Posted on October 5, 2020

South Africa’s Promise of Racial Equality Falters Under Pandemic

Gabriele Steinhauser and Aaisha Dadi Patel, Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2020

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 668,000 South Africans have tested positive for the coronavirus in the country of 60 million. Officially, 16,312 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.


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.


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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.


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.

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.


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.