the areas around Johannesburg and Cape Town, often sparked by the failed delivery of food parcels.
The army has been criticised for its heavy-handedness in policing the lockdown, with two people killed and around 120 000 arrests. For some, this level of aggressive state intervention has evoked the dark days of Apartheid.
The crime rate has gone down overall, with the ban on sales of alcohol reducing the number of violent incidents and the lockdown inhibiting robbery. However, in a country with existing high rates of gender violence, mounting reports to the NGO 1,000 Women One Voice suggest that the lockdown has put many women in a dangerous situation, being confined at home with their abuser and away from sources of support and protection from family and friends.
Maintaining self-isolation is by no means an easy task for those living in overcrowded, substandard urban housing, who have no option but to leave their homes in order to access communal water taps and toilets.
The majority of children do not have access to the internet or a computer at home and so have difficulty continuing schoolwork. Many also miss the benefits of a school lunch.
The Homeless Under Lockdown
Life has been especially hard for those on the very margins of society. A report from the Amos Trust describes the effect of the lockdown on the homeless youth of the city of Durban, based on the work of Umthombo, an organisation which works with children and young people living on the streets.
According to the terms of the lockdown, all homeless people were to be allocated secure accommodation. While this initially sounded promising, it transpired that this compulsory accommodation in Durban took the form of an underground car park into which men, women and children were indiscriminately moved by police and military forces.
Disturbing reports have emerged of the ill-treatment of homeless people in this ‘shelter’ including physical violence at the hands of staff. Food is minimal and with people initially all being kept together, women were especially vulnerable to sexual assault. Young people also expressed anxiety to Umthombo about their risk of contracting disease such as TB in these confined conditions. Many young people have left the shelter and returned to the streets, but they are liable to be picked up and returned at any time by the military or police.
Other street children and young people, including girls with babies, have remained sheltering in abandoned buildings on the edge of the city. The enforcement of lockdown has prevented their accessing food and water as the police chase them back into their makeshift homes whenever they venture out to find supplies. Fortunately, Umthombo has now been recognised as an essential service and is allowed to provide outreach and essential supplies to this population.
You can find out more about Umthombo and donate to support their work here.
A Prayer from the Rev. Adeline Domingo, Chaplain to the Mothers’ Union in George Diocese
As we build our Hope and Confidence in God. We will be inspired and equipped to build hope and confidence in the lives of others.
Almighty and merciful Father, Jesus Christ, healer of all, we ask you dear Lord, in this time of uncertainty stay by our side. We need you dear Lord.
In this time of uncertainty and sorrow, be with all those families and friends who have died from the virus.
We pray for all our doctors, nurses, researchers and medical professionals who seek to heal and help those affected and who put themselves at risk in this process.
Be with all our Leaders of all nations. Give them your Wisdom, Protection and Peace.
My dear Lord our Hope and Confidence is in you. You have opened the door of heaven through your plan of salvation. You have paved the way for us to know joyous relationship with God, you have shined a light for us to see the love of the Father and Son.
Whatever today may hold, whatever tomorrow might bring, the future is secure, for Christ is with us, the same yesterday, today and forever. Live each moment with him in quiet confidence and joyful celebration, for he is ours and we are his for all eternity. Amen
Lord hear our prayers, build our hope, renew our confidence in you.