Opinionista Claire-Anne Lester 1 July 2020

The rapid reopening of the economy does not empower women

Relaxing the lockdown to reopen the economy is antithetical to both empowering women and securing broader economic recovery. Opening the economy without the requisite, necessary social safeguards puts all working people, especially women, at risk.

On 17 June President Cyril Ramaphosa informed the nation that there would be a further easing of lockdown regulations. Restrictions are to be lifted on restaurants, casinos, some accommodation, cinemas, theatres, and personal care services, like hairdressers and beauty salons. We were told that the economy could not remain at a standstill indefinitely, and that people needed to resume work to restore livelihoods.

The current level, which began on 1 June, ameliorated previous lockdown measures to permit exercise between 6am and 6pm, the resumed sale of alcohol, and allowed restaurants to serve take-away meals.

The recent developments mark a palpable and irresponsible shift in the state’s response from actively managing the crisis to devolving responsibility almost entirely to the individual. As Ramaphosa stated, “with the move to alert Level 3 from the 1st of June, our prevention response is now largely focused on the simple everyday things that each of us can do to protect ourselves and our communities.”

But as expected, since the relaxation of regulations the country has seen a surge in infections. South Africa’s rate of infection now exceeds the global average and continues to rise. We are opening our economy as we enter the eye of the storm. Brazil and the US portend our macabre imminent future: bodies piling up in refrigerator trucks, as mass graves are tilled. As of 22 June, 9,000 people were expected to die of Covid-19 in the Western Cape alone.

Ease lockdown, empower women?

Recent weeks have cast the country’s gaze on what Ramaphosa called the “other pandemic” South Africa faces: gender-based violence against women and girls.

Ramaphosa went on to state that opening the economy is a move that empowers women by making them financially independent.

A key rationale informing the reopening of personal care services is that those sectors employ many women. Ramaphosa stated that fast-tracking the easing of restrictions to these sectors (initially meant to reopen at Level 1) will allow more women to return to work, ostensibly empowering them to earn an income for their families.

However, relaxing lockdown measures to reopen the economy is in fact antithetical to both empowering women and securing broader economic recovery. Opening the economy without the requisite, necessary social safeguards puts all working people, especially women, at risk.

No social reproduction, no economy

The argument that we need people to return to work to empower women by kickstarting the engines of economic growth is incorrect. This position erroneously views the economy as distinct from social health and human well-being more generally. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is endemic to capitalist economies and lies at the heart of the disregard with which the latter system treats workers and human life more generally.

The essential ingredient for economic growth in any capitalist society, although it is normally hidden from view in official economic calculations, is social reproduction.

Social reproduction refers to the melange of activities related to birthing and raising children, maintaining households, caring for the weak and elderly, schooling: in sum, the socialisation of communities. A mine or factory cannot produce if there is no labour force to physically enact the operations. There is no labour force without a support network rearing the children, educating them, preparing them to innovate and contribute to the economy, to society.

In South Africa, it is primarily women who perform this social reproduction role. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa was marked by poor public investment in education, food, transport and housing infrastructure, often as a result of austerity budgeting. This means that the social institutions that are crucial to social reproduction are dilapidated, placing extra burdens on individual households and therefore women to provide care. Women have essentially subsidised social services which should be the obligation of the state to provide.  

Now that this pandemic has hit, there is an even greater burden on households with additional loss of income and woefully insufficient social grants to meet the basic needs of a family. Compounding the impact of lockdown-induced income loss, the outbreak has also seen a rise in the cost of essential food and transport. Caregivers-cum-breadwinners are now also expected to be teachers to children requiring home schooling as the country struggles to ensure its schools are safe for a sustained return. 

The decision of the South African state to attenuate lockdown restrictions in the name of economic growth puts families and caregivers at further risk. Taxis are unsafe and unreliable and there is little evidence that the national railways will be ready to resume service. Workers are not being provided adequate protection at workplaces as the experience of various sectors where outbreaks have occurred, including mining and retail, testifies. And there is no planned compensation for frontline workers – like nurses – whose workplaces them in high zones of vulnerability.

A focus on care

Let me illustrate my argument with a personal example.

My cousin is a single mother to three young boys, who are all still in junior school. She lost her job during the hard lockdown. As a trained chef she worked in a food canteen in Epping, an industrial area in Cape Town, providing meals for the people working in the surrounding area. She was self-employed and hence, she does not qualify for government relief. She ran a small business and is not registered for UIF. if she were to apply for the Covid relief grant of R350 it would scarcely be enough to sustain the family.

With the relaxation of lockdown she faces a conundrum. Should she be required to return to work, due to pure economic desperation, she inevitably risks her life. This is the case no matter how many times she washes her hands and whether she diligently wears a face mask. As we are constantly reminded, this pandemic will remain with us for many more months, and perhaps years.

The state offers no protection for my cousin. It’s each to her own.

Should anything happen to her, her children will grow up without a mother. Who is to take care of them? Risking one’s life and the lives of one’s children out of obligation to return to work is not empowerment.

It is essential that the state steps in to provide direct economic relief to those who carry the load of social reproduction in our communities. Ensuring social security nets for the working class, particularly the vulnerable and primary caregivers, is crucial so they are not compelled to choose economic destitution, or potential death by succumbing to sickness. 

A state that was seriously concerned with the well-being of women would not expect them to risk their lives and return to work in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of moving in a suicidal fashion towards zero-based budgeting and austerity, the state needs to radically upscale its emergency response package to fighting the disease and thereafter target government spending to communities in need.

The state should provide access to a universal basic income for all families. It should upscale the provision of food, water and adequate housing. It should provide shelter to families not only in the context of domestic abuse, but as part of a set of policies that place the value of people and social reproduction at the centre. It should recognise that providing adequate support to families should be a central pillar of any economic policy design.  

As Nancy Fraser states, “No society that systematically undermines social reproduction can endure for long.” DM



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