South Africa’s Wider Divide in the Disaster State

Inner city of Johannesburg. Photograph taken by author, 2020.
Hui Jiang discusses the tension between socio-economic rights and civil rights in South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic.
[Ed. note: This is part of a series of reports on the COVID-19 pandemic from global cities.]

On April 10, 2020, a brutal abuse of power sparked public anger when it was broadcast by South African media. The victim was a 40-year-old black man, Collins Khosa, who was assaulted and tortured to death by a group of policemen and members of the South African National Defense Forces (SANDF) in his own yard. In a widely circulated piece of footage, Khosa was seen to be cornered and constantly beaten until he fell down. His yard, although tiny in size, is walled and has an impressive appearance of cleanliness and privacy that shows the owner’s relative well-being in the neighborhood of Alexandra, an inner-city area of Johannesburg well known for its characteristic poverty, disorder and crime.

South Africa is a highly divided country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world. In 2015, it was designated a consumption expenditure Gini coefficient of 0.63. Inequality in terms of wealth alone is even higher: the richest 10% of the population held around 71% of net wealth in 2015, while the bottom 60% held just 7% of net wealth. Among the many infamous poor settlements scattered on the margins of metropolises such as Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town, Alexandra is one of the poorest. Since the national lockdown began on March 17th in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these settlements have been patrolled with heavy security forces in order to implement social distancing rules. Although Khosa lived in a comparatively stable part of Alexandra, he unfortunately became a victim of police brutality because the whole area was subject to strict surveillance without any clear regulations to limit the use of violence by the security forces.

Rooftop in Diepsloot settlement. Photograph taken by author, 2020.

Thanks to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, many instances of violence by South Africa’s security forces have been recorded by and circulated to the public. The video that finally served as valid proof at the high court trial of Khosa’s case was recorded by his neighbor. Thankfully, it survived; the police destroyed all the other existing videos. As a matter of fact, social media was one of the only ways for people to know what was happening outside their residences when their movements were strictly limited by the lockdown. Social media played a significant role not only in updating the public with news but also in bringing social justice to society. The exposure of many local governments’ misdemeanors—such as the crackdown of illegal shacks in the name of lockdown rules, and dispersing people gathered in groups with rubber bullets—has recently depended on social media. However, the TV news and newspapers controlled by the government were also informative in reporting substantial challenges to survival faced by poor communities at a time when almost all economic activities were suspended under the government’s strict lockdown regulations. The rich people, who never had the opportunity to know the living conditions of those living in poor urban areas such as Alexandra or Diepsloot, could now closely observe the lives of their neighbors via the eye of the camera.

Diepsloot settlement. Photograph taken by author, 2020.

The lockdown transformed the existence of the poorest residents into a daily struggle of life and death. Unemployment ruthlessly deprived them of the opportunity to survive as they are forced to live hand-to-mouth, earning barely enough for tomorrow’s bread. Their battles for getting basic supplies like food, water and electricity, which were never easy by any means, have become even more severe. Beyond these troubles, the worries about eviction due to owing rent to their landlords are increasingly overwhelming. According to the rules of emergency, it is illegal to evict a tenant during the lockdown even if they did not pay the rent on time. However, the rules do not prevent the dirty games that many landlords play in order to force the tenants out by, for example, cutting electricity, allowing a new tenant to break in or even pouring dirty water into the house. The local government would never intervene in these “trivial” matters.

Eviction from one’s home, however frightening it may be for even the short-term future, is not as immediate a threat to survival and well-being as hunger and lack of hygiene. It has been reported that in Alexandra, where many family toilets are out of use, five hundred people have to share one public faucet. In this situation, it is practically impossible to keep people from leaving their homes. For example, a room shared by two immigrant gardeners in Diepsloot is only big enough to accommodate one double-bed on one side and a small stove on the other side, with no more space left to move around. The two roommates would have to stay in bed all day long during the endless lockdown if rules were strictly obeyed. Women in particular are the most vulnerable victims of the lockdown, given that gendered violence against women overshadows other forms of crime in neighborhoods like Alexandra. Immigrant workers are also unequally impacted, since they are denied access to the government’s relief food and have to rely on donations.

Since it was quickly proven to be almost impossible to force people to keep social distancing within the conditions of poor communities, the South African government’s use of military force and coercion anticipated increasing tensions between the people and security forces. The rhetoric through which the defense minister Nosivwe Mapisa-Nqukula mobilized the army was especially troubling. The moment when the army was about to be deployed, she made a statement that “there will be no skop, skiet and donder of civilians by the SANDF unless necessary to do so.” Translated from Afrikaner, the words “skop, skiet and donder” mean “kick, shoot, assault and injure,” and were typical colonial phrases used in the past by the Apartheid military forces to crack down on black resistance movements. Clearly the choice of these words by the minister is very offensive, especially to the black community. It was this warlike mentality as well as the lack of clarification of circumstances in which violence would be tolerated by the government that led to the tragedy of Khosa. Angered by Khosa’s death, poor communities see the potential threat of the soldiers as more fatal than that of the pandemic. These communities’ intensified hostility toward policing agencies and the increased pressures they face to survive economically have made an already highly economically divided country even more fractured under increased state control.

For poor South Africans, their social-economic rights supply a foundation not only for living a decent life but also for the entitlement to their civil rights. The poor have to pay a much higher price in this fight against COVID-19 than privileged groups, as their social-economic and civil rights are being violated at the same time. What happened to Khosa, while attesting to the antagonism between the government and the poor, highlights the fact that people living in poor communities cannot even have their basic privacy and property rights protected. Khosa held a moderate-income job and owned a car as well as a comfortable space—a rarity in Alexandria. His ownership of a vehicle incurred the envy of the members of the security forces involved in his assault, who first damaged his car before they began to hit him. Consider the facts at hand: when the security forces broke into Khosa’s family home and tortured him, they did not even have proof of his violation of the regulations but, whether because of jealousy or brutality or both, continued to brutally beat him to death. Can we imagine that this would ever happen to Khosa if he lived in a rich community? Khosa’s case—one among too many examples of inequality and injustice—shows how it is impossible for the city’s poor to protect their civil rights if they do not have the security of their social-economic rights.

The Khosa incident highlights a long failure of the government’s response to low-income classes’ call for economic progress since the Mandela era. When the African National Congress Party (ANC) took power from the National Party in 1994, they were faced with a highly socially, economically and racially divided country. The ANC hence set up the utmost goal of transforming the country into a fair and equal society. This agenda was constitutionally endorsed by the Bill of Rights, then arguably the most revolutionary one in the world due to its inclusion of social-economic rights as the most basic human right. This assertion of a new set of rights initially endowed the executive power with the imperative to progressively achieve the social and economic development of the people. However, in 1996 the ANC replaced the original Reconstruction and Development Programme with a market-oriented Employment and Redistribution Policy. This soon proved to be a disaster, as the capability of the government was highly compromised due to budget deficits, corruption, and dysfunction as well as the widening socio-economic gap. It was not long before Post-Apartheid society became shaped into what is called a cappuccino formation: a thin layer of mixed white-and-black cream at the top and a disproportionally large black population below. Social protests began to rise in 2008 and peaked in 2012, when policemen shot dead more than 40 miners on the spot during a strike. Three years later, a call for the decolonization of education inaugurated the #FeesMustFall student movement, which was active over the course of two more years. In 2019 the national land reform movement deeply shook the country. The past decade is evidently an era of social crisis rooted in the long-term failure of the government’s response to the demand for social-economic rights made by the low-income working class. This failure, moreover, has continually led to a polarization between the state and society that has severely harmed the ANC’s legacy and leadership. In the process, the public’s resentment toward policemen and soldiers, who were always put on the frontline to confront the protestors, has understandably increased.

Due to the delayed fulfillment—as well as outright non-fulfillment—of social-economic rights, South Africa’s poor societies today look especially fragile and uncertain as the country is attacked by the pandemic. On March 20th, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola spoke to the public to clarify the limitations of constitutional rights during the state of emergency. But the rights he took pains to discuss were all civil rights, and he made no mention of social-economic rights at all. What would make the people suffer more during lockdown, the loss of civil rights or working opportunities? Do the people who depend on salaries to support their entire families really care about rules against gatherings of more than 100 people or any inconvenience due to virus testing? The reality of having no income for the past and coming months to pay for rent, electricity and food is a literal nightmare. Lamola’s neglect to discuss social-economic rights is particularly flagrant since South Africa is among the few countries in Africa, let alone in the world, to inscribe social-economic rights into its constitution, which has been hailed worldwide as a remarkable index of progress for just this reason. While other countries may see the protection of social-economic rights as less urgent in the context of constitutional rights as a whole, the distinctive enshrinement of social-economic rights in South African governmentality demands Lamola’s acknowledgement of their infringement. The only possible reason for Lamola’s deliberate omission is that it is perhaps inherent in the logic of neoliberalism that has shaped Post-Apartheid developmental strategies since 1996.

The public health crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is a test of the South African government’s capacity to protect poor people’s social-economic rights and civil rights, both of which are essential for the victory in the battle against the virus. When the Khosa case came out, at least two parts of the system proved to be functional. One is the Pretoria High Court. The judgement was decided by judge Hans Fabricius in favor of Khosa’s family, granting a declaratory order to the Police Department and SANDF that requires them to immediately work out clear guidance and disciplinary proceedings to prevent the misuse of power by their staff. The judge Fabricius made it clear that the judgement was made for the purpose of regaining public trust in the government. The other effective institution, both governmental and non-governmental, is the media. The endless deep investigations into the dire living conditions of the poor have helped urge the government to take the social-economic rights of the people more seriously.

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