The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a crisis in South Africa, and despite rising infection rates, President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared that the country will move to level 3 lockdown. Under level 3 a number of businesses will be allowed to operate including salons, restaurants offering sit down meals, cinemas amongst others. It seems that we as a country have accepted that life must go on and loss of life will be an inevitable consequence.
However, there will be significant repercussions beyond the loss of life, and the effects of the pandemic will be disproportionate in communities around the country. The biggest impact is expected to be the loss of employment for a large number of South Africans. The Government of South Africa has in the past always managed to ensure that the average person has access to an income in the form of wages or salary. However, as unemployment rises, an unprecedented number of people will be pushed into the informal economy, which in the past has never really been supported by the government. It has been predicted that unemployment rates in South Africa could rise to 50%(1) from the current circa 30% (2).
This paper seeks to highlight a number of vulnerabilities which generally tend to appear and create public angst in times of crises, and these challenges have revealed themselves within the Covid-19 crisis. It will also make recommendations on the steps Governments and individuals must take to avoid increased hunger, inequality and the rise of Nationalism and Xenophobia.
Across the world we have seen an increase in incidents of xenophobia and discrimination. Black African students in China were evicted from their places of residence and barred from entering restaurants as they were believed to be infected with the virus. Chinese Americans have also faced discrimination in America with Chinese restaurants seeing decreased demand for their goods. Public anxiety is whipped up by political leaders like Trump who entrench xenophobia by labelling the Coronavirus a Chinese virus. Across the world, we continue to see walls pop up and the language of othering becoming acceptable. This reality has appeared in South Africa and could get worse – even explode in violence. South Africa has witnessed increased discrimination against non-South African nationals in recent times, notably due to increasing unemployment among black South Africans. Immigrants are blamed for taking up jobs and leaving South Africans jobless and unable to feed their families. Before COVID-19 immigrants did not find much protection from the state and other institutions. There were a number of attacks in Soshanguve and Diepsloot, and although the Government promised to investigate the perpetrators of these deeds, almost nobody has been held accountable for the massive xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals. It took days of xenophobic flare ups in 2019 before the ruling ANC spoke up against it and downplayed the incidents (3).
Within the Coronavirus lockdown, we also witnessed some anti-foreigner policies in action. When the lockdown was decreed, the Ministerial Task Team announced that spaza shops could operate. However, foreign-owned spaza shops were ordered to shut down. It was only after a major outcry from communities that rely on these spaza shops that the government authorized them to reopen. And when the President announced post-Covid stimulus measures, the Finance Minister Tito Mboweni insisted that business needed to ensure that South Africans were prioritised for jobs during and after COVID-19 (4). Labor Minister Thulas Nxesi was also seeking to formalise new policies which will restrict the number of foreign nationals working in certain parts of the economy (5).
Anti-foreigner sentiment is likely to get worse during and after the COVID-19 era. Economists predict that there will be massive job losses in South Africa as shuttered businesses fail to reopen. Nedbank estimates that the country will shed 1.6 million jobs in 2020 with most being lost during the first half of the year. Anti-foreigner rhetoric will find fertile ground in an already discontent and fragile population. It may lead to higher incidences of xenophobia in the country and there is a risk that this may become the new normal. There is increasing risk that right-wing populism will erode the gains made by the left in past decades.
The Coronavirus pandemic is exposing and exacerbating already existing racial and economic inequalities. Oxfam has already reported that 8 billionaires now own half of the world’s wealth (6), and that the wealth of the one percent has grown by almost 500 billion US-dollars within the pandemic. South Africa, a country with one of the highest gini coefficients in the world is feeling the effects of this skewed growth.
In order to stop the spread of the virus there is a need to physically distance from one another. There is continued reiteration by political figures that we can determine the extent to which the virus will spread throughout the community based on how much people go out or stay indoors. South Africans who have the means to do so can stay indoors over a long period of time. However, it is not possible for low income communities where people need to work every day in order to get food for their families. Neo-liberal policies have allowed the low-income communities to live in conditions of squalor, sometimes with over seven people packed into tiny rooms and even sharing a single ablution facility. It is impossible for these communities to practice physical distancing let alone isolate. Should anyone in the community contract the virus, it is likely to spread like wildfire.
The race issue can also not be ignored when looking at life after COVID-19. Black people in South Africa generally earn less, work informal jobs and are more likely to face unemployment than their white counterparts. A report by Agence France Presse (2019) reveals that 24 years into the democratic project income earnings remained “heavily racialised” and white South Africans were still earning three times more than black South Africans. The same report reveals that the average monthly earning among blacks – who account for 80% of the population – was R6, 899, while the figure was R24, 646 for whites (7).
Black South Africans face 32% unemployment rate compared to a 9.8% unemployment rate for white South Africans (8). They are more likely to live in townships and squatter camps where they are unlikely to be able to physical distance. Black people are also less likely to have medical aid, leaving them dependent on the dilapidated and overburdened public sector infrastructure. Additionally, those working in informal economies may find it hard to recover post lockdown with some informal business facing closure. So this is a generalised problem which the South African government should be working proactively to solve.
The United Nations has warned, there is an impending food emergency should governments not act now to make sure that there are enough food reserves going forward. There has been a massive disruption is supply chains with the closing of boarders and grounding of airlines on every continent. At the beginning of the hard lockdown the Government of South Africa closed informal markets for weeks whilst allowing supermarkets to remain open. This left a large number of small scale food producers unable to get their produce to customers and produce rotting on farms. It also left customers who cannot afford or for some other reason are unable to buy food produce in supermarkets vulnerable. South Africa has closed its borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique at various times, with the impacts being felt as far away as Zambia and DRC. These economic disruptions increase the risk of hunger, particularly for low income communities in South Africa and beyond.
In South Africa, food price inflation has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent report indicates that the cost of a nutritious food basket for a family of 5 was R3, 336.14 per month which is just less than the national minimum wage. This will mean that the number of people having access to nutritious food will be few and many will face malnutrition and possible hunger.
There are three main channels by which the Right to Food should be realised in South Africa, including: 1) own production – which requires access and control over productive resources; 2) purchasing of food – which requires ability to earn income either through employment, self-employment or social transfers; and 3) direct food aid.
In the case of South Africa, land for food production remains in the hands of a few, leaving most people unable to produce even part of their own food. The majority of the country’s inhabitants are dependent on retail outlets for food. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extent of food vulnerability in South Africa with hundreds of thousands of people registering for food parcels in every province in the country. However, even more people will become food insecure as retrenchments and unemployment continue to grow. This will put even more pressure on social grants. The current grant worth R x given by the Government, is not enough to cover the costs of food, accommodation and other costs for most. When people have to choose, it is likely that they will skip meals, which will probably lead to high acute malnutrition.
As we struggle through the COVID-19 surge, it is becoming clear that a number of fissures are beginning to appear in the South African democratic experiment. The lockdown is expanding the gap between the rich and the poor, with blacks feeling the brunt of the financial inequality. They also feel the brunt of layoffs and growing unemployment. At the same time, there is rising acute malnutrition as people struggle to feed themselves. From Khayelitsha to Olivenhoutbosch, people have risked life and limb as they defied physical distancing rules to flock to distribution centres for food parcels. There is also rising anti-foreigner sentiment as various thought leaders openly call for South Africans to be prioritised, especially in areas which have been known to employ foreign nationals.
For the reasons cited above, the government needs to proactively adopt a number of solutions:
Firstly, it needs to ensure that the R 800 billion stimulus package announced by President Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni be used as an opportunity to channel more resources to vulnerable communities. The income gap can only be corrected by steering more financial support to low-income groups and rural areas in particular through public works projects, agriculture development, reskilling and skills development, co-operatives and other measures.
Secondly, the Government must ensure that everyone has enough food to eat. As the COVID-19 issues grow, measures must be put in place today to channel food support to all communities. Piece jobs and side jobs have disappeared within the Coronavirus pandemic and the fights over food parcels and the work of NGOs and CSOs has revealed just how bad malnutrition is around the country.
Thirdly, the government needs to start working to deal with xenophobia and anti-foreign discourse in public spaces now. Xenophobia and Nationalism must be denounced at the highest levels and the law must take its course should xenophobic violence flare up again.
Fourth, there is an urgent need for reform which will ensure that productive resources will lie in the hands of the majority. This will mean a need for reform in areas such as land and extractives. The pandemic has shown the vulnerability of those without access to productive resources in comparison to those who have.
Lastly, the Government must prepare for a larger informal sector through the Department of Small business development. It must put in place measures to support the informal sector and ensure that the fiscals benefits. These measures include policies and incentives to encourage profitability in the sector.