Perfect conditions for disease

Surplus to requirements

To say that the ANC’s response to the pandemic is ‘inadequate’ would be a total understatement, writes Peter Manson. As a result many thousands will pay the ultimate price.

Many commentators have pointed out that the death and destruction caused by the coronavirus in countries such as China, Italy, Spain and now Britain will be as nothing, compared to what might happen if Covid-19 were to take hold in more backward countries, particularly in Africa.

Well, now it has struck in several African countries and in this article I will focus on South Africa, where, as I write, the number of cases has suddenly soared towards the thousand mark (although no resulting deaths have yet been recorded). In order to understand the enormity of the threat facing the country, let me remind readers of a few basic statistics.

South Africa is officially the most unequal country in the world: while capitalist industrialisation is relatively developed compared to the rest of the continent, there are millions living in extreme poverty. There are officially 6.7 million unemployed (27%) across the country, but in reality that is a substantial understatement. What is more, out of a population of 58 million, no fewer that an estimated 12 million live in “informal settlements”: ie, shacks. The overwhelming majority of their adult inhabitants are officially unemployed - people who try to feed their families in whatever way they can, through petty buying and selling, taking on unofficial work, crime or just begging.

What about the living conditions in these shanty towns? Well, most have now got access to fresh water and in some cases even electricity (if they can afford to pay for it), but there is no running water in individual shacks - people often have to walk some distance to collect it - and there is often a long queue.

A few days ago, a South African newspaper reported: “To get water in Joko-Tea informal settlement, Anna Gqeba has to dispatch her two children to push a wheelbarrow stacked with 25-litre containers to the handful of taps in the area.” She is quoted as saying: “You see how we live here. Everything is dirty. We don’t even have toilets and have to use pit latrines.”1

You can imagine the impracticality of policies such as regular hand-washing and self-isolation in such conditions. A campaigner is quoted in the same article as saying: “We can talk about water, but if people don’t have money to buy soap, what is the use? You can have that one tap in your community, but if you only have R10 [49p] you are going to buy bread, rather than soap.” As for “social distancing”, that is impossible: “If an infected person touches a communal tap, then the pathogen can be passed on that way.”

It is true that all the cases of coronavirus that have so far been announced have affected either people who have recently returned from abroad or their close contacts, and it goes without saying that the inhabitants of “informal settlements” are not among them. Nevertheless, a proportion of those inhabitants do spend a good deal of time outside the shanty towns and, if just one or two were to contract Covid-19, you can imagine how rapidly it would spread. Not only are most shacks overcrowded, but they are built very close together.


The reaction of the government of president Cyril Ramaphosa to the pandemic has been, in reality, pretty similar to that of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: firstly, underplaying (to put it mildly, especially in Trump’s case) the severity of the threat - only then to make an about-turn within a very short time.

In Ramaphosa’s case, the initial measures he announced included bans on “gatherings of more than 100 people”, the closure of schools for four weeks (including the forthcoming break between terms), the closure of “35 land ports and two sea ports” and an order that “restricted the sale of alcohol after 6pm”. True, on March 15 Ramaphosa had announced that the situation represented a “national state of disaster”, but the measures he proposed were hardly commensurate with that.

However, on March 23 he announced “a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, with effect from midnight on Thursday March 26”. With the usual exceptions for ‘essential workers’, etc, everyone was instructed to “stay at home”, except “under strictly controlled circumstances”, while most shops and businesses would also be closed - all this for an initial period of just three weeks. Nevertheless, this represented a marked stepping up from what he had called for a week earlier.

As you might expect, both the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions welcomed both sets of measures. The March 16 SACP statement made general comments about how the crisis underlined “the absolute necessity” of a “National Health Insurance” scheme - at present there is no free general health service, and it goes without saying that the millions of impoverished shack dwellers have no health insurance. If they become ill or are involved in an accident, there is only the nearest day hospital that might be able to treat them free of charge - if they arrive first thing in the morning and are prepared to wait for most of the day.

The SACP also made vague calls for the government to “prioritise deploying adequate resources, especially to working class and poor communities, including informal settlements”, and - even more vaguely - proposed the “strengthening of development planning and targets to move faster, with systemic elimination of uneven development”.

Similarly, after Ramaphosa’s second set of measures a week later, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande pointed out on March 23 that the private healthcare sector regards itself as producing “a commodity destined for profit sale” and is “aloof from healthcare as a constitutional right of every person”. This, he stated, was “extremely cruel and immoral”, particularly “given the global public health emergency and state of national disaster caused by the Covid-19 pandemic”. Nzimande called upon the government to “assert decisive public control of private hospitals and other private healthcare facilities, as required by the circumstances”.

Similarly the SACP-controlled Cosatu in its March 24 statement, welcomed “the economic interventions announced by the president so far to cushion the workers and vulnerable businesses”, but added that they were “obviously not enough”. After all, “More than 60% of South Africans depend on the survivalist informal economy and this shutdown will hit them hard”.

However, also as you might expect, the breakaway South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), led by the country’s largest and most militant union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), was rather more militant-sounding and political in its own March 24 statement:

... it is urgent that we shift the discussion to socialist strategies of healthcare, social welfare, self-reliant economic interventions, ecologically sound reindustrialisation, the socialisation of the commanding heights, and class solidarity among our country’s vast poor and working masses.

It mocked the inadequacy of Ramaphosa’s proposed “tax subsidy” of up to R500 (£24.29) per month for the next four months for those private-sector employees earning below R6,500 (just £316 per month), for which only four million would qualify, while for the “more than 10.5 million” who, contrary to official figures, are actually unemployed, “there is nothing”.

Saftu’s statement noted that huge numbers of them try to scrape some kind of living, but are now barred from leaving their home:

From Friday the mother that used to survive by selling goods in the informal sector will have no income and the current measures of the government don’t cover her. The young person who in the spirit of vuk’uzenzele2 used to cut hair in the corner of the street is being asked to stay at home and earn no income! The waste picker who survives by waking up at 3am to start picking up waste will no longer be able to earn an income. The underclass, working scavenging in the dumps, are now going to stay at home for three weeks ...

Interestingly, Saftu also pointed out:

The South African ruling class’s offer of R12 billion (0.23% of GDP) to fight the worst immediate threat our society and economy have faced in living memory is actually trivial. Compare this to what is being offered by countries run by notoriously conservative governments, such as Britain and the US.

It noted that, by contrast, Boris Johnson is proposing to spend 16.3% of GDP in combating the crisis.

As for Numsa itself, in its March 21 statement the union put forward a set of specific immediate demands, including the nationalisation of all private hospitals, free testing and treatment for coronavirus, a basic income grant to all the poor, the provision of food parcels to those in self-isolation or quarantine in the townships and informal settlements, etc.

Obviously, all these demands are entirely supportable (although we note that Saftu’s call for “socialist strategies” are apparently applicable to South Africa only). But we cannot escape the fact that the current dire situation in the townships is down to the dismal failure of the ruling African National Congress and its alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu, to take any real measures to eradicate mass poverty.

And what was Ramaphosa’s initial response all about? As with Johnson’s first set of proposals, did he have in mind some kind of ‘herd immunity’ strategy? After all, think of it from capital’s point of view: the millions of shanty-town dwellers are simply ‘surplus to requirements’, so what would it matter if large numbers of them were sacrificed in the name of eventually developing immunity?

But, of course, that would have cost the ANC dear in terms of a further erosion in its electoral support. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Ramaphosa’s latest package is completely insufficient. As a result, thousands among the impoverished masses may have to pay the ultimate price.



1. The Star March 21.

2. ‘Wake up and do it for yourself’ in Zulu.