“We are afraid of the virus, but we are more afraid of being forgotten by our government”. This is how Elroy (38), an unemployed South African, reacts to the announced delay of the special grants promised to the unemployed and to the needy to face the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in Eldorado Park, a township in the southwest of Johannesburg.
It’s been over two months since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in South Africa. In sixty-five days, the country experienced the most dramatic shock of its democratic history, as the population had to adapt to some of the world’s hardest measures, meant to hinder the spread of the virus. The southern African powerhouse began a nationwide lockdown on March 26. A month later, the medical emergency has been overshadowed by social and economical factors. The population’s discontent is on the rise and welfare is compromised, despite the government’s R500 billion (US$27 billion) rescue package.
South Africa has responded to pressure from the international community to take immediate preventative measures since the beginning of March. The country plays an important geopolitical role as part of the G20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) assemblies, while its current position of leadership of the African Union makes it a key trendsetter on the continent. The country’s international role gave it the incentives to impose strict regulations, yet, because of the critical social disparity within the country, these same policies are rapidly undermining the livelihood of citizens and residents.
Curfew and Prohibition
Crucially, the relief measures introduced and prohibitionist regulations enforced by Minister Bheki Cele’s police force—including the ban on alcohol and tobacco products—backfired in overpopulated urban areas where informal and illicit activities are embedded in the job market and hard to control. “You can find anything you want, if you know where to look,” explains Simone, a spaza (convenience) shop owner in Eldorado Park. “Our business has taken a knock because of the restrictions on sales, while people can buy alcohol and cigarettes on the streets.”
The lockdown has exposed existing poverty, crime and drug addiction.
In Simone’s neighborhood, the lockdown has exposed existing poverty, crime, and drug addiction. A feeding scheme managed by a local benefactor guarantees everyone a full meal every Thursday. “We are blessed to have support from our friends from outside the township,” admits the scheme founder, Ingrid (57). “The Colored person is South Africa’s love child, with no political backing. They must consider our community too.”
Ingrid’s neighbour is called Cliffton, but everybody in the block knows him as Bob. Today is his 18th birthday. He has been addicted to Mandrax since the age of ten and he doesn’t mind the lockdown. “I can still find my drugs”, he explains; “it’s just a bit of a walk to go and get them.”
Sex Workers Are Stranded
In the city center, sex workers are starving victims of police brutality and social stigma. “When I leave my house to buy groceries, the cops harass me or even chase after me” complains Odelle, a Nigerian trans-gender.
“I have to do humiliating things for food and shelter.”
Amyra, a young sex worker from Zimbabwe, confirms: “before COVID-19, the police would stop me on the street and confiscate my condoms. Now they shoot rubber bullets at me if they find me walking on the street.” Her life has taken a gloomy turn in the last month: “I was a prostitute in a club in Hillbrow, in the city center,” she explains. “I slept and worked there, to send money to my family. As soon as they heard of the lockdown in the club, they closed business and sent everyone away. I was given two days notice to leave. I found a place in a squatter camp, where I have become the sex slave of waste pickers and beggars. I have to do humiliating things for food and shelter.”
Lebo (31) cannot hide her agitation when talking about her family in Lesotho. “My mother and father died, forcing me to look for a job in South Africa. I became a sex worker to support my orphan sisters, but now I can’t even feed myself. I had no customers in weeks, I don’t know how to pay my rents and I can’t leave my siblings to themselves.”
Odelle, Amyra and Lebo are members of the association Sisonke, a network of sex workers led by the national non-profit SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). SWEAT spokesperson Megan Lessing expresses a growing concern for the condition of over 160,000 sex workers in South Africa. “For many years, we advocated for the legalization of sex work. Today, the lives of almost a million dependents are at stake, as their profession is not recognized and is highly demonized.”
The Voice of the Migrants
Millions of foreign residents in South Africa have no right to the relief measures allocated by the government. “There are social development organizations who are giving out hampers to those with a South African ID,” says Sabonjel (21), a resident of Itireleng in Pretoria. “My family doesn’t get anything from them, because we are from Zimbabwe. I cannot even go back home to Zimbabwe, as the borders are closed. I’m really stuck between death and life, and don’t know what to do.”
“Some NGOs came to our township and they asked us to make a big queue,” adds Gracious (22). “We had to make two separate queues, one for foreign nationals and one for South Africans. Before the food parcels could reach us, they were already finished.”
The bulk of the immigrant force of South Africa, however, is stuck in the limbo of a growing humanitarian conundrum.
Some Southern African migrants managed to repatriate with the help of malaicha traffickers, others drove home before the borders were shut. The bulk of the immigrant force of South Africa, however, is stuck in the limbo of a growing humanitarian conundrum. Linely (37) is losing her hope to return home in Malawi. “My house burned down and I lost everything,” she explains on the verge of tears. “I was able to save my passport which was partially burnt, but now all my savings are up in smoke because of this crisis, and I cannot apply for another one.”
One Pandemic, Many Diseases
Hospitals and clinics are congested with patients showing COVID-19 symptoms. Meanwhile, the incidence of other deadly diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis is falling off the radar, while patients struggle to get the medical attention they need.
Phumlani (19) was born with HIV in the ravaged township of Alexandra, in the shade of the skyscrapers of the business district of Sandton. He was recently diagnosed with tuberculosis and commenced treatment three months ago. “His cure should last six months,” explains his sister Thokozo (23), “but with no food in his stomach he can’t take the medications and he’s feeling really sick. The doctors say he should extend the treatment to nine months.”
Thokozo walks a few miles to the clinic, with a newborn baby on her back, to pick up the brother’s medicines. “I no longer have transport money,” she bemoans, “and taxis only operate in the morning these days. I am afraid of nyaope addicts, who steal ARVs to make their drugs.”
“In the shanty town, we use communal taps and shared toilets. There is no way we can keep distance from others and stay healthy.”
Disabled children and orphans in Alexandra are experiencing a painful stalemate. Sesethu (19) is intellectually disabled and cannot talk. Her mother Lumka (54) and sisters help her complete her school work on a smartphone, while taking turns to collect her monthly grant of R1,700 (less than US$100).
They live in a small tin shack, where social distance is an unrealistic concept. Lumka is scared for her family’s health: “In the shanty town, we use communal taps and shared toilets. There is no way we can keep distance from others and stay healthy.”
A Progressive Reopening
On April 23, President Ramaphosa introduced a relaxation on the lockdown measures. Starting May 1, South Africa initiated a necessary restoration of business, in contrast with the escalating incidence of the COVID-19 epidemic in the country.
Many citizens and residents are uncomfortably faced with the option to starve or brave the growing risk of exposure to the virus.
As poverty and unemployment increase social instability in Johannesburg, remittances to neighboring countries such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Malawi shrink, anticipating a grave humanitarian crisis in the region.
While the standstill endures, the people of Johannesburg grow apart and suspicion rises. The wake of the pandemic will shape the future of Southern Africa for years to come.
Alessandro Parodi is a Johannesburg-based reporter with a passion for cultural studies and urban ethnography. He is a regular contributor to the Italian-South African weekly publication La Voce del Sudafrica and the travel magazine Nomad Africa. (Twitter: @apnews360)
Manash Das is a freelance photojournalist based in South Africa and India. His work mainly focuses on humanitarian issues, conflicts, and daily life. (Twitter: @manashdasorg)