What Covid-19 teaches us about South Africa

The coronavirus crisis has further highlighted that South Africans live in the most unequal society on the planet. Can government work with ordinary people and economists to find a solution?

As the rain fell on day five of the national lockdown and many people got to stay in the comfort of their homes, Lawrance Mashao, 45, had to take a monthly trip to collect his disability grant.

Mashao is from Alexandra, the township next to affluent Sandton. He leans on a wall, seeking shelter under some trees and looks on as hundreds of people – both the elderly and the young – try to enter the Pan Africa Shopping Centre in Alexandra to get their grants and buy the essentials that will keep them going during the 21-day lockdown.

“It has been chaotic,” says Mashao, who is diabetic and has foot ulcers that forced him to leave his job. He has been queuing since 6am. He needs the money.

Security won’t allow more than five people into the mall at a time. Not everyone will get their grants or be able to buy essentials today. As people enter, guards squirt sanitiser onto their hands.

At 9am, Mashao finally receives his grant.

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Researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand Melissa Myambo says the pandemic has again highlighted the country’s inequalities, which have been ignored for so long by so many. The government has to take responsibility, says Myambo, not only for what happens now, but also for what has happened in the past. “We have not had transformation, and we did not address the … chronic problems of inequality in society.”

Now we are going to pay the price.

Mashao is not the only one who has had to queue for hours. Phakama Mzalampa, 43, is unemployed and relies on her daughter and her two grandchildren’s social grants to survive.

“This is hard. We have been here since morning. I am still waiting outside,” she says, holding her two-year-old granddaughter. “We didn’t eat before we left the house, because we don’t have food. This one has izilonda [sores] on the mouth. I must go to the pharmacy and get her medication.”

30 March 2020: Phakama Mzalampa and her two-year-old granddaughter waited for the rain to stop before joining the Sassa queue.

In May last year, Statistics South Africa released the 2018 general household survey, which measured the process of development in the country. The survey indicated that social grants are the second most essential source of income in the country, with more than 40% of households relying on them.

“Over the years the number of social grants paid by the government increased from approximately 2 million in 1994 to more than 17.5 million to date. The majority of these grants, in excess of 12 million, are children grants. The South African government now spends more than R160 billion annually to carry out the social assistance programme,” Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu wrote in the department’s 2019/2020 annual performance plan document.

‘We are on our own’

On the first day of lockdown, S’bu Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, explained that the government has been neglecting shack dwellers. “We don’t count … We are on our own … We find ourselves not only confined like everybody else, but we also feel helpless. We feel we have failed our communities.”

Zikode sees no measures in place in crowded shack settlements – where it is impossible to either self-isolate or practise social distancing – to prohibit the spread of Covid-19.

“[The possibility of isolation] doesn’t apply to people who are already living disastrous lives,” he says.

Myambo agrees with Zikode. “Imagine … one of [the] people [living in a shack] gets sick, should the others not stay in the shack? … It is not a question of whether they don’t want to, it is a question of whether they can even if they wanted to,” she says.

Before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national lockdown, leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo tried to educate their members about Covid-19, worrying that should the virus get into the close confines of these communities, it would spread rapidly. This is especially dangerous with the high incidence of comorbidities, including HIV/Aids.

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“That’s why we have been very worried, working as hard as we can… This virus should never at some point [infect] a shack dweller who is not protected.”

What Zikode was afraid of happened on 30 March when the health department confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in Alexandra.

Zikode believes the government is doing the right thing by authorising a lockdown but is concerned that those without formal employment will suffer. “People will be hungry. There is a shift of worrying about Covid-19 to that of thinking about where your next meal will come from.”

30 March 2020: A man sprays sanitiser on the hands of customers waiting to buy meat in Alexandra on the day Sassa paid out social grants.

Loopholes in relief policies

Bandile Ngidi, economist at the Institute for Economic Justice, explains how the current economic measures to combat the fallout from Covid-19 exclude marginalised populations.

“There are measures that benefit the formal sector. If someone has a formal job, with employment protection such as the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), they are going to be protected. But workers, like casual workers and people who work shorter hours and are not formally employed, suffer because they are not in the UIF,” Ngidi says.

Government or bank interventions for businesses have requirements that limit access. “To rescue businesses, banks have been giving payment holidays … In order to access that help you have to be a business that was … functioning properly before Covid-19 struck. You have to be tax compliant. So if you are a small business that is not in any way connected to a bank, you are going to struggle to access those relief measures.”

30 March 2020: Alexandra residents wait in line to enter the mall to collect their grants and buy supplies.

New ways of thinking

Ngidi says that while fighting the pandemic, the government should see that old solutions do not work and must adopt new ways of thinking.

“For example, our national treasury has been afraid to increase spending in order to respond to this pandemic. If you look at what other countries are doing internationally, they are pumping resources [into the economy].”

In response to the crisis, other governments have used stimulus packages but “South Africa hasn’t really done that”. He points out that although there are regulations in place in different departments, the government should consider some of the proposals suggested by progressive economists.

“[Measures would include] things like the call to increase the child support grants and [to] try and increase support to informal traders,” says Ngidi.

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