Covid-19 has affected all forms of social and economic activity in and around the world. In response to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, governments have been forced to implement the global standard measures to curb the contagion. These measures include social distancing, quarantine, partial or total lockdown, and other restrictive measures. However, differences in context are often ignored in applying these measures, when there ought to be some modification of certain measures in some places. In the case of South African black townships inhabited by slum and shack dwellers, in particular, there is a need to understand how such communities perceive Covid-19, and how policy makers can adapt responses in order to address the context-specific challenges in black townships during the current crisis.

According to Nadine Francis Bowers du Toit,1Nadine Francis Bowers du Toit, “Gangsterism on the Cape Flats: A Challenge to ‘Engage the Powers,’” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 70, no. 3 (2014): 1-7, https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v70i3.2727. inequalities in South African townships manifest through poverty and uneven distribution of power. They are characterized by unequal access to resources, power, and basic needs. One illustration of this in the context of the current pandemic is that people living in black townships cannot even consider buying groceries in bulk and stocking them at home. This is because township residents can only afford to buy what they need in order to eat each day, not what they want to stock. There is no warehousing of food in black townships. Even if residents of these areas are given money, they have no space to stock food. From a historical perspective, a high level of segregation and deep impoverishment caused by apartheid (and similar subsequent postapartheid policies) also drive those living in such environments to seek informal ways to individually and collectively fend for themselves.

During the lockdown, I made a few calls to people living in black townships to find out how they were coping with the pandemic. Most of them live in shacks built out of boards and corrugated iron sheets, often with shared or communal toilets, but without running water. The shacks are also built less than one meter apart from each other and are poorly ventilated with small windows.

Within each shack, there is hardly any room to relax, only to sleep. Most times, people choose to eat outside their shacks, often on the street. Living in dire social and economic conditions makes it difficult for people in black townships to observe global “gold standard” measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as social distancing and isolation. This poses a great challenge to attempts to curb the spread of the pandemic in such contexts.

Given these circumstances, we need to reevaluate the effectiveness of global measures such as social distancing and lockdowns in black townships where people live in very close proximity with each other, are economically disadvantaged, lack basic amenities, and must go out every day to eke out a living or face starvation. Media reports tend to represent people from such townships as defying government orders to stay at home and observe total lockdowns.2Paul Tilsley, “South African Crackdown amid Coronavirus Lockdown Called into Question as Some Ignore Restrictions,” Fox News, March 30, 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/world/south-african-crackdown-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-called-into-question-workers-defy-restrictions. To ensure total compliance, the government has deployed soldiers and the police to “brutally” enforce restrictions on movement in the townships.3Tilsley, “South African Crackdown.” The government is not allowing residents to even sit outside in the streets,4John Sparks, “Coronavirus: The South Africa Township Where People Just Won’t Follow the Lockdown Rules,” Sky News, March, 29, 2020, https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-the-south-african-township-where-people-just-wont-follow-the-lockdown-rules-11965027. often the only place they have to rest and relax.

In this regard, Covid-19 prevention and control mechanisms are quite difficult to implement and often lead to human rights violations. According to one community leader, “the government wants us to do social distancing, yet our shacks do not have that social distance.”5South African community leader, phone interview by author, March 28, 2020. Therefore, people in the townships resist government orders to stay at home because their social and economic circumstances force them to.

In black townships, “neighbourhood and social attachment” is high.6Godfrey Maringira and Diana Gibson, “Maintaining Order in Townships: Gangsterism and Community Resilience in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review 9, no. 2 (2019): 55-74.7People living in close proximity tend to develop close social bonds. Covid-19 lockdown rules that force residents to stay at home put such bonds under intense strain. Households that for many years have grown close and sometimes dependent on each other find it difficult to maintain physical distance.

Conclusion

Measures developed in China and the West to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be easily transferred and applied to Africa. Though preventive, these approaches are elitist and require some rethinking before being applied in other regions of the world. People living in South Africa’s black townships face the choice of staying at home and starving or going out to work and risk being infected. Their risky behavior is considered defiance of the lockdown rule by the government, which continues to brutally enforce the lockdown using the police and the military.8Jason Burke, “South African Police Fire Rubber Bullets at Shoppers amid Lockdown,” The Guardian, March 28, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/28/south-africa-police-rubber-bullets-shoppers-covid-19-lockdown. However, the deployment of coercive force in order to impose the lockdown is problematic for a country that prides itself on its democratic values and model constitution. If the lockdown persists, township citizens are likely to mobilize and protest the violation of their human rights.

The foregoing scenario points to the need to rethink existing approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa and avoid the uncritical imitation of measures adopted in other parts of the world. While there are media reports indicating that the government may evacuate residents in some townships to “safer” places,9Siyabonga Mkhwanazi, Loyiso Sidimba, Asanda Sokanyile, and Shaun Smillie, “Mass Evacuation of SA Townships on the Cards to Stop the Spread of Coronavirus,” IOL, April 4, 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/mass-evacuation-of-sa-townships-on-the-cards-to-stop-spread-of-coronavirus-46175811. implementing such a measure would be a very costly and logistically challenging enterprise. It is very likely that those affected will resist being removed and disconnected from a place they have called home for decades. The cost of removals and resettlement in new homes will also be problematic because the government’s resources are already being overstretched by costs and losses linked to the adverse effects of Covid-19.

The South African government has introduced some measures to address the adverse impact of pandemic control measures on poor and vulnerable social groups. A Covid-19 unemployment grant of ZAR 350, the equivalent USD 15, per month was announced as part of a policy aimed at providing “relief” from hunger and “social distress” for the unemployed.10“Coronavirus South Africa: How to Apply for Unemployment Grant,” AS English, April 25, 2020, https://en.as.com/en/2020/04/25/other_sports/1587843624_718597.html. In addition, the government increased social grants from ZAR 350 to 500 per month, the equivalent of USD 15 to 25,[ref]Estelle Ellis, “Some Relief for 13 Million People as Ramaphosa Announces Increase in Child Support Grant,” Daily Maverick, April 21, 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-21-some-relief-for-13-million-people-as-ramaphosa-announces-increase-in-child-support-grant/. to cater to the poor and the elderly during the lockdown. While this is commendable, the government would do well to integrate other innovative homegrown measures that address the socioeconomic realities and inequalities of South African townships into ongoing efforts to stop the Covid-19 pandemic.

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