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A man rests on the octagon surrounding the destroyed plinth upon which a colonial era statue of H.M. Queen Victoria had stood in memoria since it's unveiling in 1906, at the Jevanjee gardens in Nairobi on June 13, 2020. The statue was removed following a vandalism incident a few years ago.  Statues of controversial historical and political figures are under scrutiny worldwide. TONY KARUMBA / AFP
A statue of Queen Victoria stood on this plinth in Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1906 to 2015, when it was removed after it had been vandalised. (Tony Karumba/ AFP)

The murder of George Floyd, an African American man, by police officer Derek Chauvin for the alleged crime of spending a $20 counterfeit note has resulted in widespread anti-racism protests under the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement across the United States and the globe. One aspect of this movement has been the reconsideration of public monuments to historical figures connected to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In Bristol, England, BLM protesters brought down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the nearby harbor. In Oxford, calls to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes have gained renewed interest, reviving a 2015 campaign modeled on the #RhodesMustFall student movement in South Africa.

 

Newer memorials dedicated to Kenyans include a monument in honor of Tom Mboya

 

Similar sentiments have bubbled over in Kenya, which is dotted with its own assortment of statues, hotels, parks, and street names honoring former colonial figures such as Queen Victoria and Hugh Cholmondeley, an influential British settler and landowner in then British East Africa Protectorate, now Kenya.

Newer memorials dedicated to Kenyans include a monument in honor of Tom Mboya, one of the founding fathers of the independent Republic of Kenya, in the Nairobi CBD; a UK-funded memorial to Kenyans killed by British forces during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s in Uhuru Park in Nairobi; and a recently unveiled statue of Dedan Kimathi, the spiritual leader of the Mau Mau Uprising, in Nyeri.

 

IAEA
Empty chairs are seen in front of the logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to a meeting in Vienna on August 1, 2019. (Hans Punz/AFP)

Ghana recently completed phase one of a three-part process to develop the infrastructure for producing nuclear power in coordination with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The focus of the first phase was on conducting a series of studies on the rationale for and feasibility of introducing nuclear power to the national and West African energy grid, a tall order considering the steep costs of constructing and maintaining nuclear reactors.

Ghana’s current installed generating capacity of 4,132 MW comprises hydroelectric power (38 percent); thermal power fueled by oil, natural gas and diesel (61 percent); and solar power (1 percent). Actual availability, however, rarely exceeds 2,400 MW due to various factors, including inadequate fuel supplies. To meet the energy demands of its growing population, currently at about 28 million, requires the country to rely on the broader West African energy grid to supplement the shortfall.

Phase Two of the nuclear plan will include meetings with potential stakeholders, developing a government financing scheme and a framework for nuclear waste disposal protocols, and determining suitable sites for construction. Dr. Robert B. M. Sogbadjie, coordinator of the Ghana Nuclear Power Program, confirmed during a press conference that four sites have already been picked out, but did not disclose their locations. Phase two is anticipated to begin in 2024, with construction to be completed by 2030.

 

South Africa has had a nuclear power plant since 1984

 

Should Ghana succeed in this endeavor, it would make it only the second country in Africa to have nuclear power, alongside South Africa, which has had a functioning nuclear power plant—providing 5 percent of the country’s total energy output—since 1984. Furthermore, Ghana’s initiative on nuclear power could incentivize other African nations to do so as well, moving the continent away from fossil fuels while meeting the energy needs of a growing population.

 

Cabo Delgado
Muzasufar Abakari, chief of the coastal village Guludo in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, photographed during Ramadan in May 2019 (Zinyange Auntony/AFP)

Valige Tauabo, the governor of Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, announced on Monday that the country’s Defense and Security Forces (DSF) had reclaimed control of the town of Macomia. The town had been under attack by unspecified armed insurgents since Thursday, May 29. This comes on the heels of a declaration by President Filipe Nyusi that the DSF had killed two “senior officers” among the insurgents after Thursday’s attack on and occupation of the Macomia district headquarters.

Images and video clips of the destruction left behind by the insurgents—suspected of belonging to a violent local jihadist group with possible connections to Islamic State—were circulated on social media.

Private military contractors were part of the offensive to reclaim Macomia, although reports about the operation have not yet divulged the identity of all the entities involved. Separate engagements in Mozambique have suggested the presence of South African contractors as well as the Wagner Group, the infamous Russian mercenary outfit that has also been active in Libya and the Central African Republic.

 

President Nyusi has admitted that unemployment and poverty are behind the insurgency in the province

 

Since the insurgency in Cabo Delgado started in 2017, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and thousands more displaced. The discovery of significant natural gas reserves off the province’s coast has attracted interest from multinational energy companies like ExxonMobil and Total. But despite billions in investments to extract the gas, the local people have not derived any benefit from them. And President Nyusi has admitted that unemployment and poverty are behind the insurgency in the province.

 

Johannesburg
Alexandra, Johannesburg. The township awakens to the galloping pandemic. ©Alessandro Parodi

Over the past two weeks, the incidence of COVID-19 cases in South Africa has almost doubled, and now there’s a testing backlog because of a global shortage of test kits. While the race to develop a vaccine continues apace, local healers are striving to produce indigenous remedies based on herbal wisdom and plant-derived active compounds known to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as flu, malaria, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

South African media described the first two months of the pandemic as “the quiet before the storm.” When lockdown was imposed in late March, shutting down the country’s economy, hospital staff buckled up for a rocky ride and citizens impatiently waited for the first opportunity to resume business as usual.

Now, the southern tip of the continent prepares for a relaxing of the lockdown restrictions. Level 3 will allow most of the workforce to resume activities, schools to partly reopen, religious gatherings to take place, and shops to recommence selling alcoholic beverages from June 1.

However, a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and an increase in daily deaths have created a dilemma for South Africans, who will return to their offices, schools, and places of worship amid fear and uncertainty.

 

Making a Case for Artemisia and Other Herbs

Since the beginning of May, African governments have scrambled to produce or buy herbal mixtures based on the artemisia plant.

Madagascan president Andry Rajoelina grabbed international headlines when he endorsed a local herbal tea named COVID-Organics, made of sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). He went on to question the impartiality of the World Health Organization with regard to testing, and criticized the alleged Western polarization of the pharmaceutical industry.

In South Africa, the artemisia plant more commonly used in traditional medicine is Artemisia afra, known as wild wormwood, wilde-als (Afrikaans), mhlonyane (Zulu) or lengana (Tswana).

While scientists prepare to carry out clinical trials to test the potential of artemisia in the treatment of COVID-19, some people have already turned to traditional remedies.

 

“I drank wild dagga and sutherlandia three times every day and got better very quickly”

 

“I went to the clinic with high fever and COVID-19 symptoms,” says Irvin Mothibe from Soweto, south of Johannesburg. “They told me to quarantine myself, so I spent two weeks in a hut at Credo Mutwa Village. The great healer [Credo Mutwa, who passed away in March] had planted many medicinal herbs in the village. I drank wild dagga [Leonotis leonurus] and sutherlandia [Lessertia frutescens] three times every day and got better very quickly.”

Indigenous healers recommend a variety of natural solutions to their clients.

“When the pandemic arrived, we consulted among healers and we prayed to our ancestors,” says Sheila, a sangoma, or traditional healer, based in Alexandra, Johannesburg. “My recipe against the virus? A mix of sihawuhawu [nettle], isiphephetho [wild ginger], umavumbuka [Sarcophyte sanguinea], mayisaka [Thesium multiramulosum], and intolwane [Elephantorrhiza elephantina].”

“We are working on a product combining different local herbs and Artemisia annua, which is more potent than the indigenous Artemisia afra,” says Willem Bronkhorst, a director at the African National Healers Association. “I don’t know yet how effective this will be against COVID-19, but I can say for sure that it will help.”

Many healers from Johannesburg suggest they use artemisia in combination with valerian, mint, garlic, moringa, African potato, and cayenne pepper, ingredients that can easily be found on the shelves of a supermarket or pharmacy. “You can boil them and drink them hot or cold,” says Mmapelle Khunou. “Some sangomas prefer to mix them with porridge, to make it easier for patients to take the medicine.”

“It’s important to use the right quantities, depending on the person and how bad the disease is,” she clarifies. “If you are advised by the wrong healer or take herbs without prescription, you could harm yourself.”

 

What Standards for Herbal Remedies?

It is risky to believe in the existence of a miracle cure against an unknown disease. The World Health Organization does recognize the importance of traditional medicine and its achievements, but there are rigid requirements in place to ensure the quality, safety, and efficacy of a product.

“There are many therapeutic options that are being suggested as possible treatments for COVID-19,” says Stavros Nicolaou, a senior executive at Aspen Pharmacare Group and a key contributor to South Africa’s medical response to the pandemic. “At his point in time, there are no registered treatments that cure COVID-19. Whilst there might be many candidates or established medicines under investigation, none of these have been proven under clinical trial conditions.

“The pharmaceutical industry will continue investigating these candidate medicines under appropriate clinical trial conditions, and would only be in a position to make them available when they have been proven effective and safe in clinical trials, and when the necessary medicines regulatory agencies have approved them for specific indications.

“This approach is for all medications, including indigenous and herbal medicines,” Nicolaou says.

 

“The medical profession is trying to engage with indigenous healers, because they do a tremendous job in communities and provide health to the people”

 

“Artimisinin [a compound derived from Artemisia annua] is a powerful active ingredient,” says another pharmaceutical expert. “However, one needs to apply rigorous controls in the production chain to guarantee its standard quality. The medical profession is trying to engage with indigenous healers, because they do a tremendous job in communities and provide health to the people. But the healers also have to adhere to the conditions required of the medical profession.”

These requirements, however, raise suspiciousness among many healers: “We also took an oath,” Mmapelle Khunou says. “The problem between us and Western doctors is that we put the people first, instead of profit.”

 

Doctors, Psychologists, and Community Leaders

Indigenous healers do not just provide medical advice. Their input ranges from psychological to religious factors, while tightening the social fabric. Two months of lockdown tore families, villages, and townships apart, forcing a transformation in everyone’s life.

“Men are no longer able to provide for the family,” says Khunou. “If my man can’t do his job, I will question him and ask him to make a plan. But he is also human and has his weaknesses. His manhood is questioned: some men snap and become violent, and households grow apart.”

The recognition of traditional healers as essential workers would facilitate the diffusion of health practices and create awareness about the rising costs of the epidemic.

“I don’t believe in this virus,” says Violet, a resident of Alexandra. “Have you met anyone who has it?”

In the streets of the township, people walk and commute casually. Even where social distancing and the use of masks are possible, habits prevail. Small crowds gather in front of spazas (small shops). To buy a kota (a meal of a quarter loaf of bread, processed meat, and chips), you have to close your eyes to basic hygiene requirements.

“What about masks?” asks another local. “They tell us to wear them, but we don’t know why. Cloth masks become dirty and can also carry diseases.

“When the government makes announcements,” he adds, “they speak a language many people don’t understand. We heard no vernacular in the news; old people don’t even know what’s going on.”

 

A Rainbow Jigsaw Puzzle

When the first COVID-19 case was reported in South Africa, the nation was already on the verge of a financial crisis, while afflicted by profound inequality. President Cyril Ramaphosa has repeatedly called on his fellow citizens to embrace cohesion and brotherhood in facing the pandemic. However, despite the spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) that unites South Africans, there are visible discrepancies when it comes to the same residents taking practical action.

It is difficult, for a government, to answer to the business world while supporting millions who live in extreme poverty. Similarly, it is challenging for people with completely different upbringing and heritage to live shoulder to shoulder and understand each other.

It is also difficult to bridge the gap between private and public health, international standards and tradition. Equality in South Africa is long due. It is too late now to try to bridge tremendous gaps while the pandemic is raging on. COVID-19 is killing thousands in far better prepared countries, with state-of-the-art healthcare and cohesive populations.

What South Africa can do—and has done in many past instances—is to accept its uniqueness and take advantage of its complexity. If businesses and informal traders can sit at the same table, if medical experts and traditional healers could abandon prejudice and stigma to enter the same lab or the same ndumba (sacred hut or shrine), they could find a shared solution that speaks many languages: a medical, psychological, and cultural approach to be followed in all South African cities, townships, and villages for the benefit of all.

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Mkhulu Mahlasela’s ndumba, where he consults with patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Traditional healers discuss health measures against the pandemic. ©Manash Das


 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. “I am ready to help anyone with COVID-19,” says Sheila (62), a sangoma. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. “Joe Mashifane (59) spent two weeks at a quarantine facility. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Shops and informal traders have adjusted to new health regulations. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. A sangoma keeps a wide variety of medicinal herbs in his ndumba. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola practices holistic medicine and other spiritual cures. Her ritual tools are herbs, bones, crystals, and beads. ©Manash Das

 

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Blairgowrie, Johannesburg. Clinical psychologist Dr. Zana Marovic encourages her clients to use traditional medicine for holistic healing. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. At a clinic, all entrants must undergo screening for COVID-19. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Questions about people’s health can be compounded by testing for symptomatic patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. A private laboratory carries out COVID-19 testing at the Pan Africa Shopping Centre. “Too few come forward for testing,” says manager Sifiso Mbatha. ©Manash Das

 

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Montgomery Park, Johannesburg. Westpark Cemetery has been allocated as a COVID-19 burial site in a worst-case scenario, according to Johannesburg City Parks. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Irvin Mothibe (32) self-quarantined in a hut for two weeks. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola prays to her ancestors to welcome her guests and receive advice. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Gogo Majola shows her repertoire of remedies, which includes mhlonyane (Artemisia afra). ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. Traditional and modern ways are compatible. “When I consult, I make sure my ndumba is clean and sanitized,” says Gogo Majola. ©Manash Das

 

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Midrand, Johannesburg. The weapons of a healer may include ritual tools and divination devices. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Lebogang Sello is a disciple of the late sangoma Credo Mutwa. “Our Khoekhoen ancestors were experts in herbal medicine.” ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. The Khoekhoen people drank an infusion of wild dagga and smoked it to protect themselves against respiratory diseases. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus), or lion’s ear, is native to South Africa. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. Mkhulu Mahlasela (32) asks his ancestors about the health of his patient, who has just left quarantine. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. The herbs of Southern Africa represent a precious source of active ingredients. Local healers preserve the vast ancestral knowledge. ©Manash Das

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. A group of healers prepare to consult with patients. ©Manash Das

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. “Our past is still with us.” People in the township do not forsake the memory of local martyrs. ©Manash Das

 

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Inner City, Johannesburg. In the market of Kwa-Mai Mai, herbs and animal body parts are on display for customers. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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Inner City, Johannesburg. Animal parts on sale at Kwa-Mai Mai market. Some parts are said to bring good luck, entice a lost lover, or chase away a curse. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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Soweto, Johannesburg. The pahla prayer evokes local and foreign spirits. The burning of mphepo (wild sage) creates a mystical aura in the ndumba. ©Alessandro Parodi

 

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)

 

food distribution South Africa
Parcels are handed to residents at a food distribution organised by the grassroots charity Hunger Has No Religion in Westbury, Johannesburg, on May 19, 2020. The charity provides an average of 800 meals twice a day, breakfast and lunch, to needy residents.

 

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that the lockdown alert level for the country will be lowered to level 3 with effect on June 1, which would allow most people to return to work and even to places of worship. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa is just shy of 26,000, the highest of any country on the continent.

 

Economists say the impact of the pandemic will plunge the country into a protracted recession

 

Ramaphosa’s decision comes after weeks of pressure from civil society groups and opposition political parties to reopen the economy, which had been subjected to one of the harshest lockdown protocols in Africa. Economists say the impact of the pandemic on South Africa’s economy, along with its quarantine measures, will plunge the country into a protracted recession.

In the final quarter of 2019, South Africa entered a recession as power cuts by the state utility Eskom took a toll on the economy, and public finances were strained by bailouts to struggling state-owned entities.

In its April 2020 World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund projected that South Africa’s GDP would contract by 5.8 percent in 2020, from growth of 0.2% in 2019. The country will require significant international assistance to blunt the worst of the pandemic’s impact. This poses a problem, as South Africa’s recent credit rating downgrade by Moody’s will make it more difficult to access funds.

 

Prime Minister Abe at a TICAD IV Event in Tokyo last year with African leaders
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe addresses attendees, including top African leaders, of the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held in August 2019.

 

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has taken a much more significant interest in African affairs. This has primarily focused on economic development, but also geopolitics, at times with a commitment to work with India to counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

The seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), held in August 2019, provided a window into Japan’s policies in Africa. The event was designed in part to help Japanese companies (and their government) to position themselves in Africa, where rival China’s influence is well established. The Japanese welcomed some of Africa’s most prominent leaders, including South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

Japan pledged to some US$30 billion in public and private investment over three years at the 2016 edition of TICAD. Yet, this has often been spent prudently—such as a US$94 million doled out to renovate a Kenyan geothermal plant.

The 2019 event ended with Japan promising some US$20 billion in private sector investment over three years.

“If partner countries are deeply in debt, it interferes with everyone’s effort to enter the market,” said Abe at the event. Elsewhere, his comments on sustainability of engagement in Africa offered veiled swipes at China’s role in Africa.

Despite being the fourth-largest spender on development aid in Africa, Japanese trade with the African Union has been much slower to develop. Indeed, Japan’s trade with Africa in 2017 was worth US$17 billion, less than half of what it was in 2008. Meanwhile, China conducted some US$204 billion in trade with Africa in 2018 alone. However, other metrics tell a different tale there were some 800 Japanese competes in Africa in 2018 as compared to just 250 in 2010.

One possible reason Japan is treading cautiously in Africa is that it likes to avoid moving unilaterally and may be seeking to work more closely with partners in Africa.

Of potential partners for engagement with Africa for Japan, the most important may be that other large Asian democracy which is concerned about the rise of China – India.

Japan and India were the two main drivers behind the launch in 2017 of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which is often touted as an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Bangladesh, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all became members of the project.

Yet, three years later, little has come of the effort, and a frustrated Japan may refocus on its vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, a vision announced in Kenya by Prime Minister Abe in 2016 at the TICAD VI summit.  

 

Madagascar's President Hery Rajaonarimampianina (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of talks at the latter's official residence in Tokyo on December 5, 2017
Hery Rajaonarimampianina, former president of Madagascar, and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at the start of talks at the latter’s official residence in Tokyo on December 5, 2017.

 

Japan’s plan to help Madagascar build a port at the outer edge of the Indo-Pacific region suggests how seriously Japan is committed to the plan. 

Japan envisions several economic corridors: a West African Growth ring to connect the Ivory Coast, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Ghana; an East African route to connect Kenya’s Mombasa with Uganda (which is likely in keeping with IGAD’s infrastructure corridor plans); and the Nacala Corridor which will run through the Southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique (in order to export coal to Japan).   

On the security front, Japan is well ahead of potential partner India in developing ties with the continent. India held its first defense exercise with seventeen African nations last year. Japan, conversely, has built its first overseas military base since World War II in Djibouti, and spent funds to help stabilize northern Nigeria.

These commitments have not come without risks. In 2017, Japan was forced to withdraw its 350-man peacekeeping contingent based in Juba, South Sudan, after its deployment caused controversy in Japan due to the ongoing South Sudanese Civil War. That same year, a Chinese official newspaper reported that a Japanese naval ship had sent scuba divers to approach a Chinese warship while both ships were docked in a Djibouti harbor.

“Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous,” said Prime Minister Abe at the opening session of TICAD VI.

 

 

Undersea Cable

 

A multinational consortium of telecommunications companies—including Facebook, China Mobile International, MTN Global Connect, Telecom Egypt, and Vodafone—announced the construction of a new undersea fiber-optic cable that will connect sixteen African countries, Europe, and the Middle East. Named 2Africa, the 37,000 kilometer-long communications cable is scheduled to go live in 2023 or 2024.

 

Africans pay some of the highest data rates in the world.

 

In March, two undersea cables serving Africa experienced breakages that drastically reduced Internet connectivity for days as repairs were made. The addition of 2Africa will help improve Internet access for millions of Africans, and mitigate disruptions should other cables experience failures in the future. Such disruptions are not only frustrating for Africans, who pay some of the highest data rates in the world, but also have a negative impact on the African economy.

A 2017 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) concluded that intentional Internet shutdowns in twelve countries between 2015 and 2017 cost sub-Saharan Africa more than US$237 million. Unforeseen connectivity disruptions naturally can have far greater negative impact on national and regional economies.

 

 

Scientology Volunteer Ministers, distribute COVID-19 coronavirus information leaflets to taxi drivers at the Bree taxi rank in Newtown, Johannesburg, on May 7, 2020.
Scientology Volunteer Ministers, distribute COVID-19 coronavirus information leaflets to taxi drivers at the Bree taxi rank in Newtown, Johannesburg

 

Although virtually every African is aware of COVID-19, a May report from the Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19 (PERC) found that one in five Africans believed they were immune to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. About 54 percent of the respondents also believed the myth that a hot climate would prevent the spread of the virus, and 29 percent were convinced COVID-19 could be contracted from any Chinese person in their country.

Results from this report come at a time when countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa have begun easing restrictions, coinciding with an uptick in cases.

 

There’s also the danger of a boomerang effect.

 

Misinformation (inaccuracies stemming from error) and disinformation (deliberate falsehoods) about the pandemic jeopardize the gains that health authorities have made in limiting the spread of outbreaks. To discourage disinformation, several African governments have enacted regulations that carry harsh penalties, including fines and imprisonment, leading to concerns that this criminalization could threaten press freedom.

There’s also the danger of a boomerang effect: by threatening to punish citizens for sharing information counter to government sources, even accidentally, trust in national and international institutions could weaken. And this could push people to turn to other sources of information and potentially into conspiracy territory, resulting in some of the responses noted by PERC.

 

“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.

 

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Orphaned children can only rely on the charity of passers-by. (©Alessandro Parodi)

 

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Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. The army patrols the streets to enforce level 4 restrictions. (© Alessandro Parodi)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. Eritta (24) came to South Africa from Malawi in 2015. “We are human, and we share the same space in this world as everyone else does,” she says. (© Manash Das)

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Hasani (54) is a construction worker from Mozambique. Since he lost his job, the tin walls of his shack are closing in. (© Manash Das)

 

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Pretoria West, Gauteng. The food crisis hardens. The parcels are too few to feed millions who live under the threshold of poverty. (© Manash Das)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. “I can starve myself, but I can’t see my two children die of hunger,” says Sabonjel (21). “I’m begging for food from people.” (© Manash Das)

 

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Abandonment and fear fuel unrest in one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Africa. (© Manash Das)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. Only a few torn pages are left of Linely’s (37) passport: “My husband left me and my house burned down.” (© Manash Das)

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Social distancing is but a mirage in the overpopulated outskirts of the South African metropolis. (© Manash Das)

 

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Diepsloot, Johannesburg. The informal settlement is an endless labyrinth of tin. (© Manash Das)

 

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Alexandra, Johannesburg. The queue to Alex Mall. People walk for several kilometers to reach the shops. (© Manash Das)
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Berea, Johannesburg. Beverly (25) lives in a squatter camp. “I became a sex worker to make money and go back to Zimbabwe, but I don’t know if I will ever make it,” she says. (© Manash Das)
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Alexandra, Johannesburg. Social distancing and hygiene measures are enforced at the entrance to a shopping center. (© Manash Das)

 

 

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Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. Rigid controls are enforced at the entrance to the police station. (© Manash Das)

 

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Itireleng, Pretoria. Masks and food are among the essential items on sale at a spaza shop. (© Manash Das)

 

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Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. “All we have left is hope,” say Elroy (38) and Walter (30). “We didn’t receive our grant this month and can’t even buy bread.” (© Manash Das)

 

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)

 

 

South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize
South African health minister Zweli Mkhize (second from left).

 

A study to assess the potential benefits of an old tuberculosis vaccine in the fight against COVID-19 has started in Cape Town, South Africa. The medical trials center TASK has started a clinical trial with 500 subject: 250 as a control group and 250 front-line healthcare workers who’ve received the bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, which contains live bacteria that have been attenuated, or weakened, so they stimulate the immune system. All children receive the BCG vaccine at birth in South Africa, so the study seeks to find out if revaccination with BCG could reduce the probability of infection with SARS-CoV-2 or help to manage COVID-19 symptoms.

Researchers in the Netherlands, Australia, and the United States are also conducting trials to test BCG’s potential in protecting against COVID-19 and related complications.

 

Frustrations with the severity of restrictions have resulted in protests.

 

At 7,808 cases to date, South Africa has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa, but has managed to keep its mortality rate relatively low, at 153, with a sweeping lockdown, though frustrations with the severity of restrictions have resulted in protests. South Africa still remains one of the most unequal societies on the African continent, with the global pandemic placing a further burden on its poor and underserved population.

 

Access to clean water remains a challenge.

 

Access to clean water remains a challenge in many townships and rural areas throughout the country, along with cramped living conditions that reduce the likelihood of maintaining social distance. Unemployment has made the economic contraction from the lockdown all the more difficult for South Africa’s poorest residents, making the necessity of finding alternatives to quarantine all the more urgent.

 

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