Hitting the poor

Peter Manson welcomes the limited success in restricting the pandemic, but it is clear that the problems are structural

In my last article I predicted that “many thousands” would “pay the ultimate price” because of the South African government’s belated and inadequate response to Covid-19 (‘Surplus to requirements’, March 26).

However, while that could still turn out to be the case, at the moment things do not look too bad - at least when it comes to fatalities. It is true that, while at that time there had been no officially recorded Covid-19 deaths, that is no longer the case, but they still number less than 100.

The explanation for this is that, for reasons peculiar to South Africa, the particular lockdown measures enforced have been effective - despite their often horrendous consequences for millions of impoverished people. On March 15 president Cyril Ramaphosa declared a “national disaster”, but it was not until a week later that he enforced anything approaching severe restrictions.

Following that, we had a situation where no-one was allowed to leave their local area without a special permit. The idea seemed primarily to be to cordon off the heavily populated areas - the townships and ‘informal settlements’, mainly consisting of tightly packed shacks. It was clear that all those who had been infected were people who had either recently returned from abroad or those who had been in contact with them: in other words, not the shack-dwellers.

Ramaphosa was well aware that, once those areas became infected, the pandemic would be uncontrollable. When you are living half a dozen to a single-room shack, when you have to queue up every day for water (and cannot afford to buy soap or sanitiser), then ‘social distancing’ is just a joke. So the answer was to separate off such areas completely in a coronavirus version of apartheid.

But this meant the intense and often brutal policing of townships, and for that purpose around 76,000 troops have been deployed to reinforce the police. There have been numerous instances of attacks on people simply for standing outside their homes, for instance - several have actually been killed by ‘law enforcement agents’. At the same time, public transport has been severely restricted - all to prevent the great majority of inhabitants from moving in and out of their townships.

On top of that, a good number of the minority of inhabitants who had jobs and had managed to get to their workplace despite such huge difficulties have been arrested for allegedly breaking lockdown regulations - even for work that might be considered ‘essential’ if it was being undertaken by people who live in the ‘wrong’ areas.

True, on April 21 Ramaphosa announced a six-month R500 billion (£22 billion) “rescue package”, of which one 10th would go towards increased social grants. But if you take into account the huge numbers of people involved, you will understand the total inadequacy of that package. Officially 12.5 million children are entitled to the increased child support grant, but this brings the total monthly sum received to the equivalent of just £39. Similarly there is a ‘social relief grant’ awarded to unemployed adults - a magnificent £15 per month.

In addition, Ramaphosa has committed to supplying regular food parcels to people in “dire material need” - those who cannot get to work (or leave home to raise money in whatever way they can). But in many areas nothing whatsoever has been received since the lockdown began a month ago. Many people have been going to local tips, trying to scavenge discarded food of whatever quality. But some in the townships have begun to mobilise and on April 27 in the Johannesburg township of Booysens hundreds came onto the streets to demand food. They blocked the main street with rocks and burning tyres. The police responded in the usual way - firing rubber bullets and injuring dozens.

At the same time, incredibly, the campaign to demolish ‘unauthorised’ settlements has continued - even though evictions - let alone the destruction of people’s homes - is supposed to be suspended during the ‘national disaster’. Last week, well over 500 shacks, together with a dozen or so brick buildings, were ruthlessly demolished in settlements south of Johannesburg - leaving around 1,000 men, women and children homeless. In this the police were aided by a private company, which is ludicrously named ‘Red Ant Security, Eviction and Relocation Services’ - ‘relocation’ does not come into it!

There was a stand-off lasting several hours, when police again fired hundreds of rounds of rubber bullets at residents trying to protect their homes, sometimes at close range. Several were injured, including one man who was shot in the neck. But in the end not only were their homes demolished: several had personal possessions either destroyed or confiscated.

The Daily Maverick reported how one resident reacted:

The young man stood motionless, gaping, rooted to a plank of wood that, 30 minutes before, had held up the small zinc shack he called his home. From there he had sold fruit and vegetables, gum, snacks and airtime to his neighbours to make a living. Red Ants personnel with weapons took it all, he said, along with the R1,800 [£78] in cash for new stock he had in his pocket, his phone, furniture, stove and even bits of the structure. What was left lay at his feet.1

Another resident is quoted as saying: “Everyone was in their shacks for the lockdown. Where must we run to now?”


On April 23 Ramaphosa broadcast a statement, in which he claimed a degree of success from the initial stage of the lockdown implemented a month earlier: “By delaying the spread of the virus, we have had time to prepare our health facilities and mobilise some of the essential medical supplies needed to meet the inevitable increase in infections.”

However, it was obvious that the nationwide lockdown “cannot be sustained indefinitely”. After all, “Our people need to eat. They need to earn a living.” He noticed! So from Friday May 1 “we should begin a gradual and phased recovery of economic activity”. Accordingly, from that date the “national coronavirus alert level” will be lowered from level 5 (“drastic measures”) to level 4 (“extreme precautions”).

That means that people will now be permitted to leave their local area, although “No travel will be allowed between provinces, except for the transportation of goods and exceptional circumstances”. Public transport restrictions will continue, however, with “stringent hygiene requirements, including that all passengers must wear a face mask”. In addition. “Our borders will remain closed to international travel, except for the repatriation of South African nationals and foreign citizens.”

So what has been the response of the main organisations of the workers’ movement - not least the South African Communist Party and the SACP-controlled Congress of South African Trade Unions? As you might expect, the day after Ramaphosa’s April 21 broadcast, the SACP issued its own statement, in which it “welcomes the generally pro-poor and pro-worker measures announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa”. Especially when you consider that the “social relief and economic support package” of R500 billion amounts to “about 10% of our gross domestic product”.

But the SACP seems to be more concerned with what happens after the pandemic: “In particular, we cannot go back to the crisis before the crisis.” But its conclusion is dismal: what is needed is an overall policy switch towards state capitalism:

In order to turn our economy around, we need a massive investment in public infrastructure, a stronger role for and capacity in the state, in part through well managed and thriving state-owned enterprises, and state intervention in the economy on behalf of the people as a whole, the majority of whom are the working class and poor.

In fact, “The outbreak of Covid-19 and global responses to it underline the important role of the state in leading development and serving the people.”

It is important to note, by the way, that the SACP seems to be undergoing some kind of financial crisis despite an official membership of around 300,000. Following various rumours and leaks on social media, last week national treasurer Joyce Moloi-Moropa admitted that “due to financial flow challenges” the party has failed to pay its staff since March. At the same time, she condemned those members who had made this problem public.

But, returning to the reaction to Ramaphosa’s measures, at least Cosatu in its April 28 statement attempted to place the problems posed by the coronavirus within the context of the general failure of the African National Congress government (including its substantial SACP component) in the quarter-century following the end of apartheid. According to Cosatu,

The outbreak of Covid-19 has exposed the inefficiency of some of our policy choices. Twenty-six years later many people do not have access to water; our housing and human settlement system is inefficient and inadequate; our health system is poorly funded and our economy is imploding because of poor energy supply. We need to learn lessons from this crisis, so that we make better choices going forward.

So it was just “some of our policy choices” that were inadequate, was it? Was that why, out of a population of 58 million, no fewer that an estimated 12 million now live in “informal settlements” (ie, shacks) and 6.7 million (27%) are officially unemployed?

But, apart from the vague statement about the need to “change the nature and structure of the country’s economy, so as to improve the lives of the majority for the better”, Cosatu, like its parent political organisation, has no answers - except for what amounts to more of the same: “Workers need to influence and support government efforts and programmes that are meant to mobilise resources and reorganise our economy into an inclusive one that benefits the majority.”

It is true that the current crisis has exposed the dismal failure of the last 26 years, but it has also exposed - just in case you had any doubts - the absurdity of the SACP’s support for the pro-capitalist popular front that is the ANC.


  1. . dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-22-gauteng-demolitions-red-ants-in-all-out-war-on-the-poor.↩︎