Covid-19 and Cape Town: Frustration Grows As Lockdown Exacerbates the City’s Inequalities

Instituting Lockdown in South Africa, where inequality is rampant, was always going to be difficult. Since the beginning, one thing has been clear about COVID-19: It is no leveller.

Over the last seven weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has collided with the everyday crises that numerous citizens were already facing. Prior to the crisis, many South Africans were struggling with rampant unemployment, exploitative work and limited state services, which all continue to be shaped by the racist legacies of apartheid.

Those struggling to make ends meet are caught in a paradox of protection: They want to protect their family by adhering to lockdown, but by adhering to the lockdown they cannot feed and clothe those that they want to protect.

And yet, in the early days of the Lockdown, faith in President Ramaphosa seemed high. Over the last eight weeks we asked seventy diarists from across Cape Town to reflect on the lockdown and its effect on their lives. Initially, our diarists supported what they saw as decisive action driven by science. ‘Looking at the statistics our president presented to us it shows that the country is really working together in this pandemic’, reflected Luyolo in the township of Khayelitsha after the first extension was announced. ‘Maybe extending the lock down for 2 weeks will help us more to contain the spread of Corona’, he reasoned. There was also near universal support amongst diarists for the new government grant targeting those without income from work or grants. ‘These increases are long overdue and shouldn’t only apply during lockdown but should continue going forward’, wrote Judy from the affluent suburb of Newlands.

As the weeks have passed, however, that faith has fractured. For those in Cape Town’s informal settlements and townships, this seems to have been driven by three factors.

First, the paradox of protection in South Africa has only deepened as the weeks roll on. Many are still waiting for the government’s new social grants to materialise and even when they do, the R350 ($20) per month that they offer is likely to fall short of covering people’s basic needs. Government-driven food parcels have been similarly inadequate. One of our participants reported that her informal settlement of 720 households only received 9 parcels from their local councillor. NGOs and Community Action Networks across the city have been left attempting to plug the gap but their interventions – whilst crucial – are constantly outweighed by residents’ needs. 

Second, the government’s decision-making, which was initially praised as being rational and science-led, has come under increasing fire. The government’s U-turn on the cigarette ban in May certainly didn’t inspire confidence amongst many of our diarists. Critiques around the government’s decision-making rationales are joining with a third concern: the inclusivity of decision making. Amongst those on the economic margins, a question is growing: in the policy-making around Lockdown, do their lives count? Are their voices being heard? 

Calls for young people to return to school, for example, have been met by fear and incredulity amongst many diarists in the city’s townships and informal settlements. ‘Maybe children who go to private [schools] will [be] able to cope with social distancing and all other necessary precautions’, Noxy wrote from Delft, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, but this was not feasible in many state schools, where resources were stretched and infrastructure was limited. ‘In public schools they share utilities, bathrooms and even text books’ wrote Khaya, in Khayelitsha. While diarists were deeply concerned that remote learning remains a luxury that only the middle classes can afford, the idea of students returning to over-crowded, under-resourced schools on packed public transport has left many fearful that infections will spiral.

Now, as the government calls for lowering of restrictions despite rising infections in the city, people’s sense that they have been abandoned by the government is deepening. ‘I feel like president is allowing us to be killed by this covid-19 because he knows that western cape is not ready to be on level3’, wrote Nosiphiwo also from Khayelitsha, ‘Now we are going to die I am very scared about this.’ 

Like many of the diarists in our project, these residents are keen for the promise of employment and a sense of normalcy that reduced lockdown restrictions would bring. Their fear comes from the knowledge that when infections increase, they will be the ones who face the greatest risk. ‘Where are unemployed people going to get the money for medical aid, so you can look after your health and the health of your family?’, asked Sam, in Khayelitsha, ‘The president has really hit us poor people, but we endure and ask God to protect us.’ 

When crises collide, there are no easy answers. Maintaining a full lockdown is untenable without extensive government intervention, especially in providing financial support. Many long for the easing of restrictions but they need reassurance that when that easing comes, they will be prioritised and protected, not abandoned.

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