Opinionista Thapelo Mohapi 6 April 2020

State violence against the poor is not the solution

It is vital that the government immediately begins to include the organisations of the poor and the working class in all Covid-19 planning and implementation. If they don’t do this, and continue to criminalise the poor, the result will be a huge breakdown in trust, and massive conflict. 

An insert recently screened on SABC revealed an important reality about the Covid-19 outbreak. A journalist was interviewing residents of a shack settlement in Johannesburg about the pandemic. One of the men he spoke to said it was difficult to understand anything when your stomach is empty. He then asked the journalist for R20 to buy bread. The journalist, taken aback, replied that he was working. His interviewee, who usually makes his living selling scrap metal, replied that the journalist was very lucky to be working.

The reality is that for many people who make a living in the informal sector it will be impossible to survive the rest of the 21 days without being able to earn any money. It will also be impossible for people who share a one-roomed shack with six or seven others, and have no water, sanitation or refrigeration in their shack to stay at home for 21 days. For millions of poor people, it is just not possible to adhere to the rules of the lockdown.

Unsurprisingly, a number of experts have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic will hit the shack settlements in the cities of the global South, where more than a billion people live, the hardest. These places are highly congested, haven’t been provided with adequate water and sanitation, and their residents often lack access to adequate nutrition and healthcare.

It has been argued that in countries like South Africa, India and Brazil this may make it almost impossible to contain the spread of the virus. There have been two types of response to this situation. 

One response has been new forms of cross-class solidarity as the middle classes and elites realise that their future cannot be separated from the lives of the poor. 

But another response has taken the form of new forms of repression as the middle classes and elites try to separate themselves from the poor. 

Around the world we are seeing both kinds of responses from within society and from states. Before the pandemic, a post from Abahlali baseMjondolo on Facebook about evictions would be unlikely to be seen by more than 10,000 people. But a recent post about evictions in Durban had been seen by close to 300,000 people at the time of writing on Saturday afternoon. We have also seen government rapidly installing taps and JoJo tanks in settlements that had previously been denied water. These developments indicate that there are possibilities for new forms of solidarity in this crisis.

However, we have also seen new forms of violence and abuse directed at poor black people. There have been serious abuses from private security companies, the police and the army, including horrifically violent evictions from shack settlements in Durban. 

On Friday it was reported that the police had killed six people since the lockdown started, and that there had also been a further two deaths in police custody, making the police, at that point, more lethal than the virus. We have seen similar abuses in India and Kenya.

Things may well get worse in South Africa if the government actually attempts to implement its plans to move tens of thousands of people out of their homes with the aim of “de-densifying” shack settlements. This could lead to massive conflict between the state and the poorest people in the country. 

State violence against the poor is not the solution to this crisis. In a country where almost 30% of the population is unemployed (the majority of whom are from rural areas and shack settlements) their survival depends on them being able to wake up every day and seek food. Those who sell fruit and vegetables on the streets will be heavily affected as their stock rots. They will have no means to order new stock as they would have used all their money to buy food for their households.

The unemployed person who sits on the side of the road and waits for someone to pick them up to do construction work for the day will also be seriously affected. The closure of schools has made the situation worse for many poor people as it puts more strain on families when it comes to food. We could quickly reach a tipping point at which many poor people are more afraid of dying from starvation than the virus itself. State violence will not stop parents from looking for food for their children.

The organisations of the poor and the working class were not included when the plans for the lockdown were made. Much of what the government has said seems to assume that everyone lives in a large house, with water, sanitation and a fridge, and that everyone can rely on getting a monthly salary. It is vital that the government immediately begins to include the organisations of the poor and the working class in all planning and implementation. If they don’t do this, and continue to criminalise the poor, the result will be a huge breakdown in trust, and massive conflict. 

The government needs to work with the organisations of the poor and the working class to come up with ways to support rather than to repress the poor. For a start, the moratorium on evictions must be strictly enforced. The municipality in eThekwini, which has gone rogue and is subjecting poor people to brutally violent evictions every day, needs to be brought to order as a matter of national urgency.

The rollout of water and sanitation must be rapidly expanded and undertaken in partnership with community organisations.

The food parcels that are always available when elections come around must be made available, at scale, to people who will have no income during the lockdown. This is critically important because without food, compliance with the rules of the lockdown will be impossible for millions of people.

The existing pensions and grants systems must be used to direct money to the poor in the form of special crisis grants. Those who are most vulnerable in this crisis should be seen as those who require the most support, and not as people to be humiliated, beaten or even murdered by the police. 

The plan to “de-densify” shack settlements is dangerous. The reality is that it is the failure of the state since 1994 that has forced millions of people to live in overcrowded and underserviced shack settlements. We are in this situation because the government has failed to address the housing crisis. Covid-19 has exposed that failure and created a situation in which that failure puts the whole of society at risk. The state must acknowledge this and act with some humility. It cannot continue to treat poor people as it has for the last 25 years. 

For 25 years the state has refused to engage in democratic decision-making processes with the poor before making decisions that affect their lives. When dealing with the poor the approach by the government has normally been top-down and brutal. It is no exaggeration to say that the state has often criminalised poverty and engaged with poor people at gunpoint.

This has to stop, immediately. 

The only viable way through this crisis is a path rooted in solidarity with the poor and the working class, including a democratic partnership with the organisations of the poor and the working class.

Any attempt to deal with the crisis with violence, repression and the criminalisation of poverty will result in a huge breakdown in trust, and debilitating social conflict. It will be a road to disaster. DM

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