OP-ED: No country for poor people – South African government must act on its motto of ‘saving lives and protecting livelihoods’

By ACMS postdoctoral fellow Elsa Oliveira and associate researcher Rebecca Walker

This opinion piece was originally published by the Daily Maverick under the same title, along with the featured image (Police in Gauteng search street people in a area used by the homeless during the national lockdown, EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook), on 24 March 2021.

The government must support and protect all who live here, including foreign-born migrants. If it does not, the devastating consequences of Covid-19 will never be corrected. No reduced lockdown, mass availability of testing or vaccines rollout will prevent the scourge of poverty from deepening if police continue to target the livelihoods of those with few options.

“Metro police have always been a problem, but Covid is making us more afraid. We suffer too much when they take the stuff we are selling. They say, ‘you can’t sell here [on the street]’ and then the food and clothes are gone. Sometimes they also take our money. It’s too many times that me and the children are going to bed hungry”.
– Josephine, an informal trader in Johannesburg, 17 March 2020.

Covid-19 has made life difficult for most of us, but not everyone is in the same boat. Some people, like Josephine, are facing the threat of death by starvation, a gruesome and unnecessary reality that the South African government continues to ignore and one that the police exacerbate on a daily basis.

The South African government must take seriously its commitment to “saving lives and protecting livelihoods”, words that President Cyril Ramaphosa often repeats when addressing the nation on issues surrounding Covid-19. If the government does not act, poverty, desperation and hunger will worsen. As will police violence.

Covid-19 is not the “great equaliser” as some have claimed. Instead, it is a great amplifier of existing inequalities, including those associated with migration.

According to a recent report by the World Bank, the novel coronavirus has caused the first increase in global poverty since the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Job losses and deprivation are hitting poor people hardest, and the profile of global poverty – the share of the world’s population living on R30 ($1.90) or less a day – is changing.

An additional 150 million people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2021.

While it seems the virus has not taken as heavy a health toll on sub-Saharan Africa as it has on other parts of the globe, the region is expected to be one of the hardest hit in terms of increased extreme poverty due, in part, to the impact of responses to the virus on economic activity and the high number of people already living close to the international poverty line.

South Africa, one of the continent’s economic powerhouses, has the highest number of documented Covid-19 infections in Africa, with more than 1.5 million cases and 51,000 deaths as of the middle of March 2021.

On 23 March 2020, President Ramaphosa announced a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus and to enable health systems to prepare for the influx of Covid-19 cases.

From late March 2020 to the end of September, Ramaphosa also deployed the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to support police in enforcing a phased lockdown. The lockdown is likely to move up in level severity if Covid-19 cases rise.

Most types of crime decreased in the first three months of lockdown, yet the number of incidents of police-related brutality against civilians rose dramatically, particularly against South Africa’s most marginalised: the poor, foreign-born migrants (including refugees), women, LGBTQI+ people, and those working in the informal economy, such as street vendors and sex workers.

Although it is unclear whether or not strict containment measures actually help to reduce Covid-related mortalities and/or prevent the collapse of an already fragile healthcare system, the implications of lockdown in one of the world’s most unequal countries remains deeply worrying.

Adhering to Covid-19 prevention guidelines is difficult for most people.

For those living in confined and densely populated places, like South Africa’s many townships or informal settlements, physical distancing is almost impossible – as is frequent hand washing for those with limited access to water and/or money to buy soap and sanitiser.

With interruptions to many income-generating strategies and the closure of schools (places where many of South Africa’s children receive their only meal in a day) increasing hunger, the impact of lockdown has been borne disproportionately by those living on or below the breadline.

Law enforcement officials, including the army, private security and police, have been given licence to enforce quarantines, secure borders and maintain order in ways that would be extreme even for an authoritarian state.

Rather than improving public safety, policing in South Africa often resembles colonial practices: violently repressing protests and controlling dissenting people and their movements at all costs.

Throughout the lockdown, the police have been led by Minister of Police Bheki Cele, who in his previous role as national police commissioner promoted police militarisation and shoot-to-kill policies.

During the initial phase of lockdown, security forces employed humiliating and dehumanising punishments (e.g. water cannons, sjamboks, rubber bullets) and invaded and destroyed property to enforce quarantine.

The brutal killing by soldiers of Collins Khosa in the Alexandra township, committed while metro police allegedly stood by, is one example of the lawlessness and callousness of South Africa’s law enforcement. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the police watchdog, is investigating at least 10 deaths at the hands of police during lockdown.

Yet for many in South Africa (and elsewhere in the world), there were (and still are) few viable options for survival but to defy lockdown.

“They tell you to stay home, but if you are poor and there is no help, you have to go out to earn a living; if you don’t, you die of hunger and so do your kids,” said Josephine, a 35-year-old woman, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has been living in Johannesburg for a decade with her two young daughters.

Since the beginning of lockdown (a year ago), poor people in South Africa have been struggling harder than ever to put food on the table. Many are also psychologically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted by the constant need to decide between viral protection and starvation – a precarity that is especially acute for foreign-born migrants working in the informal sector.

This has been the case for Josephine. Like many other foreign nationals, she fled her birth country to escape poverty, war and other human rights abuses.

South Africa’s refugee legislation (introduced after the end of apartheid) has been lauded as one of the world’s most progressive. Unlike many countries, South Africa never established refugee camps. Under the South African Refugees Act, asylum seekers and refugees have the right to work, study and access medical services. These rights, and the freedom of movement, make South Africa a preferred destination for many migrants seeking refuge, particularly those from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries.

But instead of finding a safe haven and job opportunities, many find themselves stuck in limbo. The government’s adoption of increasingly restrictive immigration policies and its bureaucratic inefficiency and entrenched corruption mean that many foreign-born migrants, like Josephine, remain undocumented for years.

The lockdown’s closure of the Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for renewing and issuing refugee, asylum and residence permits, also makes foreign nationals more vulnerable to harassment and extortion by police, who often ignore the moratorium on arrests of those whose permits have expired.

With South Africa’s soaring unemployment rates and Josephine’s limited qualifications, she has struggled to find a formal job, but has managed to support her family (before Covid-19) through the money she earned washing clothes and through other resourceful work strategies.

By the end of the first month of lockdown, Josephine had used up all the resources she had saved. And like most other foreign-born migrants, Josephine did not qualify for any of the economic and hunger alleviation measures that were adopted by the South Africa government to address the socioeconomic hardships created by Covid-19.

As a result, Josephine was left with few choices but to move into the parking lot of the apartment building where she once rented a room.

Support from private donors helped Josephine and her daughters survive the initial months of lockdown. When restrictions were lifted, Josephine made a plan. She bought dried fish and beans to sell on the street. For a couple of months, Josephine was able to buy food, pay most of her rent and replenish her stock.

We should all be shocked by the gross violence, neglect and exclusion that some of South Africa’s most vulnerable face.

Then one day, metro police confiscated her goods.

“I didn’t have time to run,” Josephine said. “They [metro police] yelled, ‘Why don’t you have a permit? Where is your permit?’ I tell them that I’m waiting for [refugee] papers. I said ‘please don’t take my fish.’ But they don’t care; they don’t think about how I’m going to eat and feed the girls with no money.”

Similar to many other hawkers and small-scale traders in South Africa, Josephine cannot secure a permit to trade because of her documentation situation. Although she has lived in South Africa for more than 10 years, she is still waiting for the outcome of her asylum application.

But like others in the vibrant informal sector of Johannesburg, Josephine has continued to trade – it’s a way to ensure that she can provide for her family.

Taking Josephine’s fish and beans was cruel and unnecessary.

It was also a particularly pernicious act given the pandemic, and now Josephine and her daughters are in an extremely desperate situation.

Of course, Josephine is only one example among thousands of poor migrants in South Africa who are suffering intensely during lockdown.

Last week, Momo, another informal trader, had all her stock and money stolen by metro police. One month ago, Dintle, a single mother of two boys, was unable to outrun the cops after being harassed daily for selling clothes on the street.

In the last six weeks, Karabo, Mpho, Ana, Sitembile and Nancy have paid bribes to avoid arrest because they were found with condoms in their possession. According to the police, carrying condoms is sometimes proof enough that a person intends to sell sex.

The criminalisation of sex work in South Africa is another example of anti-poor legislation that places those involved, most of whom are poor, black migrants (from South Africa and elsewhere), at increased risk of police extortion, detention, rape and even murder.

Although there is growing global consensus that efforts to protect public health in the face of Covid-19 demand temporary sacrifices of some individual freedoms, UN analysts have urged countries not to abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights. And the World Health Organisation recently questioned the justification of rigid long-term lockdowns.

While some containment measures are necessary for addressing the Covid-19 crisis, the experiences of Josephine, Momo, Dintle, Karabo and others show how the excessive use of force by South African police is often directed at the poorest – those who are unable to stop working and often forced to live in fear of losing their livelihoods.

The police are meant to serve and protect. While history shows police often fall short of this mandate, it continues to shock us that those most in need of protection, poor people, who carry the burden of South Africa’s chronic xenophobia and endemic gender-based violence, are often the targets of police brutality.

We should all be shocked by the gross violence, neglect and exclusion that some of South Africa’s most vulnerable face.

Government must act on its Covid-19 motto of “saving lives and protecting livelihoods” – it is not enough to simply keep repeating it.

Government must support and protect all who live here. If it does not, the devastating consequences of Covid-19 will never be corrected. No reduced lockdown, mass availability of testing or vaccines rollout will prevent the scourge of poverty from deepening if police continue to target the livelihoods of those with few options.

Government must also resist populist temptations to blame economic challenges and high unemployment rates on foreign nationals. It must stop pushing anti-immigrant messages and policies. It must stop scapegoating migrants to generate support for ruling party candidates in local and national elections.

And it must hold police accountable for their actions.

The South African government needs to start addressing the severe impact that its discriminatory laws and practices have on the everyday lives of people like Josephine. Otherwise, poverty, desperation and hunger will get worse. So will police violence.

Failure to correct these wrongs will cement the government’s complicity in the suffering (and possible death) of some of South Africa’s most marginalised people.

We believe the government can and must do better. DM

Elsa Oliveira is a Life in the City fellow and postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University. Her work focuses on migration, gender, sexuality, health/wellbeing and community-based participatory research.

Rebecca Walker is an independent consultant and research associate at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University. Her work focuses on gender, migration and health.

About Elsa Oliveira

Elsa Oliveira is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), Wits University, where she is also the co-coordinator of the MoVE (methods:visual:explore) project.

Since 2010, Elsa has been involved in a wide range of participatory arts-based projects with diverse migrant populations in rural and urban areas of South Africa. She has a PhD in Migration and Displacement and is interested in the areas of gender, migration, sexualities, wellbeing, and informal livelihood strategies.