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Anna Westwell is South African born and based in London. She has recently graduated from UCL and is an African Studies MPhil student at Cambridge University. Her areas of interest include gender, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction, and she specialises in Southern Africa.



Since its first case was confirmed on March 5th, COVID-19 has devastated South Africa. With almost 800,000 cases now confirmed, the country accounts for almost half of the total number of cases in Africa (2 million) and is one of the top twenty countries for the number of cases worldwide. On March 26th, a strict lockdown was introduced that remained in place for 2 months. On May 1st, a phased lifting of the lockdown and re-opening of economic activities began, however, in light of the continuing high rates of new infections, the Government has begun to re-introduce restrictions. On July 12th the government implemented a night-time curfew from 9 pm to 4 am, but from August 15th, many restrictions began being lifted, with the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, stating that COVID-19 infections had peaked. On Sunday 20th September, the country moved to Level 1 of lockdown, meaning larger gatherings are allowed and certain venues are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.

Internationally, focus has been drawn to the actions of the military and police deployed onto South Africa’s streets to enforce the lockdown. There has been widespread abuse and violence, and though the Government and judicial courts have made efforts to combat brutality, the lockdown has reportedly led to an increased feeling of impunity and power amongst security forces. Dewa Mavingha, Southern Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, called for the government to “remind security forces that a public emergency does not change the prohibition on police abuse, and that monitoring will be in place to detect and punish such abuse, as well as abuses against women and girls.” As Mavingha highlights, though security force brutality harms both men and women, women and girls face a unique risk. The South African National Defence Force [SANDF] has a troubling record around sexual violence and violence against women and there have been numerous investigations and conferences in recent years to address reports of sexual assault in the military. British media has gone so far as to draw somewhat contentious comparisons between the current social controls and the era of Apartheid, describing the lockdown restrictions as an “eerie throwback” and the “most intrusive policies since apartheid”.

Initially, reports suggested that South Africa had not seen the same spike in cases of domestic violence as seen in the West, though it was questioned whether this was because lockdown meant women were less able to report violence. However, it has now become clear that this is not the case: Police Minister Bheki Cele stated that in the first week of lockdown, police had received more than 87,000 gender-based complaints. On June 12th, President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a statement, noting that “gender-based violence thrives in a climate of silence” and appealing to people to report incidents. More recently, reports on the gendered impact of COVID-19 in South Africa tend to focus on the increasing rates of gender-based violence (GBV). In an interview, Laura Bergh, Chief Enabler at The Greenlight Office (a non-profit company which works to increase the effectiveness of smaller organisations delivering social impacts through poverty-related and enterprise development programmes), stated that COVID-19 had exposed high rates of GBV in South Africa by “lifting the lid on what has been here all the time”. South Africa, prior to the pandemic, had one of the highest levels of intimate partner violence in the world. Last year alone, more than 2,700 women were killed. Ramaphosa pledged $75m to strengthen the criminal justice system and provide better care for victims in 2019. However, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities has said the government alone cannot tackle GBV when the culture of violence is so deep-rooted and urged communities to help by reporting incidents. With COVID-19 exacerbating an already serious problem, Bergh believes that the response to GBV must now shift to focusing on men. Only 2 decades ago, apartheid ripped families apart and ruined men’s prospects, and now, COVID-19 has again disempowered many by removing autonomy and sources of income. The Government response so far has largely, and necessarily, been focused on helping women to survive lockdown,  but in the future, it is hoped there will be a move to addressing the sources of frustration and anger among men, who are more generally the perpetrators of domestic violence.

As well as physical violence, women will also disproportionately suffer from the financial impact of the economic shocks of COVID-19. Though both men and women have suffered from the shutdown of much of the informal sector in South Africa due to lockdown restrictions (about 3 million are employed in this sector), women face unique challenges in returning to their sources of livelihood as the economy re-opens. The burden of care for children largely falls on women in South Africa, and as the government kept schools largely closed until September, many women would not have been able to go out to earn an income in recent months. (Public schools were initially closed in March to control the spread of the virus, and though they began to re-open from June 8th, they were closed again on July 24th for 4 further weeks). As hospitals in South Africa are overcrowded and understaffed, women will continue to take on responsibility for caring for the sick, further restricting their autonomy and ability to return to work. Laura Bergh states that this will “put mothers a step-behind men” in recovering from the financial strain resultant from COVID-19.

The autonomy of young girls will also be impacted by the economic difficulty families now face. In an interview with the Children’s Radio Foundation, an NGO that trains young reporters and addresses societal issues such as GBV and adolescent health through radio across five African countries, they stated that the economic consequences of COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the rates of girls who complete education, because “many household incomes have been affected by the pandemic and when deciding on necessities in times of financial strain, many households will not choose the completion of education of their girl children.”

There may be some positive outcomes from these economic consequences. The spotlight placed on the crisis of poverty in South Africa due to COVID-19 may make the government more aware of the situation on the ground. The African National Congress [ANC], South Africa’s ruling party since 1994, have come under scrutiny in recent years for its elitism, corruption and failure to address deep inequalities and underlying economic problems. COVID-19 provides an opportunity for the government to finally focus on addressing the growing rates of unemployment and poverty seen in recent years. Furthermore, the highlighting of South Africa’s economic struggles in this period has led to an increased pressure on Ramaphosa’s government to accelerate economic reforms. On April 21st, the President acknowledged that “the nationwide lockdown is having a devastating effect on the economy” and added that “the pandemic has resulted in the sudden loss of income for businesses and individuals alike, deepening poverty and increasing hunger.” The Government announced on 21 April a 500 billion Rand (approximately $26.4 billion) social relief and economic support package, involving, according to the authorities, a health budget to respond to coronavirus, the relief of hunger and social distress, the support for companies and workers, and the phased re-opening of the economy.

One group that has suffered tremendously in South Africa are migrants and refugees. South Africa’s migrant population is estimated to be around 4.2 million. The most vulnerable migrants are excluded from the state support available to South Africa’s population, as government poverty and hunger alleviation schemes have not been extended to asylum-seekers and refugees. Due to lockdown restrictions, many migrants are unable to access food centres, and many refugees in danger of being evicted have approached UN HCR helplines “in desperate need of food and support”. Furthermore, citing lockdown laws, police have targeted and shut-down immigrant-owned shops, whilst many other migrant-owned small businesses have collapsed or are on the brink of bankruptcy. Migrants, particularly when undocumented, are susceptible to exclusion and discrimination, and the South African state has failed to adequately provide access to COVID-19 testing and treatment services for them. Ncumisa Willie Faisal Garba writes in African Arguments that the “Person Under Investigation” (PUI) form used to access COVID-19 related health-care ‘requires people to provide information on their ‘nationality’ and identification details. The form only provides an option for an ID number or a passport number thereby excluding persons who do not have those identity documents. This excludes refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and other categories of undocumented individuals (whether they are South African or not).’ In addition, many refugee reception offices in South Africa have been closed or stopped accepting new asylum applications until staff received protective measures, thus preventing refugees from receiving the documentation needed to access COVID-19 healthcare.

Luckily, South Africa is one of the most digitally resourced countries in Africa, meaning that much of the population has access to technology. In 2020, 56.3 percent of the population were internet users and about 90 million people, over 80 percent of the population, have mobile phone connectivity. This has made it easy for people to access information on COVID-19, and according to Laura Bergh, the government has made it very clear how to get official information. However, a bi-product of this widespread connectivity has meant that, as Bergh states, “lots of myths are being spread”. Like many countries across the world, South Africa is struggling to combat the fake news being disseminated about COVID-19. The Government has highlighted social media messages containing false reports of loan-free debt relief, the closure of universities and the supposed negative health consequences of wearing masks. The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs announced new regulations to act against those who deliberately endanger themselves and others during the pandemic, including the prohibiting of spreading fake news. The Government has also reportedly arrested people responsible for spreading false reports that the virus is deliberately spread by foreigners, highlighting how fake news can often target marginalised communities. As Dr. Dora-Olivia Vicol evidenced in a report published by Full Fact and Africa Check, it is most often older, isolated adults and people with lower levels of education who find it most difficult to discern facts from opinions, and thus, some of the most vulnerable groups within communities are at the highest risk of absorbing this misinformation.

One method used to combat fake news in wider communities is to utilise radio to disseminate official information. The Children’s Radio Foundation [CRF] have been working with UNICEF South Africa to relay information from the Department of Health on risk prevention.  They stated that communities are increasingly relying on radio to bring them reliable news, information and tips to help deal with the virus and its effects”, with one survey finding that of 17,000 participants, more than 90 percent of respondents said that they ‘were more likely to listen to radio during this time’.

However, this has also meant that for CRF, much like other NGOs globally, other initiatives aimed at helping marginalised groups have had to be halted temporarily, as they say that “all [of] our attention has been on COVID-19 information sharing, and ensuring [that] reporting can be done remotely”. Under ordinary circumstances, CRF aims to create opportunities for young people to train in radio reporting, broadcasting,  leadership and mentoring, discussing issues such as HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ rights. Many of these discussions were side-lined initially to prioritise education on COVID-19, however, now, CRF is working to intersect COVID-19 guidance with other relevant topics, such as education and GBV, “to ensure that these important messages didn’t get lost in the noise”. Training in areas like radio reporting has had to be restructured to take place remotely, and in some ways, this has negatively impacted the beneficial impact that the programmes can have on young people, because “training remotely is not as participatory and as strong on the human connection element”. However CRF has worked to mitigate some of these issues to “ensure that youth reporters continue their work in all countries where they are based”, and there are some “silver linings” to remote, digital engagement, as some youth “are more vocal on digital platforms than they would be in real life”.

It remains uncertain how the situation will develop in South Africa, and how well the government will manage the uncertainty. Only time will tell the impact that coronavirus is having on South Africans, both male and female, young and old, and on migrants from other countries.

With many thanks to Laura Bergh of The Greenlight Office and the Children’s Radio Foundation