On the 11th of March, 2020, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).1Jamie Ducharme, “World Health Organization Declares COVID-19 a ‘Pandemic.’ Here’s What That Means,” Time, March 11, 2020, https://time.com/5791661/who-coronavirus-pandemic-declaration/. Since then, Covid-19 has upturned the whole world. One of the transformations linked to the pandemic is the nature and future of work. As a result of lockdowns and social distancing guidelines meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19, remote forms of working became a necessity aimed at protecting employees’ health and safety. However, the nature of work during the current pandemic, the trajectory of which remains at best uncertain until an effective vaccine can be mass-produced and made available, varies from one country to another. This is particularly the case in countries of the Global South where the digital divide and uneven information and communications technology (ICT) penetration, distribution, and reach remain pertinent issues and are even more pronounced across the urban-rural divide.
It is against this background that this essay raises the following question: Can a developing country such as South Africa afford the adoption of remote work, and what are its consequences?
As of October 2020, South Africa has the highest recorded number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Africa and the tenth highest number of cases in the world.2Peter Mwai, “Coronavirus: What’s happening to the numbers in Africa?,” BBC News, October 20, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53181555. The country reported 681,289 detected cases of Covid-19 and 16,976 deaths as of October 4, 2020.3“Update on Covid-19 (04th October 2020),” South African Covid-19 Online Resource & News Portal, October 4, 2020, https://sacoronavirus.co.za/2020/10/04/update-on-covid-19-04th-october-2020/. At the beginning of March 2020, South Africa had the highest number of Covid-19 infections in Africa. The South African government reacted very fast, and on March 23 it imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. It implemented a five-phase plan with varying alert levels to gradually return to normal social life and reopen the economy by May 1.4Nancy Stiegler and Jean-Pierre Bouchard, “South Africa: Challenges and Successes of the COVID-19 Lockdown,” Annales Médico-Psychologiques 178, no. 7 (2020): 695–98.
Efforts to prevent the spread of the pandemic also obliged employees to work from home. However, since many South African informal workers depend on limited income, receive no social protection from the government, and are excluded from essential services, they were adversely affected by these lockdown measures. In this regard, the Covid-19 lockdown threatened the income opportunities of 3 to 5 million informal traders.5Isaac Khambule, “The Effects of COVID-19 on the South African Informal Economy: Limits and Pitfalls of Government’s Response,” Loyola Journal of Social Sciences 34, no. 1 (January–June 2020): 91–109. These workers have been forced to endure the lockdown with no money for their basic needs. Therefore, they have been stuck between two choices: to suffer from hunger or from Covid-19. Also, many of them do not have decent housing or access to sanitation and water services.6ANA Reporter, “Workers in SA Are Experiencing Extreme Hardship during Covid-19 Lockdown, Says Numsa,” IOL, May 1, 2020, https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/workers-in-sa-are-experiencing-extreme-hardship-during-covid-19-lockdown-says-numsa-47458145.
The pandemic has likewise aggravated existing inequalities in South Africa. One in three already economically and socially disadvantaged people who earned an income in February 2020 did not earn one in April 2020.7Azarrah Karrim, “Millions Have Lost Their Jobs during the Lockdown, Impacting Social Welfare and Food Poverty,” News24, July 16, 2020, https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/millions-have-lost-their-jobs-during-the-lockdown-impacting-social-welfare-and-food-poverty-20200716. Women living with abusive partners experienced further isolation and increased domestic violence, making it even more difficult for them to seek help and support from professionals, family, and friends. According to Kathy Cronje, head of the Safe House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, women mentioned that the lockdown provided a great opportunity to abusers. At the same time, the Safe House struggled to find enough shelter space for abused women, and the national helpline was overwhelmed with calls from more than 120,000 abuse victims during the first three weeks after the lockdown was imposed on March 27. This number is double the usual number of calls received by the national helpline.8AFP, “‘It Just Got Worse’: Domestic Violence Surges under SA Lockdown,” Eyewitness News, April 29, 2020, https://ewn.co.za/2020/04/29/it-just-got-worse-domestic-violence-surges-under-sa-lockdown. Since 35.9 percent of women in South Africa are employed informally, many lost their financial independence and security due to Covid-19, making it difficult for abuse victims to escape their violent partners. As these figures show, the country has been extremely vulnerable to increased numbers of domestic violence cases during the pandemic.9Anna, “Domestic Violence in South Africa,” The Circle, July 1, 2020, https://thecircle.ngo/domestic-violence-south-africa/.
This raises another question: Why has South Africa been extremely vulnerable to increased numbers of domestic violence the during Covid-19 pandemic? To answer this question, we have to go back to previous gender-based violence studies conducted in South Africa. One of these studies, carried out in 2012 by Gender Links, surveyed 5,621 South Africans (2,800 women and 2,821 men) in four provinces. The study showed that 78 percent of men in Gauteng and 41 percent of men in KwaZulu-Natal revealed that they had perpetrated violence against women in their lifetime. In addition, 48 percent of men in Limpopo and 35 percent of men in Western Cape admitted that they committed violence against women. The most commonly experienced form of gender-based violence occurred within intimate relationships, with 51 percent of women in Gauteng, 51 percent of women in Limpopo, 44 percent of women in Western Cape, and 29 percent of women in KwaZulu-Natal having experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime.10Gender Links, The War @ Home: Findings of the Gender Based Violence Prevalence Study in Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu Nataland Limpopo Provinces of South Africa (Johannesburg, South Africa: Gender Links, 2012), https://genderlinks.org.za/wp-content/uploads/imported/articles/attachments/21537_the_war@home_4prov2014.pdf.
The 2019–2020 crime statistics released in July 2020 showed that 18,231 rape cases were reported from private residences, with the highest number in Limpopo. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, more than 87,000 cases of gender-based violence were reported across the country within the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown.11Sandisiwe Shoba, “Increase in Rape and Assault a Grim Marker of Rising Levels of Gender-Based Violence,” Daily Maverick, August 3, 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-08-03-increase-in-rape-and-assault-a-grim-marker-of-rising-levels-of-gender-based-violence/.
On the other hand, women working from home and living with nonabusive partners also suffer from stress, as they have to deal with the homeschooling of their children, as well as taking care of the household and working remotely. As confirmed by the United Nations (UN), with the closure of childcare institutions during the lockdown and women having to bear the burden of childcare, their ability to work remotely has become limited.12Kate Power, “The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Increased the Care Burden of Women and Families,” Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 16, no. 1 (2020): 67–73. South African women have been obliged to turn their bedrooms into home offices and their kitchen tables into classrooms to homeschool their children.13Mfuneko Toyana, “Power Cuts Return, Adding to Frustrations in COVID-Weary South Africa,” Reuters, July 22, 2020, https://fr.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-safrica-power-idAFKCN24N10K. The lack of a workspace at home could also be a challenge, as many employees are forced to share a common room with their family members while working remotely, often with children present.
Adapting to remote work can be challenging in countries that do not have the required infrastructure. In South Africa, one of such challenges is the lack of strong internet connectivity in some areas. One of these areas is Stellenbosch, a town approximately 50 kilometers east of Cape Town, where it is often difficult to access the internet outside of a slow mobile connection. Internet access is connected to income inequality, as only about 53 percent of South Africa’s population use the internet, with the least connected people living in poor regions and rural or remote areas. Many in these areas depend solely on mobile networks, which is often expensive.14Emily Gordine, “How the Internet Is Making Stay-at-Home Difficult for Africans,” DW, April 7, 2020, https://p.dw.com/p/3aaD7. In fact, only 1.2 million out of 13.4 million households have fixed broadband, which means that 12.2 million households depend on expensive prepaid mobile data.15Suraya Dadoo, “Working from Home: The Pros and Cons,” TimesLIVE, April 16, 2020, https://www.timeslive.co.za/ideas/2020-04-16-working-from-home-the-pros-and-cons/. Since South Africa is a country with a developing infrastructure and economy, several areas lack bandwidth or have slow internet connections.16Omni HR Consulting, “Internet Access and Related Challenges for Mobile Learning in South Africa,” Skills Portal, April 21, 2020, https://www.skillsportal.co.za/content/internet-access-and-related-challenges-mobile-learning-south-africa. In this regard, Covid-19 has exposed South Africa’s weak ICT networks.17“SA’s Connectivity Issue Needs a Boost,” Bizcommunity, May 29, 2020, https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/544/204537.html.
Therefore, remote work for employees in poor settlements or regions is very difficult, if not impossible. Besides this, employers may also be required to bear additional expenses in relation to having to pay for their employees’ internet and mobile data usage costs. In this case and as a result of conducting all operations remotely, employers’ budgets are likely to increase since they will be spending more on upgrading data security measures and purchasing premium software.18“Out of Office: 8 Pros and Cons of Being a Fully Remote Company,” Insperity, https://www.insperity.com/blog/fully-remote-company/. Another common problem in South Africa is the availability of or access to adequate power supply due to load shedding, whereby intentional power shutdowns are used to more evenly distribute electricity provision in cases of inadequate power supply.19“Introducing Load Shedding,” WakaWaka, https://waka-waka.com/en/2015/08/introducing-load-shedding/. Load shedding complicates the efforts of South Africans to work online, as poor townships suffer from frequent power cuts. Other challenges faced by workers working remotely in South Africa include Telkom fibre malfunctions, lack of LTE wireless, and lack of power banks and battery backups for modems and laptops.20Dadoo, “Working from Home.” All this increases the deep economic misery in a country that is already in a recession with widespread layoffs.21Toyana, “Power Cuts.”
Covid-19 has called attention to the need to address deep-rooted inequalities that have adversely affected the country’s ability to overcome the technological challenges it faces and mitigate the pandemic’s adverse impacts on employers and employees.22Sharron McPherson, “As Covid-19 Gets More People Working from Home, Cybercriminals Zoom In,” Daily Maverick, September 15, 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-09-15-as-covid-19-gets-more-people-working-from-home-cybercriminals-zoom-in/. As South Africa struggles to manage the fallout of the pandemic, including seeking to minimize the negative effects of the lockdown and remote working, several factors should be taken into consideration. Even if some companies are able to provide their employees with sufficient resources to work remotely, such as paying for internet and mobile data expenses and providing them with laptops and mobile phones, problems such as the slow internet connection and load shedding can be solved only if the South African government invests in the development of the country’s internet infrastructure and sources of renewable energy. A gender-responsive strategy should also be implemented and prioritized in order to protect women against domestic violence during this difficult time. Before developing this gender-responsive strategy, the traditional roles of women and men in the country should be reviewed to ensure the equality of both genders. This can be achieved by empowering women through gender-focused initiatives, programs and laws. The country should also promote digital development to better engage emerging challenges that have arisen from the changing nature of work in response to Covid-19.