Coronavirus Op-Ed

A pledge to build unity and solidarity during a global crisis

By Sharon Ekambaram 29 March 2020

This virus does not distinguish on the basis of nationality, and all within our borders have a role to play in its containment, and a right to be treated equally under the law.

Last week we noted with disappointment that at a press conference during which Cabinet ministers detailed plans for the 21-day lockdown, Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said that during this period, only spaza shops owned by South Africans would be allowed to function, to ensure that the quality of food that is sold can be “assured”.

This is offensive, discriminatory and exactly how xenophobic sentiment and violence are fuelled in South Africa. The minister expressed a prejudicial view, in these comments, that spaza shops owned by foreign nationals sell food that does not meet health and quality standards, without a shred of supporting evidence. This othering fuels toxicity, and goes against the spirit of ubuntu that we as people living in South Africa have witnessed and engaged in over the last few weeks, under the leadership of the president as he called for cooperation, collaboration and common action in dealing with Covid-19.

We note with relief that the official regulations published on Thursday regarding the implementation of the lockdown, make no distinction between South African and “foreign-owned” spaza shops. It remains to be seen, however, what the impact of Ntshavehni’s statements will be in adding fuel to the xenophobic fire in South Africa during the course of this lockdown. These discriminatory comments by our leaders cannot stand in the normal course, and during this time of global crisis there is even less room for them.

Xenophobic sentiments sowing divisions at this critical moment in the history of humanity are more than reckless. They are destructive.

The traditions of the anti-apartheid struggle and more recently the struggle of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) for access to affordable and quality healthcare for all are instructive.

While we use words like “unprecedented” to describe the crisis that humanity faces today, we must acknowledge that South Africa has faced significant challenges before, in our not-too-distant past. Taking down the apartheid regime was not the result of the efforts of one man. Nor was it done by spreading hatred. It was an international movement, in which we united as human beings, irrespective of nationality, race, creed, class or sexual orientation, and built on foundations of respect for human dignity standing firm to eradicate racial hatred, discrimination and to fight for equality and against the injustice of poverty.

Today we enjoy living in a democracy, with a Constitution that is a shrine to the respect for human dignity and human rights for all who live in this country. Sentiments expressed by Ntshavheni must be denounced and withdrawn. They have no place in our democracy, let alone during this time of global crisis.

We must also reflect, learn, and take courage from what the TAC achieved in another era of darkness that engulfed the world. South Africans built an international movement to fight for access to treatment for all people living with HIV and AIDS. The TAC was able to lead this movement by organising communities through education and by campaigning on principles of solidarity. This is how it was able to address the stigma, othering and toxicity against people living with HIV and AIDS that was fuelling vulnerability and risk of infection.

The TAC membership form has these words etched in print in the form of a pledge:

These are the reasons that I pledge to support the Treatment Action Campaign:


  • I am scared and fear that tomorrow my friends, my schoolmates and colleagues and everybody may have HIV/AIDS;
  • I do not have enough knowledge and treatment and care, I want to learn more. I care about my life and the lives of my friends;
  • Millions of people have HIV/AIDS and they will die for no reason other than the fact that the treatment costs are too high;
  • I will use my anger, fear, knowledge, emotions and care to win affordable treatment and care for people;
  • I will use my anger, fear, knowledge, emotions and care to win affordable treatment and care for people with HIV/AIDS;
  • Everywhere I will encourage openness about HIV/AIDS;
  • I might not be ready to tell others that I have HIV/AIDS, I will tell them when I am ready; and
  • I pledge time, energy, courage and other resources to build the Treatment Action Campaign and to struggle for access to affordable and quality healthcare for all.


The legacy of the TAC continues to reverberate as we hear calls to consider the language we use as we struggle to change behaviour and bend the curve. In other words, as we fight to save lives by stopping the further spread of Covid-19.

Changing behaviour includes eradicating xenophobia and all forms of toxic othering that has become so prevalent in the world today. Because the reality remains that this virus does not distinguish on the basis of nationality, and all within our borders have a role to play in its containment, and a right to be treated equally under the law. Selfishly refusing to consider the impact of our risky behaviour by not heeding the call to embrace social solidarity and physical distancing is what is resulting in an increase in the numbers of people contracting Covid-19. This will impact disproportionally on people living in impoverished conditions.

Indeed, never before has the stark reality of how inequality affects our very existence as a species been more clearly demonstrated than we are witnessing through the devastating impact of Covid-19. It is in confronting this reality that we need brave leadership on principles of equality, unity and solidarity to save the lives of human beings – not cheap populism.

As the country embraces the hard reality of a 21-day lockdown, Lawyers for Human Rights in coalition with many other NGOs and community and movement leaders, remains available to ensure the protection of the rights of all within our borders. We will work to guard against an implementation that disproportionately affects impoverished communities and vulnerable individuals. At the same time, we will continue to disseminate information and government health directives and call on all who live in South Africa to contribute to flattening the curve of this virus.

Now is the time for us to unite as the human race and ensure that all resources available are directed to the most vulnerable sections of our society in our common fight to protect us from the spread of Covid-19. MC

Sharon Ekambaram works for Lawyers for Human Rights and is Manager for the Refugee and Migrants Rights Programme. The views expressed herein are her own


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