Opinionista Hugo van der Merwe 3 May 2020

We need to mobilise every resource we have to combat hunger and poverty caused by Covid-19

As we enter a time where the fear of starvation becomes more prevalent than the fear of Covid-19, we need to look for more effective strategies to look after the needs of the most desperate in our communities.

Government has moved decisively to address the health crisis brought on by Covid-19. Now we need to show equal resolve in responding to the new crisis faced by our communities: hunger.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcements of new social support measures will provide a welcome relief to many, but are unlikely to prevent an upsurge in hunger-related protests. The present ad hoc measures to roll out food parcels and slowly emerging plans for economic recovery are inadequate in the face of the hunger crisis that is unfolding.

A more coherent and engaged strategy is needed to gain trust and build community emergency support systems.

The last two weeks have seen the emergence of violent protests against the state’s failure to address this rapidly escalating situation. Street protests in poor communities across the country, from Mitchells Plain to Alexandra, have reminded the government that South Africans use the streets to express their anger at government. Given the Covid-19 regulations regarding public spaces, this battleground is likely to heat up in the weeks to come.

On the back of South Africa’s shameful levels of poverty and inequality, Covid-19 will exacerbate the poverty and hunger for the most marginalised in our society. While the state has managed to elicit significant levels of acceptance for its regulations, its promise to look after those in desperate need of food has not materialised for many who are in desperate need. Rising expectations of food parcels, seeming unfairness in how food is distributed, and growing desperation as jobs are lost and savings run dry make for very volatile conditions.

Public protests are part of South Africa’s political landscape. They are a sign of collective community action, often a result of normal avenues of communication with institutions and politicians breaking down. They are also sites of violence, both against the state and those blamed for community problems. They have also been used by opportunists to provide cover for the looting of shops. As the focus of such protests shifts to the lack of food, we are likely to see looting becoming much more central in such actions.

As part of the impressive display of the state’s purposeful response to the health challenge, the mobilisation of the police and military has clearly gone overboard. Putting them at the centre of the enforcement was perhaps an unavoidable necessity in the early days of the lockdown and symbolised the state’s seriousness about the measures that were introduced. The fact that they have gone overboard and used excessive force in this role is likely to backfire. Social media images of police brutality have already done much to undermine their credibility and public trust in them as a professional body that serves the public in this difficult time. In seeking to manage everyday social behaviour in public spaces, a heavy-handed approach is unlikely to achieve much.

As we enter more difficult times, where the fear of starvation becomes more prevalent than the fear of Covid-19, we need to look for more effective strategies to look after the needs of the most desperate in our communities. This means both having systems in place to provide food (and other basic provisions) for these people, but also social ordering that is not dependent on brute force.

South Africa has a very basic but critically important system of state social grants through its pensions, child welfare grants and other measures that are in place to directly provide financial support for many vulnerable people. This system supports many people beyond the direct recipients and has now been upscaled in the face of the expanding hunger crisis. There are also programmes such as the Expanded Public Works Programme which provide work opportunities for those without jobs or access to social grants. Such programmes, particularly the Community Work Programme (CWP) offer a critical safety net for the neediest families.

Not only does the CWP offer a critical safety net through the income provided to participants, it is also an important avenue to mobilise support to over 250 of the poorest communities across the country. Many of the 250,000 participants do what could be described as essential services in these communities, from tending food gardens that feed the indigent, providing care for the elderly, assisting victims of gender-based violence, and so on. 

While it may be understandable for them to be demobilised in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, the government should look to resources such as this to re-mobilise our society to respond to the new crisis of hunger, to strengthen trust between our communities and the state, and to care for those in most desperate need. While it is commendable that CWP participants will continue to be paid during the shutdown, there are exciting opportunities for mobilising state-community collaboration that are being overlooked.

In the weeks and months ahead, South Africa needs to draw on its history of mobilisation, our civil society networks and our state investments in an infrastructure of grants and community services.

This will require creative thinking and concerted action on a scale equivalent to our efforts to manage Covid-19. DM

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