Informal settlements a tinderbox of discontent, warn activists

06 April 2020 - 06:03
By Bobby Jordan
Activists say physical distancing is impossible in informal settlements such as Marikana in Philippi East, Cape Town.
Image: Esa Alexander Activists say physical distancing is impossible in informal settlements such as Marikana in Philippi East, Cape Town.

The government faces a revolt from residents of informal settlements who are unable to obey the strict lockdown regulations.

Several civil society organisations warned of widespread confusion among vulnerable communities for whom physical distancing and self-quarantine is impossible.

Failure to consult affected shack dwellers was threatening to undo widespread infection prevention measures.

“It is basically impractical to lock down. How do they expect people to continue to live?” said Axolile Notywala, general secretary of the Social Justice Coalition.

He said the shortage of basic water and sanitation, in addition to widespread unemployment, meant the vast majority of shack dwellers were forced to interact to survive.

Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people were forced to share a handful of taps and toilets.

“These are things they [the government] should have dealt with a long time ago,” said Notywala.

“They are now rushing to provide water tanks in a national disaster. It shows us that our government hasn’t cared about the most marginalised for a long time.” 

At the same time as failing to adequately consult affected communities, the government had been quick to crack down on lockdown offenders.

“Most of these people don’t have information. The next thing you do is send the police and they come with violent means, and this is something that might lead to unrest in these communities,” Notywala said.

S'bu Zikode, founding president of the shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, said the lockdown logic assumed everyone had a house and water.

“While we want to comply as far as the lockdown is concerned, the conditions that have been put upon us are not practical. To talk of physical distancing when thousands of people are sharing a tap is bizarre,” Zikode said.

“Right now the biggest cry, bigger than the virus itself, is the threat of hunger. Many people are unemployed or self-employed. They wake up every morning and have to hustle to put a plate on the table. There is no money saved because people have not been working.

“The fear right now is that people could be safe from the virus [during lockdown], but if they are safe from that one they would not be safe from hunger and starvation.”

Zikode said there was no clarity from relevant government departments about feeding schemes and other possible interventions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

“We are receiving calls from the community saying we cannot go on like this, that 21 days is too much with this kind of frustration.

“People want to comply with all the regulations but this cannot happen without having food in their stomachs. Something needs to be urgently done to address this,” Zikode said.

A possible solution was medical and accommodation vouchers that could serve the secondary purpose of creating economic activity, according to Institute of Race Relations (IRR) campaigns manager, Hermann Pretorius.

This is one of several recommendations in an IRR report that looks at several aspects of the pandemic.

“We very much take into account that many South Africans cannot self ——isolate,” Pretorius said of the IRR report, which also highlights the fact that elderly people often live together with youngsters in close proximity.

He said an emergency Covid-19 treatment voucher would allow vulnerable people to access top-quality medical treatment.

By partnering with tourism facilities such as hotels and lodges, which are empty due to the lockdown, the state could also provide accommodation vouchers to give people temporary reprieve from the shack lands if they need to self-isolate.

Pretorius said: “An emergency isolation care voucher could involve hotels, game ranches or whatever entity has infrastructure to house people with water and electricity. It would be an economic boon to a sector that essentially collapsed overnight.”