News

The steep cost of lockdown in South Africa

In country where half of population lives in poverty, coronavirus lockdown is causing mounting problems
Porters queue to help residents of the Olievenhoutbosch township carry food parcels. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

In the morning in Olievenhoutbosch, the children wake early and run in the small dirt yard. There is hot tea and hope. In the afternoon, everyone is hungry and listless, and the hours drag. Tempers fray. By nightfall, with little for dinner except vegetables and maize meal, spirits flag.

“The evenings are hard,” said Maria Rabutla, who lives with her two daughters and three grandchildren in a small two-bedroom house in Olievenhoutbosch. “The children are saying they want more to eat. We just tell them that we all must trust in God and that God will answer us and that this will pass too.”

Last week there was excitement in the township, where 70,000 people live in tightly packed rows of small houses and shacks surrounded by the malls, business parks and gated communities that sprawl around Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city.

First, the strict lockdown imposed across South Africa in late March to stem the spread of Covid-19 was eased to allow people out of their homes between 6am and 9am for exercise, and for a few to go back to work.

Then, a local charitable organisation set up a hand-out of food parcels. Thousands formed queues to receive a package of flour, rice, baked beans and tinned fish.

“We got a parcel but with this corruption and inefficient people we have not got anything from the government. We have not seen an official here since the disease came,” Rabutla, 57, said.

South Africa’s rapid response and proactive campaign to contain the disease has been widely praised, and has so far limited the outbreak to 7,572 confirmed cases, with 148 deaths.

But the cost of the lockdown has been steep in a country where half the population of 56 million live in poverty.

In Olievenhoutbosch, as in other townships across South Africa, the restrictions have prevented thousands from earning a precarious living. All those who made enough for dinner for their families through selling home-made food at a stall, ironing in middle-class homes nearby, labouring, or – in the case of Rabutla – working as a seamstress, have been deprived of an income.

“We had no chance to prepare, to get food, to get ready, to save some money. It is like I have been bound in chains … I understand it is [the same] for the whole world but we don’t know how or when we will solve [this disease],” Rabutla said.

A woman sells masks to residents in Olievenhoutbosch. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Though the government has promised support, there are problems reaching those who need it most. Sporadic rioting has broken out in some poor communities around Johannesburg and near Cape Town.

In Kliptown, one of the poorest parts of Soweto, to the south-west of Johannesburg, there is desperation. Some cannot afford to pay the 500 rand (£22) monthly rent – for a shack.

“It is very hard, very hectic,” said Ntokozo Dube, a 29-year-old youth leader who earned an uncertain living from guiding tourists around Soweto’s landmarks until domestic and international flights were stopped seven weeks ago.

“I am the only breadwinner for my wife, my own small child, my sister and her three children as well as my dad. This disease has affected the whole world and everyone is crying,” Dube said.

South African health authorities have been scrambling to build up the capacity of the public health system after years of under-investment.

“My dad is 73 and I don’t think he will get good treatment if he gets the virus. I’m very anxious, and the whole family depends on me so if I’m sick and pass away, they will have nothing,” said Dube.

Ministers have said they hope to start reopening schools within four to six weeks. Few students have access to computers or internet facilities which would allow them to study at home. Many miss school lunches, which often provided the most nutritious meal of the day.

If incidents of some serious crimes have fallen dramatically during the lockdown, in part due to a strict ban on the sale of alcohol, others appear to have soared.

Tina Thiart, a trustee of 1,000 Women One Voice, an NGO that works through grassroots initiatives to tackle violence against women and children, said women were locked up with abusers and reports to the NGO of gender-based violence had “really spiked”.

South Africa’s vibrant media sector is adapting fast to the new environment.A new soap opera – Lockdown Heights – is already in production. It will narrate the lives of residents of a Johannesburg apartment complex whose lives are intertwined through scandalous affairs, murder, dangerous secrets … and “the struggle to adhere to government restrictions”.

But the impact on many other industries has been catastrophic. South Africa’s economy was already weak before the Covid-19 crisis and is expected to shed millions of jobs. The rand has crashed by almost 30% against sterling and the dollar.

Unlike most other countries on the continent, South Africa was able to introduce a huge social and economic relief package. Worth $27bn, it may allow some struggling companies to survive, and will also mean bigger welfare grants to individuals – if they can access the funds. But many are unaware of how to apply or are confused by the formalities.

The crisis may also allow reforms previously stymied by fierce opposition from factions within the ruling African National Congress party and its allies.

“The president and the people around him were making tough choices that are being supported by the population,” said Jeff Gable, a senior economist with ABSA bank in Johannesburg.

On Wednesday, Prof Salim Abdul Karim told journalists that the peak of the outbreak in South Africa was likely to be between late July and early September.

In Olievenhoutbosch, Rabutla, who is also a pastor, is hoping she can reopen her church well before then.

“We will pray for this bad time to finish soon so we can go back to work and the kids can go back to school, and we can go back to our lives.”

Post a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: