Fighting on two fronts: Covid-19 in Johannesburg

On March 11 the World Health Organisation officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. Within days the South African government responded, announcing a national state of disaster and later imposing a strict lockdown, as part of which most shops and businesses were closed and citizens told to stay at home.

The seriousness with which the President and his team are treating the crisis is acknowledged by BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding who, in a recent article, applauds South Africa for its “ruthlessly efficient” fight against the novel coronavirus. Harding argues that largely due to the effective leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr. Zweli Mkhize the country has moved to contain the pandemic faster and more firmly than many of its international counterparts.

Laura Richardson

Yet, while the overall picture is quite positive, it is important to recognize the considerable challenges still confronting this much divided country, many of which threaten to undermine the good work that is being done. Twenty-six years after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains one of the most divided countries in the world. In Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, leafy suburbs and gated communities stand alongside sprawling informal townships.  

I am a white postgraduate student. In middle-class suburbia where I live not that much has changed in past weeks. In our three bedroom house, my family and I have been able work from home and maintain a safe social distance with relative ease. Our fridge and pantry are well stocked, and, although it has been frustrating not being allowed out for a morning jog, our garden provides ample space for exercise and other time spent outdoors.

The Saxonwold suburb in Johannesburg.
Photo credit: Your Neighborhood

Just a few kilometres away, in the Township of Alexandra, the picture looks very different. First established in 1912, Alexandra is one of the city’s most densely populated areas. Its infrastructure was designed for population of 70,000 but it currently houses more than double this number, with entire families residing in what are termed “backyard shacks.” Access to water and sanitation is extremely limited. In such an environment the virus could spread very quickly.

Alexandra township with the affluent suburb of Sandton in the background.
Photo Credit, Jay Caboz

However, in Alexandra and in many other townships, the government is struggling to enforce social distancing. Partly, this is because, to quote journalist Tommy Trenchard, for many township residents “fear of the virus is being outstripped by the fear of running out of money.” (Trenchard’s reporting for NPR include stunning images of South Africa under lockdown.) Whilst driving to the supermarket I encounter a beggar. “Please madam, I need money for food but the police are saying we must stay at home,” he explains. Like many of his co-residents, he simply does not have the savings necessary to weather a complete shutdown of the informal economy.

There has long been a close relationship between disease and social division in South Africa. In fact, the first forced evictions of black Africans from Cape Town and Johannesburg occurred as a result of plagues in the early 20th century, with the white middle-class emphasising the “health risks” posed by a growing black urban class. But while the current pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities, it does also offer real opportunities for unity and social change. It is crucial that in their response to this crisis government and civil society take full advantage of these opportunities. 

Laura Richardson

Laura recently completed her MA at the University of Stellenbosch