Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen OP-ED

Xenophobia: The Coronavirus doesn’t care about citizenship

African foreign nationals from various African countries take refuge inside Central Methodist Church, Cape Town, South Africa, 20 November 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

The fake news claim from AfriForum and their followers that the government’s recently announced support for small and medium businesses is contingent on 51% black ownership has been ferociously debunked. However, few have yet pointed out that the relief measures are discriminatory in other ways and are in crucial ways counter-productive.

Right now, there are only five Covid-19 objectives that matter: 1) Flatten the curve – slow down the spread of the virus so the healthcare system can cope. 2) Cushion the blow to the economy and businesses. 3) Ensure the provision of essential services. 4) Promote unity, empathy and social solidarity. 5) Protect the most vulnerable. 

Ensuring the survival of small businesses through the lockdown is essential to every one of those goals. The announcement from Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni that relief funding would be made available to help businesses through this challenging period came as a lifeline for fearful employers, and employees. 

But it came with a catch: Only if your business is 100% South African-owned and only if it employs at least 70% South Africans. 

What is the rationale for these criteria? They undermine South Africa’s ability to effectively respond to this unprecedented emergency. 

The funds will help entities with existing debts and repayments as well as assisting with buying raw materials, paying labour and other operational costs. Businesses will need to demonstrate a direct impact from Covid-19 on their revenue. People are scrambling to access help. This morning, when I tried to load the registration platform, it had crashed. 

But non-citizens who legally own a business in South Africa, who contribute to the economy, who provide goods and services, who employ people, are excluded from this safety net. South African-owned businesses with three employees, one being a foreign national, are also excluded. Many more people in need are being shut out by this policy. 

Deeply troubling is the fact that spaza shops, classified as essential services, will be actively supported to stay open – but only if they are South African-owned. This overlooks a huge number of vital retailers and the communities they serve. 

Yes, not every business and job can be saved. Resources are limited. But the way the government is choosing to distribute them must be urgently rectified. It risks playing into a divisive narrative that is explosive at the best of times and ruinous at this time. The wounds of xenophobic violence are still fresh and the African Union’s call for continental solidarity appears to be unheeded.

Migrants are already among the most vulnerable groups in South Africa. Not only are foreign nationals who own businesses here now facing destitution, but other migrant workers, disproportionately represented in the gig economy, are also falling through the cracks. Rideshare drivers and domestic workers who find work through apps are classified as independent contractors, and do not have access to UIF or sick pay. For them also, self-isolation with no income is an untenable luxury.

Alongside relief for small and medium businesses, the government has signalled that they are developing a safety net for those in the informal economy. This is welcome and necessary, but it too must not discriminate between classes of people striving to earn a living in South Africa on the basis of citizenship. Covid-19 does not respect nationality and we are all in this together. If the most vulnerable person is not supplied and supported to isolate during the lockdown, we risk more lives being lost. 

The relief funds need to be extended to all small and medium businesses. Every single spaza shop owner is on the frontlines of getting us through this, their nationality and that of their workforce is wholly irrelevant. MC

Kelle Howson is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Fairwork Project, based at the Oxford Internet Institute. Prior to her current role, she worked as a Senior Researcher in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Leader’s Office. 

Darcy du Toit is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Mercantile and Labour Law. He has worked as a labour arbitrator and a consultant to Bradley Conradie Halton Cheadle Attorneys, a firm specialising in labour law. Internationally, he has served inter alia as a Vice-President of the International Society for Labour and Social Security Law and member of the advisory board of the European Labour Law Network. He is a life member of South African Society for Labour Law.

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