South Africa


Covid-19: Inequality and violence

Covid-19: Inequality and violence
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

The imposition of a lockdown or any other restrictions, such as those relating to Covid-19, are always implemented in societies with pre-existing conditions that affect the impact that the restrictions may have and also condition the ways these are enforced. In South Africa, the lockdown is being experienced in very different ways by different sections of the population, making it hard for some to comply and resulting in extensive use of force.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

In some ways, the declaration of a National State of Disaster and a compulsory lockdown has evoked sentiments of patriotism, doing one’s duty to our country, not only to avoid contracting the virus but also to ensure that by one’s own actions one does not endanger others and spread the infection. That is why very many people appear to be heeding the lockdown and staying at home, only going out to buy food or medication or for other essential reasons. The main streets of the cities and suburbs are deserted and, even if not out of patriotism, a great many people appear to have resigned themselves to abiding by the lockdown and not venturing into the streets or out of their houses for reasons that are impermissible. (This is my impression from areas that I have passed in Johannesburg and see also and a drone image of a deserted Cape Town.)

The lockdown and the fear of the virus itself have also evoked sentiments of mutual solidarity and caring as in some of the literature advocating the making and wearing of face masks, emphasising mutual responsibility. Some statements run to the effect that “if I look out for you, you look out for me”), although medical opinion on the advisability of civilians wearing such masks remains divided.

Many of the wealthier segments of society have made substantial donations towards assisting the more vulnerable under the lockdown, contributing towards feeding schemes, accommodation, and at a more macro level, converting the use of factories making testing equipment designed for TB into a capacity to test for Covid-19, with a view to speeding up the tracking down of those who are infected. Appeals have been made to other countries for assistance in achieving this technological capacity, sometimes persuading those who were reluctant to assist, to collaborate

State and financial institutions have made some efforts to cover loss of income, including more flexibility over social grants, and banks have undertaken to assist clients who are having difficulty meeting their financial obligations for the duration of the lockdown. It is clear, however, that many households or individuals remain financially stressed, though the worst effects of this period are still to be seen. Encouragingly, there is some public debate about ways of rebuilding the economy, which may help renew existing thinking.

Unequal effect of lockdown

The totalising impact of the lockdown has thrown people out of work and prevented those earning a pittance from soliciting money and other items in public places, waste picking and pursuing other informal work. (Some relief, albeit not returning to work, for waste pickers is now being considered. Those in paid employment do not always continue to receive wages, especially vulnerable ones like domestic workers. Those who are self-employed cannot venture out in order to earn.

Households are often without sources of income, food or sufficient food and continue living in makeshift shelters, although part of the efforts of the lockdown has been to remove these insofar as they are seen as sources for the spread of the disease. The high density of the population in informal settlements has been identified as one of the barriers in the way of containing the disease. There is a plan to remove communities in order to lower the density. 

This is a very high-risk venture and, if not preceded by intense consultations, could lead to resistance and violence, especially if the temporary accommodation is inferior to that from which they have been moved. Reports suggest that some of those who may be moved believe that it is essentially temporary, prior to returning to their very same home. This is unlikely and it is unclear why particular places have been identified for removals. Insofar as consultation has not been a strong point in modes of government, we can anticipate resistance and repression and possibly more deaths. 

The fallouts from the lockdown are multiple, including the negative impact on children, including their not receiving the meals that were provided at schools when they were open. Possibly the biggest economic impact will be on small businesses that will be unable to survive a prolonged shutdown. 

The struggle to limit and contain the spread of the virus is an international phenomenon, though few societies operate with as total a shutdown as that found in South Africa. In all of these societies the burden of the lockdown is experienced unevenly. It is not felt as harshly by the wealthier or middle-class sectors who have adequate housing or reasonable shelter, access to water and sanitation, means of transport and finances to fetch supplies from the shops, in South Africa and elsewhere. That may explain the images of deserted streets in these areas and their readiness to comply with official directives.

Many are sufficiently economically secure to have funds to tide them over in the event of some loss of income. They know that there will be adequate food and that their basic conditions will remain healthy, even if being locked down interferes with their work and studies and is claustrophobic. If they contract some other illness apart from the coronavirus, they have the means to seek medical assistance from pharmacies and doctors, even if the conditions for contact with doctors have been modified in order to avoid potential exposure to the virus.

They generally live in areas where refuse collection continues and there are often armed response companies securing the safety of those in these private dwellings. If there is a municipal water or sewage leak or electricity failure it is likely that it will be repaired as speedily as in the pre-lockdown period.

We are speaking of one lockdown with a set of regulations that is uniform in its formulation but not applied to a population that lives in the same conditions. This is not peculiar to the lockdown since the generality of law, the notion of “equality before the law” (one of the gains in post-apartheid South Africa), always applies to people who are not living in identical positions and cannot access rights under the law in the same way. The “common law” correctly valorises one law for all. But one law for all – despite its value – tends almost universally to erase the unequal impact that the law has on those to whom it is applied.

Vital as it may be to keep people in their homes, it has been noted that this also means that those subjected to domestic violence are more vulnerable than before, increasing the intensity of their confinement with the abuser and also where it is difficult for them to venture out to seek help.

The most fundamental directives or advice to the population relate to hygiene, washing one’s hands regularly and staying indoors in order to avoid being infected or infecting others. But this cannot be uniform in its application insofar as very many segments of South African society remain without their basic needs, including their right to an adequate supply of water, being met. The lockdown has revealed on television screens and social media what was more hidden, that the difference in living conditions between rich and poor of the apartheid period continues into the present. Government admitted in fact that the extent to which fresh water is supplied is now less than in 1994. Former President Thabo Mbeki once spoke of South Africa consisting of “two nations”. Many labelled that description as divisive, when in fact it was a characterisation of the realities of existence.  

Complying with key lockdown directives may be easy in the suburbs, but almost impossible in the poorer areas. Very often, 10 or more people may share a single, small room. This, again, is, with some variations, also true of other states.

It was never a secret that there have been these different “worlds”, where the wealthy live in a quite different condition from the poor. But the lockdown has brought this rudely into public consciousness as police and other security forces have sought to enforce measures of the lockdown on people living in very different ways.  

The tragedy of South African democracy is now there for all to see, albeit only in those areas and cases that reach the media coverage. Even with the limits on possible coverage it is a scandal that has now been flashed around the world, not only the living conditions of the poor but the brutality of the security forces, who have allegedly killed and assaulted or humiliated people in a range of ways. (Examples of alleged police violence are covered. See here and here and here.)

At the time of writing, President Cyril Ramaphosa has addressed the nation on three occasions and has generally evoked positive responses for his apparent firmness, resolve and unifying message. Unlike his conventional persona, where he appears to come across as “Mr Nice Guy”, it was made clear that this is an emergency situation and we now know that it has features that make it unprecedented in South African and in world history. It requires resolve but also sensitivity to address the multiple facets of motivation to help combat the virus and coexisting obstacles, that are not of the making of the population.

Regrettably, the president does not appear to have acted with sufficient resolve to ensure that the security forces do not overstep boundaries and attack people. Even if some images are fake, there are sufficient captured on various types of media to suggest widespread abuse.  

On the occasion of his third address there had been three alleged killings of civilians by police and the president made no mention of this. There are certain delicacies attached to deploying security forces and, in the case of the police, relating to the incumbent Minister of Police, Bheki Cele. Cele may be someone whom Ramaphosa is reluctant to offend, though he is a person who has in a previous situation as Commissioner of Police called on police to “shoot to kill”. Cele’s discourse on abuses is not credible. One person who is alleged to have died after police assaults was claimed by Cele to have suffered a heart attack. But the assaults were not in fact denied – whether or not they were the primary cause of his death. There needs to be clarity: if the allegations of maltreatment are true (which does seem to be the case, in many respects), this will not be tolerated and those committing these will be held responsible).

In recent weeks, violence by the security forces has continued and possibly intensified, with the eThekwini municipality evicting people, despite an assurance that there would not be evictions during the state of disaster. The municipal police have been accompanied by a security company and, in at least one case, the defence force.

The use of force and the principle of non-violence

It appears to be assumed that the lockdown must be implemented – in the poorer areas, through the use of force. This raises a wider question of the high tolerance of violence in South Africa. In some respects, it is a legacy of the colonial and apartheid era. But, in truth, those who derive from the liberation tradition are seldom known to espouse non-violence as a principle, and as an unqualified good. Many people were unhappy about negotiations, mistakenly believing that the liberation forces could have defeated the apartheid regime on the battlefield. This may be one of the reasons why non-violence and peace are insufficiently advocated in South African public life.

In my own case, I come from the insurrectionary tradition. But I now believe that violence can only be justified in exceptional conditions and once those conditions are no more, resort to force is illegitimate. Imposing force on another person is to treat that person as an object or a thing. That is contrary to the humanistic tradition that drives the best elements of emancipatory thinking. We need to embrace non-violence, not as the choice of weaklings but as bearing unqualified value in building a shared society of equals. That is not to say that force can never be used. But its use must be clearly understood to be temporary and based on exceptional reasons. The moment those conditions have passed, non-violence and peace must reign.

The incomplete acceptance of the cause of peace is one of the reasons why we are witnessing so much violence against the poor today. Once the lockdown is over, it is important to address this unfinished business and ensure that we live without fear and in peace. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.


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