Covid-19 in South Africa: The Long Walk to Freedom Continues

Angelique Retief (PhD student, School of Policy Studies, University of Bristol)

The large number of deaths of BAME people due to the coronavirus has quickly disproved the claim that the pandemic is a ‘great equaliser’ and has instead brought to the fore the many social ills in society. As most determinants of health are socially created, it logically follows then that the fact that socioeconomic deprivation disproportionately affects BAME people will be a precursor to the impact of the virus on those communities. With living space, gardens, and local areas (or the lack thereof) dictating our wellbeing, the gap between the rich and the poor has never been more obvious. The coronavirus will therefore not be felt equally and – compounded by the already profound challenges to wellbeing in non-OECD countries – will only serve to further entrench existing racial and economic disparities.

Racial disparities have a history. The product of centuries of colonialism, apartheid and racial exclusion, South Africa’s welfare system has struggled to provide the freedoms promised in 1994. It has been 26 years since South Africa’s first democratic election, and it is still one of the world’s most unequal societies. With unemployment levels at a decade high of 30% (reaching 40% in some areas), poor levels of basic service provision (StatsSA, 2018), over 2 million AIDS orphans, and the highest level of people with HIV of any country (UNAIDS, 2018), the impacts of Covid-19 will be acutely felt in this part of the world.

Photo credit: Jean Boris HAMON on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-NDCopy

South Africa (SA) has reported the most coronavirus cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and many people are too poor to weather the associated economic fallout and lack the funds to stock up on adequate food. The country was placed under lockdown on the 26th March and the government, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and the health system have been praised for their initial response but some of the simple advice to tackle the disease, like washing hands regularly, presents some fundamental challenges. While significant policy achievements and large gains have been made in many socio-economic areas such as education, welfare services are notoriously underfunded. High levels of unemployment make many essential services such as water and electricity unaffordable unless subsidised. Already mired in recession caused mostly by power cuts at its dysfunctional state-run utility, Eskom; poorer South Africans are vulnerable to the virus with a lack of resources to protect themselves in this uncertain time. While SA has one of the highest expenditures on social assistance in the world, economic conditions have led to a worsening poverty status with more than 50 per cent under the poverty line (World Bank, 2019).

A failure to tackle the unequal distribution of land and property has created distortions in which the SA’s welfare system has an urban and racial bias. The impact of years of apartheid spatial planning that set to physically divide the country’s different races still lingers (World Bank, 2018). Limited progress has been made in reversing these spatial inequalities reinforced by the post-1994 policies which placed low-income housing developments on the peripheries of cities – generally reproducing the old-style dormitory townships.

In SA’s townships, thousands of families live in very close proximity to one another, some have as many as seven to ten people living together, making social distancing difficult. The townships offer a rich breeding ground for the coronavirus as many households still don’t have access to water and sanitation and share one block of communal toilets between hundreds of residents (Maleka et al, 2019). Nyanga, a township in Cape Town, is known as the murder capital of SA and is one of the world’s most dangerous areas. Masiphumelele has around 40% of its 16,000[1]-population infected with HIV and/or TB (StatsSA, 2018). Imizamo Yethu has a population over 15,000 with minimal water supply, not many toilets, no sewerage, and the Disa River which runs through it has the highest level of e-coli ever recorded in SA. South Africa’s largest township, Khayelitsha, is one of the top five largest slums in the world and 40% of its residents are under 9 years old. The townships present extraordinary environmental, political and social concerns (Goebel, 2007); concerns which are only intensified by the virus.

The post-apartheid neoliberal development approach, driven largely by international organisations such as the IMF and World Bank has only increased inequality as those without access to assets and wealth are excluded from the economy. This brings the inequalities into sharp focus – particularly in health where there is a divide between the 20% (majority white) of the population who can afford private healthcare and the 80% (majority black) who rely on an underdeveloped public health system. Influenced largely by the successes of the Marshall Plan which assisted post-war countries in Europe, neoliberalism has taken a different turn in the low-income countries in which it has been adopted since. Unlike post-communist or post-war countries in which (arguably) most people were rebuilding from similar economic levels, South Africa was rebuilt from a level of tremendous inequality. To then base its policies of development on a system in which only those who already have assets and wealth will benefit has led to the continued skewed development of the new SA. Since the millennium talk has been of sustainability, most notably represented by the sustainable development goals. Bond (2014) however argues that what we have seen is neoliberalism disguised by the rhetoric of sustainable development which has only served to reproduce spatial inequalities.These spatial inequalities are starkly displayed in Johnny Miller’s work photographic project ‘Unequal Scenes‘.

Loosely translated to mean ‘interconnectivity’, the southern African ethical philosophy of Ubuntu places relationships at the centre of wellbeing. The philosophy sees a key role for relations in achieving the capabilities needed to live a life that one would have reason to value and sees interdependence as central to freedom, and therefore to development. If reconstruction and development are about changing the lives of ordinary South Africans, then Ubuntu should be central to the policies and practices surrounding it, and this can be operationalised through social enterprises. A social enterprise is an organisation with a social impact or purpose whose profits are reinvested into the organisation as opposed to being distributed to shareholders. These organisations provide an alternative response to development by allowing for a focus on the dual social and economic purposes of satisfying the needs of local communities’ whilst also being economically sustainable. There is increasing interest in the potential for social enterprise to address many of South Africa’s challenges as they focus on areas specifically not supplied or under-supplied by the public and private sectors such as sanitation or waste management in informal settlements or rural areas.

Communicare was a charity providing housing to low-income households in SA but now uses a social enterprise model due to dwindling government grants. The proceeds of their commercial sales and rentals provides equity for the development of the new housing stock and subsidises lower rents. Using a mixed-income approach, they rent 20% of their residential and commercial properties at full market rates which allows for the subsidisation of the remaining 80% of properties at lower rent levels. As a key social determinant of health, employment, stability, and agency, a focus on the role of social enterprise in the provision of community-led housing to tackling systemic inequalities and addressing real structural change in SA is crucial. In fact, Covid-19 has illustrated the centrality of this very wobbly pillar of housing under South Africa’s welfare system. After all, social distancing cannot be practiced in over-crowded communities.

In this current era of accelerated change in which social, economic, cultural and health problems transcend borders, SA faces several wicked issues with regard to sustainable development. Sustainable development is about capital (financial, human or natural), but access is central to equity and thus sustainable development. Development in this approach sees co-creation underpinned by a philosophy of Ubuntu as central to sustainability. A theory of development through social enterprise, which underpins individual freedoms with an ethical philosophy of Ubuntu, operationalises individual capabilities through communal activities and could be a potential answer to sustainable development in South Africa.

[1] population data as per 2011 census


Bond, P. (2014) Elite transition: from Apartheid to neoliberalism in South Africa. London: Pluto Press.