South Africa’s Promise of Racial Equality Falters Under Pandemic

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—Two out of five Black workers have lost their income during a monthslong coronavirus lockdown. Police are tearing down shacks built on public land by people who can no longer pay rent on their previous homes. And senior government officials are accused of stealing funds meant for the fight against the pandemic.

A quarter-century after Nelson Mandela became president with a promise to empower South Africa’s Black majority, the world’s most unequal society is cracking under the weight of a coronavirus outbreak that has ripped through impoverished townships and informal settlements where people can’t socially distance.

More than 667,000 South Africans have tested positive for the coronavirus in the country of 60 million. Officially, 16,283 have died of Covid-19, but data from the South African Medical Research Council show that the country has recorded some 44,500 excess deaths between May and mid-September compared with previous years.

Amid one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, Africa’s most-developed economy contracted by 17.6% in the second quarter from a year earlier. The country’s finance minister has warned that government debt will surpass gross domestic product by 2024 without deep budget cuts.

Community members rebuild their homes after they were destroyed in Khayelitsha.

Family members watch as their home is being rebuilt in Khayelitsha.

The coronavirus pandemic has pummeled economies and boosted inequalities in many countries across the global South, disproportionately affecting the poor and prompting questions over governments’ ability to protect their citizens. Those questions are existential in South Africa, whose democracy was built on a promise of racial equality, but where nearly two-thirds of Black people—who make up 80% of the population—still live in poverty.

The pandemic-induced shock is raising a grim prospect: The one country in sub-Saharan Africa with a credible claim of joining the First World—a liberal democracy with an open economy and a basic social safety net—now looks set on a path in the opposite direction.

“We are over the tipping point now,” said William Gumede, a trade-union activist during the antiapartheid struggle who heads the Democracy Works Foundation, a nonprofit that works on strengthening democratic culture and institutions. “We’ve been going down slowly, slowly, but Covid-19 is pushing us faster down.”

The reality of South Africa’s downward spiral manifests itself on the outskirts of Cape Town, where thousands of newly unemployed have been battling police and private eviction companies over access to municipal land.

“From the first house to the last one, no one is working,” said Nomfuneko Khonokhono, pointing to a row of hastily constructed shacks and tents opposite a fetid wastewater treatment plant in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township.

After being furloughed from her $240-a-month job preparing sandwiches and muffins at a coffee shop on Cape Town’s upscale waterfront in late March, Ms. Khonokhono said she could no longer afford her rent for a backyard shack and instead built a makeshift home on the city owned field. Since then, the 36-year-old’s new shack has been destroyed twice by police and her belongings flooded by sewage spilling from a burst pipe.

Ms. Khonokhono says she feels let down by the government’s failure to deliver Mr. Mandela’s promise of Black and white South Africans living side by side in prosperity. “Where is the freedom that you are saying we got?” she said, as she watched her neighbors nail their broken down shacks back together. “If they are taking that small home you built for you, they will take anything.”

Nomfuneko Khonokhono says she could no longer afford her rent for a backyard shack after being furloughed in late March.

Khayelitsha township on the outskirts of Cape Town.

The disillusionment many South Africans feel about their government contrasts with international praise for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his early response to the pandemic. In late March, when South Africa had fewer than 500 confirmed coronavirus cases, he imposed one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, banning outdoor exercise along with alcohol and cigarettes. Masks remain mandatory in all public spaces.

The lockdown slowed the pace of infections, but has had a devastating effect on livelihoods—especially among the poor. In April, the most recent month for which data is available, some 43% of Black workers were laid off or furloughed, compared with 17% of white workers, according to nationally-representative a survey of 7,000 South Africans conducted by a group of academics. Forty-seven percent of all households said they ran out of money to buy food.

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“It does raise questions of how much a society can sustain,” said Vimal Ranchhod, an economics professor at the University of Cape Town and co-principal investigator of the survey. The findings far surpassed job losses seen in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global economic crisis. “I had never seen numbers like this before,” he said.

Elected last year on a pledge to end years of government mismanagement and corruption, Mr. Ramaphosa is now battling what he says is “a choreographed campaign against the president” from within his African National Congress, which has been in power since apartheid ended in 1994.

Senior ANC officials are openly challenging the president’s economic agenda, centered around attracting foreign investment after five years of declines in per capita GDP. Some are backing populist economic policies, such as using the central bank to fund infrastructure projects.

Unlike other emerging markets, which used the past decade to reduce inequalities and grow their middle class, South Africa entered the pandemic from a weak position. Its economy was already in recession before the first case of coronavirus was detected on March 5, and the gap between rich and poor has increased since 1994. That inequality is now the widest globally in South Africa, according to the World Bank.

Bantry Bay, one of the most affluent suburbs of Cape Town.

The President Hotel in Cape Town’s Bantry Bay, where Tsidi Mandla used to clean rooms.

Years of corruption and mismanagement have corroded giant state-owned companies, among the biggest employers in the country. State-power company Eskom, which is $29.3 billion in debt, has been implementing rolling blackouts since July, even though the struggling economy has depressed electricity consumption. The expanded unemployment rate, which includes discouraged job seekers, stood at 40% in the first quarter, before the full weight of the lockdown hit.

These weaknesses have limited the government’s ability to protect the most vulnerable South Africans from the pandemic. Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases show that patients relying on a chronically underfunded public health system, which cares for the 85% of South Africans who don’t have health insurance, were less likely to secure an intensive-care bed, get hooked up to a ventilator or even get tested for the coronavirus.

The nationwide death rate for Covid-19 patients in public hospitals is 23%, compared with 15% in private hospitals. A spokesman for South Africa’s Department of Health said the data don’t control for patients having other risk factors, such as old age, diabetes or hypertension, that make Covid-19 more deadly.

In Khayelitsha, not far from Ms. Khonokhno’s shack, Doctors Without Borders, a relief organization usually associated with war zones and natural disasters, built a field hospital in a sports hall to treat patients when infections peaked in June and July. One study found coronavirus antibodies in the blood of an average of 46% of pregnant women and people with HIV who sought routine care at public-health facilities in the township between mid-July and mid-August.

Aseza Giyama is a social worker at a field hospital in Khayelitsha.

A field hospital set up by Doctors Without Borders in Khayelitsha.

“Seventy percent of our patients live in shacks,” said Aseza Giyama, a social worker at the hospital. Ms. Giyama said many families were reluctant to bring sick relatives to get care. “They feel once the person goes to the hospital they don’t come back,” she said.

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Tsidi Mandla says she received her first payment from the unemployment fund four months after she lost her job.

Other government services meant to cushion the pandemic’s blow also fell short. A $30 billion economic-stimulus package, including monthly $20 payments to the most needy and paycheck support for businesses, has struggled to keep up with demand and been bogged down by alleged fraud.

Several senior ANC officials, including Mr. Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman and the party’s secretary-general, have come under scrutiny after family members won large government contracts for supplying protective equipment for health workers. The spokeswoman, who is on a leave of absence pending an investigation, and the secretary-general, have denied wrongdoing.

The Unemployment Insurance Fund, which also manages the government’s emergency paycheck-protection program, said this week that it lost around $60 million through irregular payments, including to dead people. Legitimate applications, some entered as early as April, are still waiting to be processed.

Tsidi Mandla, a single mother of two, received her first payment from the unemployment fund in late July, four months after she lost her job cleaning rooms at a hotel in Cape Town’s upscale Bantry Bay neighborhood. She moved out of the apartment she was renting to stay with her sister. At one point, she said, all she and her children had to eat was a sack of rice donated by a neighbor.

Until the pandemic closed South Africa’s international borders, Ms. Mandla said she was hopeful her son and daughter would lead an easier life. “Now,” she said, “I am worried that their life will be as hard.”

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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