Beyond the emergency: ‘Slow catastrophes’ after Covid-19

What we have seen so far in South Africa challenges the apocalyptic images and dystopic disaster narratives in popular culture – ‘the war of all against all’, says the writer. (Photo: Steven Robins)

Providing humanitarian aid during a crisis such as Covid-19 is a complex process that often has unintended consequences. The challenge now is to translate these Covid-19 crisis responses into longer-term commitments to addressing economic vulnerability and food insecurity.

On 17 March 2020, members of the Cape Town-based Philippi Horticultural Area Campaign met to discuss humanitarian responses to the coronavirus crisis with representatives from informal settlements in the area. Less than a month later, the PHA Campaign had managed to raise funds to start providing 1,550 households in the PHA informal settlements with food packs that could last for two weeks of lockdown.

In mid-April, when PHA Campaign volunteers distributed the food packs, the process worked like clockwork. One of the reasons for this was that the local leadership had been directly involved in this initiative from the start. By the time the PHA Campaign volunteers had arrived at the settlements, the leadership and residents were fully prepared. They patiently stood in lines a metre apart and waited until they were called to collect the food packs.

To prepare for this process, PHA Campaign volunteers, local leaders and residents had completed detailed household surveys with information about the different social and economic needs in the communities. Recognising that food insecurity in these communities would persist post-Covid-19, the PHA Campaign is also growing the women-led food and health committees in each of the informal settlements. This is part of the organisation’s aim of establishing small-scale agriculture in the PHA to promote longer-term food security and livelihoods.

A decade ago, Nazeer Sonday — who was born in the PHA but whose family was forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act — founded the PHA Campaign to promote small-scale agriculture and to protect this farming area from the encroachment of developers. This has involved many years of court cases to challenge attempts by the City of Cape Town and developers to rezone 3,000ha of drought-proof agricultural land for shopping centres and gated communities.

“We have three crucial ingredients,” explains Sonday: “Existing relationships in the PHA community, resourced campaign members and supporters, and an immediate need. The only ethical response during Covid-19 is to utilise our agency to address that.”

The PHA Campaign is one of many initiatives that have responded to the immediacy of the Covid-19 crisis, while simultaneously seeking longer-term solutions to the problems of landlessness, housing, water and sanitation, food security, climate change and chronic poverty.

Throughout South Africa there are government and civil society initiatives to provide food relief for the poor and unemployed who have been rendered even more vulnerable by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some cases there has been tension at food distribution points as residents fear that nepotism or political connections will determine who receives these parcels and who does not. Other concerns have also surfaced about these food relief initiatives. For example, members of the Tafelsig and Mitchell’s Plain Community Action Network (CAN) have expressed anger that they are providing food to desperate people in their neighbourhoods from their own meagre resources without any state support whatsoever. Meanwhile, the food crisis will most likely intensify in the coming weeks and months.


What remains to be seen, however, is whether these extraordinary acts in extraordinary times can be translated into longer-term responses to a world characterised by the “slow catastrophes” of grinding poverty, food insecurity and hunger, everyday violence and climate shocks.


Rebecca Davis of Daily Maverick recently identified some of the obstacles to rolling out food relief programmes, including the state’s lack of capacity to distribute food; the lack of data on who needs food; the bureaucratic red tape needed to verify claims, corruption and the politicisation of food distribution and coordination and communication problems. Meanwhile, growing hunger has manifested in desperation, as well as the looting of grocery stores and protests have erupted in the major cities. It is within this context of state incapacity that civil society responses have become so important.

Rushka Ely and Gill Cullinan of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP) recently published an article in Daily Maverick titled “Building relationships in a time of crisis” in which they provide guidelines for ensuring “responsible community engagement” in these food relief initiatives. The guidelines highlight problems that sometimes surface when the affluent seek to help the poor and vulnerable. These include paternalism and “the saviour complex”; failure to recognise the expertise, agency and dignity of aid recipients; misrecognition of “the poor” as “pure victims”, and the failure to recognise that they do not seek pity and charity, which can produce feelings of humiliation and indebtedness.

The guidelines also alert well-intentioned “do-gooders” to the danger of seeing people as a homogenous category of “the suffering poor”, a view that fails to acknowledge that people may not necessarily experience their lives as wall-to-wall tragedies. The Cape Town Together FaceBook page recently witnessed contentious debates about the “hand-out paternalism” of white middle-class responses to the crisis. As Henriette Abrahams posted, “The rich are giving us a bread a day to feed on to ease their [conscience]”. Clearly, charity and humanitarian aid can be tricky terrain. Acts of humanitarian aid can indeed be ethically fraught and ambiguous.

Humanitarianism has often been characterised for being intrinsically paternalistic, individualising and depoliticising. The anthropologist Mariella Pandolfi, for example, claims that people who are classified and defined as refugees, legal or illegal immigrants, or traumatised victims, have their agency undercut by the diagnostic categories of humanitarian management. In other words, the agency of the “target populations” of humanitarian agencies is undermined precisely because they are typically perceived to be passive victims and dependent beneficiaries.

Another perspective, put forward by the anthropologist James Ferguson, in Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution (Durham & London: Duke University Press) suggests that marginalised people, whether in Africa or elsewhere in the world, self-consciously forge relations of dependence and clientelism to access resources and the means to livelihoods. In other words, for “the poor”, notions of individual agency and autonomy may seem overrated. Becoming a client of an NGO, church, mosque, politician, traditional leader or political party may seem far more useful than asserting individual autonomy.

Yet another criticism of humanitarianism concerns the focus of NGOs on “basic needs”. Peter Redfield, who has written extensively about Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), observes that NGO responses to humanitarian crises usually focus on basic needs such as the provision of medical treatment, shelter and food relief, what he describes as “minimalist biopolitics.” This approach does not address more systemic conditions such as chronic poverty and structural inequality; neither does it address social and political concerns and needs. Although these NGOs may be acutely aware of the limits of their interventions, in the face of humanitarian crises such as Covid-19, there is usually little choice but to concentrate on meeting basic needs and preserving “bare life” biological survival. Often this is by means of charity and gift-giving.

Gift giving is a particularly ethically complicated act. Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1922 study of gift-giving in the Trobriand Islands in the Western Pacific showed that “gift economies” were more concerned with social status, honour and prestige than the hard-nosed self-interest that accompanies the commodity exchange of the market. Similarly, in his 1925 book The Gift, Marcel Mauss suggested that giving, receiving and reciprocating gifts were largely about establishing and maintaining social relationships and securing and defending social status.

In other words, gift givers are mostly concerned with reinforcing their power and prestige through their acts of “generosity”, which usually end up humiliating and subordinating the recipients of these gifts. This understanding of gift economies challenges the notion that humans everywhere are always solely motivated by the economic principles of “rational choice” and economic maximisation, a view that mirrors capitalist ideology and denies the possibility of social solidarity, altruism and an ethics of care that goes beyond self-interest. So how should we understand the outpouring of gift-giving during the Covid-19 crisis?

It would seem that humanitarianism, gifting and charity can be motivated by a complex mix of motivations, including paternalism, self-interest and an ethics of care, compassion and solidarity. Regardless of the motivations involved, there is much to be learnt from responses to Covid-19. What we have seen in South Africa is that citizens, activists and civic organisations have found creative ways of connecting physical distancing with solidarity by means of WhatsApp, Zoom, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online organisation. It seems that such acts of care and compassion often emerge in moments of crisis.

Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, makes a compelling case that challenges philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s mid-17th-century thesis that wars and disasters inevitably produce selfish and regressively savage human responses — “the war of all against all”. Solnit documents how crisis and disaster can produce joy, solidarity, purpose and meaning, even in the midst of death, chaos, loss and fear.

Similarly, The Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently observed that “the horror movies got it wrong — this virus has turned us into caring neighbours”.

The challenge now is to translate these Covid-19 crisis responses into longer-term commitments to addressing economic vulnerability and food insecurity. To address these challenges civic organisations such as the PHA Campaign, C19 People’s Coalition and South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) have already launched pro-poor initiatives advocating land reform for small-scale agriculture as well as the Basic Income Grant.

Although we are still in the very early stages of the crisis, and it is uncertain whether the social fabric of our societies will hold together over the longer haul, what we have seen so far in South Africa challenges the apocalyptic images and dystopic disaster narratives in popular culture – “the war of all against all”.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether these extraordinary acts in extraordinary times can be translated into longer-term responses to a world characterised by the “slow catastrophes” of grinding poverty, food insecurity and hunger, everyday violence and climate shocks. Although organisations such as Cape Town Together, Gift of the Givers, SAFSC, PHA Campaign and C19 People’s Coalition have sought to address the immediacy of the humanitarian crisis through food relief, they are acutely aware of the need for longer-term systemic interventions.

The PHA Campaign’s decade-long promotion of small-scale agriculture and the protection of the Cape Flats Aquifer from developers who wish to pave over it, is an example of how to simultaneously tackle food security, livelihoods and future climate shocks. What the current responses reveal is the extent of the need to build upon, and extend, citizen acts of charity and food relief efforts.

These food gifts, which express care, compassion and solidarity in a time of crisis and “spectacular suffering”, need to become the seeds for sustainable systemic responses to the everyday realities of racialised poverty and the “ordinary suffering” that will persist once the Covid-19 crisis is seen to be over.

The consequence of this crisis will reveal the central role that civil society organisations can and must play to work closely with the state to respond effectively to these longer-term systemic challenges. DM

Please go to this website if you would like to contribute towards the PHA Campaign family food basket initiative — R500 pays for a food pack for a family for about two weeks.

Professor Steven Robins is with the Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.


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