What AIDS epidemic? – a World AIDS Day message from the CSA&G

Next year it will be forty years since the first stories of a new illness, seemingly only affecting gay men in New York, started to circulate. It was called GRID then  – gay related immune deficiency – a grim reminder that conflating sexual orientation, morality and disease was second nature to society. Later, we came to know this as AIDS, a complex, fatal and frightening syndrome, caused by a virus that was named HIV. The H stood for human, a belated reminder that it was humanity that was called for, not knee jerk stigma.

Forty years later there is progress. ARVs work for people who get them, use them well, and have social support. PEP and PreP have made it possible for an HIV infection to be medically prevented. HIV work has opened many fruitful conversations about the nature of society, about the limits of biomedicine, about the politics of patents, about the corporatisation of health, about inequality.

But stigma around HIV is still with us, we are still without a workable vaccine, over a million people die each year, adherence to ARVs is still suboptimal, and many millions become infected and are living with HIV.

And so each year we mobilise our flagging energies and ‘celebrate’ World AIDS Day, sponsored by UNAIDS, with an inspirational theme. This year it is “Global Solidarity, Shared Responsibility”. This has been the subtext of many World AIDS Day calls. The notions of ‘shared responsibility’ and ‘solidarity with people living with or affected by HIV’ have been an attempt to move away from questionable ideas of ‘individual choice’, the fantasy that being ‘rational’ in sexual matters is as easy as ABC: abstain, be faithful, condomise said the billboards.

However, this has a somewhat hollow ring to it in 2020, the year of the response to COVID-19. While the nature of COVID-19 and its transmission are very different from HIV, they are both ‘social’ diseases, steeped in the way we make sense of new things, hauling out our usual defences of denial, blame and projection.

In the early days of the HIV epidemic there was no celebration of gains and successes: it was wrapped in shame and secrecy, governments were slow to act, condoms (the HIV PPE) were not made widely accessible, groups were blamed, stigma thrived and intensified, the links between HIV and ‘having sex’ were acute.

COVID-19 has to some extent escaped the worst of this shame and stigma. However, naming and shaming hovers on the edges of the narratives. Who is it that goes maskless and frequents taverns? Who goes to ‘super spreader’ events? Who are those asymptomatic people who don’t know they have it and might spread it? Who is travelling to celebrate the end of the year with family, instead of staying home and self-isolating?

So we have the fear, the anxiety and the sense that we need to monitor and police the behaviour of others. We feel obligated to tell people to cover their mouth and noses while breathing normally, and we ask for social distancing.  We blame people for taking crowded taxis in a country that has never provided a good, cheap, safe, public transport. We see crowds around the pension and social grant payment venues, where there is no space, and no chairs, and we condemn them for trying to survive.

So while batting the fear and anxiety and the social surveillance provoked and promoted by COVID-19, we need to reflect back on HIV.

Why is it that HIV seems to have fallen off the radar. Why the silence? Indeed, an earlier World AIDS Day slogan was ‘break the silence’, but it seems that the health and social needs of people living with and affected by HIV are increasingly silenced. Where is the critical response to assure people with HIV that they will access their medications, that they will get the access to clinics and hospitals? Could it be, that along with people who use alcohol, people with HIV will be the next category of people who are blamed for filling up the hospitals and clinics? Will people with HIV be blamed for the ‘burden’ on the health system? It has happened before, when there was the narrative that people with HIV would cripple the health sector.  It happened before, when people who contracted HIV were blamed for not making the ‘right choices’ to safeguard their health, as if choice is something that can be exercised freely and without coercion.

What has happened to good and effective HIV and AIDS education? Increasingly in our work we encounter young people, not yet born at the start of the epidemic, who have lived their whole lives in a world with HIV, yet they exhibit inadequate knowledge about HIV and the ways to try and prevent it.

What have we failed to learn from HIV about intimacy, social cohesion and risk? Lockdown has exacerbated tensions within families, communities and society. In crowded spaces the privacy needed for good health is often difficult to achieve. There are many anecdotes about increasing levels of gender violence, both during and after the alcohol ban. There have been stories of young women, locked down in crowded places, of being coerced into unsafe sex because they were not able to access condoms.

So while we recognise that COVID-19 is an immediate threat – and that transmission needs to be slowed and people cared for – it is difficult to accept that this comes often at the expense of the already immediate threat of HIV. HIV is a lifelong illness. It remains with you always – yes there are good drugs, but there is no cure, there is no vaccine.

Perhaps AIDS has been silenced because people believe that with the treatments it has become another manageable illness. Maybe the silence is because no matter what we profess we are still uncomfortable talking about sexuality, sexual diversity and sexual behaviours. Perhaps getting free ARVs means one should be silent about stock outs. Perhaps being well means silence is easier than disclosure. Is this a web of silence we have become trapped in?

COVID19 has forced us to face hard truths and ask difficult questions. It’s shown us who is expendable and who lives. It’s given us a reminder to keep talking about the silenced and the side lined, about people living with HIV, showing that we still care, that we still value their lives, that their stories are a mirror to our stories.

(Un)masking other dangerous pandemics within the Covid-19 lockdown

By Tinashe Mawere

Introduction: Silencing ‘disobedient’ voices

On 13 May 2020, some youths from Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, the MDC Alliance, performed a flash demonstration in Warren Park D, in Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital city). They were protesting against the state’s failure to provide care and sustenance for the disadvantaged and vulnerable during the Covid-19 lockdown. Later on, reports emerged that three women, namely, the Member of Parliament for Harare West, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, who had been part of the demonstration, had been arrested and were in police custody. These women were accused of breaking the rules and regulations of the Covid-19 lockdown. The police, through a government-run and pro-government newspaper, the Herald, confirmed the arrest. In a story published in the Herald, the National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner, Paul Nyathi, confirmed: “the police arrested the three in Harare today in connection with an illegal demonstration, which occurred in Warren Park earlier in the day. They are in our custody and we are still making further investigations into the issue,” (Maphosa 2020). Subsequently, details emerged that the three women could not be traced and the police and government officials denied having ever arrested them. After two days, there were reports that the women had been found dumped on the outskirts of Bindura, some 120km away from Harare, and that they had been beaten up, forced to drink each other’s urine and sexually harassed by state security agents.[1]

Within this story, there are contestations, with state authorities claiming that the abduction was stage-managed to damage the national image of the country[2] while the women were claiming to have been abducted and tortured because they had protested against the government. With the Zimbabwean state having a history of abducting and torturing oppositional voices (Mukoko 2016; Wilkins 2012; Sachikonye 2011), and earlier acknowledgement by the police that the trio had been arrested, the issue remains sensitive and there have been calls for independent investigations into the matter. In the midst of all this, the deputy minister in the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Energy Mutodi, posted a very interesting Tweet with regards to how the women found themselves in the troublesome situation. I posit that Mutodi’s Tweet reveals the considerable extent to which masculine authoritarianism and patriarchy remain deeply embedded in the nation of Zimbabwe.

Mutodi’s Tweet: Prototyping the sexualities of woman-public figures

Mutodi’s Tweet read as follows: “Details emerge MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura with their lovers who are artisanal miners. They parked their car at a police station for safety but tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services” (Energy Mutodi Tweet May 20, 2020).[3]

Since stories of abduction are not new, as shown by scholars above, I locate abductions as discourses of state-making in Zimbabwe. Whether real or re/imagined, abductions are part of the ‘everyday’ and are discourses and performances of the Zimbabwean nation that should be problematised. However, rather than focusing on the raging debate about whether this particular abduction was real or stage-managed, in this work, I focus on the above abduction story as a discourse of state-craft. Mutodi’s Tweet can be located discursively within the broader politics of gender, the silencing of women, and the mis/representation of women and women’s images in dominant patriarchal texts of imagining the nation. This discursive analysis exposes that Mutodi’s Tweet re/represents and performs the prevailing and naturalised surveillance of women and women’s bodies that characterises Zimbabwe and other patriarchal societies. The Tweet was meant not only to shame and silence the three women politically, but also to silence the impetus narrative of women abuses in Zimbabwe, to silence women’s political and public participation, as well as to silence women’s sexualities and sexual liberties. Moreover, the Tweet produced the effect of cementing existing and dominant patriarchal narratives pertaining to women and their identities and also their place and space within the nation.

Normalising dominant images of women: “…went out for a romantic night…”

As a public and official figure, deputy Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Mutodi’s Tweet epitomises the position of the state and reveals and drives public opinion. His expression that “MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura” should not be read as misplaced satire, but rather as satire that is re/produced within and is performing particular dominant knowledges and culture. The lack of empathy that the Zimbabwean state has towards women who experience abuses, especially sexual abuses, is revealed in the Tweet. Also revealed is the lack of seriousness and the denials that the state makes on cases of women abuse, especially sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, many cases of women abuse are not reported, while others are not attended to (Mashiri & Mawire 2013; Shamu et al 2013) because of this denial.

Since Mutodi draws attention to the women’s unexpected romantic outing, there is a clear perpetuation of dominant discourses that associate ‘obedient’ women with the home and the private space, thereby shifting the blame on the survivors of abuse for inviting trouble to themselves by venturing into the public space. The glaring patriarchal narrative in the Tweet is clear. Mutodi is simply articulating that the home and the private is the only appropriate space for women, and that public spaces are unsafe, hence women who cross boundaries have themselves to blame if they get into trouble, or if they face the precariousness of the public space. This is a continuation of the Zimbabwean state’s actions where operations that criminalise the ‘unsanctioned’ presence of women in public spaces (like streets, for example) are implemented (Masakure 2016, Mawere 2016; Gaidzanwa 1993). Following Mutodi’s Tweet, and dominant knowledge around images of women, only those women who are defiant, liars, poisonous/evil and with sexual liberties get into trouble (Mawere 2019, 2016; Sathyamurthy 2016; Gaidzanwa 1985).

To destroy the political aspirations and social standing of women, patriarchy turns to the discourse of sexuality, where it banks on the normalised script of women’s sexual purity (Mawere 2019). This is a very strong weapon, considering how female sexuality is a social taboo and how making it public erodes respectable notions of womanhood. In Mutodi’s Tweet, associating the women with an act of the ‘night’ invites the public to view them as sex workers. In a society like Zimbabwe, where sex work is stigmatised, this is a deliberate aim to position the women as social deviants and as poisonous to the nation. With such alleged impurity, the women cannot fit into ideas of archetypal womanhood that comply with Zimbabwe’s expected ‘mothers of the nation’ (Mawere 2019; Chadya 2003; Hunter 2000). This discourse of impurity, often associated with women in politics, those who come into the public arena and those with ‘voices’, associates women with negative images such as those of ‘whores.’ Considering the patriarchal identity that remains central to Zimbabwean nationhood, this robs the three women (and any other woman who dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries) of social and national standing. Associating them with the ‘night’ reduces them to the common media image of ‘ladies of the night’, which is typically associated with transactional sex and the poisoning of national men and nationhood. The same method has been used to shatter the political ambitions of Zimbabwean women like Grace Mugabe, Thokozani Khupe, and Joice Mujuru, who have been delegitimised in the eyes of the Zimbabwean public, primarily because of their perceived transgression of patriarchal rules (Mawere 2019).

The public, official and yet insensitive nature of Minister Mutodi’s sentiments reflects a misogynistic society that has, for years, normalised and typified the identities of women. Mutodi is requesting the society to pass moral, cultural and national judgements on the case at hand. In patriarchal societies, there tend to be strong sentiments that women invite trouble for themselves, owing to their wayward characters and/or failure to conform to expectations. Survivors of rape and gender-based violence are usually blamed for inviting the perpetrator, hence cases of sexual violations have been peripherised. Mutodi’s Tweet confirms the official and societal view that stories of women abuse, sexual violence and other violations are manufactured or part of the package for their deviance. This is a backlash against efforts that are being made to raise awareness of the existence and ugliness of these issues.

(Un)mothering defiant women: “…the lovers are artisanal miners…”

Considering the public and media image of makorokoza (artisanal miners) in Zimbabwe, the association of Joana, Cecilia and Netsai with artisanal miners is used to erase them from the narrative of mothers of the nation. This association confirms the women to be immoral, careless, dirty and pathogenic. This is in the context of the negative images that characterise artisanal miners in Zimbabwe.

Although artisanal miners at times possess large sums of money from their mining activities, they are frequently accused of spending it recklessly on alcohol and commercial sex workers. By and large, makorokoza are associated with social deviance, carelessness, dirt, and diseases, especially sexually-transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. A narrative that links the three women with artisanal miners simultaneously delinks them with the imagined mothers of the nation. The deputy minister’s assertion that the women’s “lovers are artisanal miners” therefore sensualises an imagination of the three women’s contamination.

Mutodi’s Tweet can thus be regarded as a way of presenting Joana, Cecilia, Netsai and all ‘disobedient’ women not only as morally, socially and physically diseased, but also as politically diseased and inadequate to offer anything positive to the nation. This is especially true in the context where Zimbabwean ‘black’ women symbolise “an uncontaminated essence, the custodian of ancestral traditions” that co-exists with them being symbolically coded with land and its ‘purity’” (Lewis, 2004:198). To push Lewis’s idea further, in the Zimbabwean state’s macho nation-building projects that are characterised by the symbolic configuration of womanhood for masculine political projects, such as being ‘mothers of the nation,’ women’s sexual activities that are disassociated with national re/production and focused on satisfying women’s own pleasures are debased. This speaks to cultural taboos and claims that view sexual pleasure and freedom as dangerous and irresponsible for womanhood (McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982).

Mutodi was, therefore, deliberately asserting that abuses of women who are dirty and national pollutants do not deserve national attention, and ultimately, that the women do not deserve justice. He was calling for the wider Zimbabwean society to dismiss allegations that the women had been abused. As members of the MDC Alliance, their contaminated nature and inadequacy, which is buttressed by their physical contact with the ‘pathogenic’ artisanal miners, mirrors the contaminated nature and inadequacy of their party, hence inviting citizens to ditch the polluted and polluting party.

Evoking “Karma is a bitch”: “…tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services”

Mutodi buttresses his assertion that the three women are defiled national bodies by locating them within discourses of transactional sex. For him, what befell these women is normal and expected, given the space they had chosen to occupy. In many ways, Mutodi is not only aligning himself with the insensitivity of the state towards commercial sex workers, but is also avowing that sex workers should not have agency and justice in Zimbabwean society, where the sexual purity of women is valued. The intention of this narrative is likely aimed at tainting the three women’s (and all oppositional women’s) social, political and national and images.

In addition, Mutodi’s insensitive patriarchal narration of what befell the three women reveals the ‘common-sense’ discourse of women, which constructs young urban women and particularly women in politics as ‘prostitutes’ (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985) as he identifies them as providers of sexual services. This is very disturbing, especially in the context where the women made claims of sexual harassment and assault. What is apparent in Mutodi’s use of discourse is that the women got into trouble as a consequence of breaking the boundaries and demarcations of national (patriarchal) space. Mutodi’s Tweet is therefore, very significant and instrumental to the socio-economic and political control of all women, as it demonstrates the consequences of disobedience. Controlling women’s bodies and sexualities through public ‘acts’ that other citizens can witness is a very powerful metaphor of cultural surveillance and state control (Mawere 2016). Through the Tweet, the deputy minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services in the Zimbabwean state is simply acting out the control of women and their bodies and warning women and other subjects of the nation that they are under national surveillance.

Conclusion: The common narrative

Dominant patriarchal narratives suppress women’s public participation, female pleasure and female freedoms by constructing female eroticism as unspeakable (Mawere 2019; Birrell 2008; Ranciere 2006; McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). Following the above therefore, the public space is positioned as unsuitable for women and what befell the three women who had ‘escaped’ from their confinements is a result of the taboo acts of being at wrong places, seeking erotic pleasure and ‘transacting’ their sexual ‘purity’ for money. The women’s participation in oppositional politics is equated to ‘selling out’ their bodies and therefore making them defiled national bodies who deserve punishment and who are not worth any national sympathy or agency.

Mutodi’s and the state’s reason for shaming the three women is to limit the contagious possibilities of their ‘rebellious’ bodies. It is clear that women who break spatial boundaries and occupy public spaces that are dominated by, and seen as the preserve for men, are associated with sexual freedoms and are thus seen as threats to societies since sexual freedoms have been associated with defiance and power. The erotic is a crucial source of power and agency for women and its suppression is instrumental to the reproduction of patriarchal systems (Mawere 2016; McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). The close ties between sexuality and power make sexual pleasure and eroticism fields of political significance (McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). Silencing women by embarrassing them through the exposition of their real or imagined sexual behaviours to the public is characteristic of Zimbabwean politics (Mawere 2019).

In a context where respect and honour for women is tied closely to their ability to keep their sexual lives private, such exposures are meant to undress (discursively and at bodily levels) the women, shame them and take away their agentive power. Mutodi’s attempts to embarrass the three women portray an image where the sexualities of the three women are contaminated. This enables him to naturalise and sensualise the confinement of “serious national women” and “Mothers of the Nation” to private and domestic spaces. This is clearly a surveillance of the three women’s and any woman’s political and public participation. What we witness in Mutodi’s Tweet is ultimately a spectacle of the other dangerous pandemics besides Covid-19 that require urgent questioning and critique. These dangerous pandemics include state repression, gender violence, toxic and patriarchal nation-building projects and many forms of physical, structural and symbolic violence.


Birrell, R. 2008, Jacques Rancière and the (Re) distribution of the sensible: Five lessons in Artistic Research, Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 1-11.

Chadya, J.M. 2003, Mother politics: Anti-colonial nationalism and the woman question in Africa, Journal of Women’s History, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 153-157.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1993, The politics of the body and the politics of control: An analysis of class, gender and cultural issues in student politics at the University of Zimbabwe, Zambezia, vol 2, no. 2, pp 15-33.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1985, Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature. Harare: College Press.

Hunter, E. 2000, Zimbabwean nationalism and motherhood in Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, African Studies, vol. 59, pp. 229-243.

Lewis, D. 2004, Revisioning patriarchal nationalism: Yvonne Vera’s ‘Nehanda’, JCAS Symposium series 20. pp 193-208.

Lorde, A. 1982, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Zami/Sister Outsider/Undersong, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.

Masakure, C. 2016, ‘We will make sure they are rehabilitated’: Nation-building and social engineering in Operation Clean-up, Zimbabwe, 1983, South African Historical Journal, vol. 68, no.1, pp 91-111.

Mashiri, L & Mawire, P. 2013, Conceptualisation of gender-based violence in Zimbabwe, International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 15, pp 94-103.

Mawere, T. 2019, Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations), the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath. Pretoria: CSA&G Press.

Mawere, T. 2016, Decentering Nationalism: Representing and Contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean Popular Culture, PhD Dissertation. Cape Town: University of the Western Cape.

McFadden, P. 2003, Sexual pleasure as feminist choice, Feminist Africa, issue 2, pp. 50-60.

Mukoko, J. 2016, The Abduction and trial of Jestina Mukoko: the fight for human rights in Zimbabwe, Sandton: KMM Review Publishing

Ranciere, J. 2006, The politics of aesthetics, Trans. Gabriel Rockhill, with an afterword by Slavoj Zizek, London: Continuum.

Sachikonye, L.M. 2011, When a state turns on its citizens. Institutionalized violence and political culture, South Africa: Jacana Media.

Sathyamurthy, K. 2016, “Femme Fatale: Tropes of deviant sexuality and empowerment” (Available at , accessed 20 April 2020).

Shamu, S. et. al. 2013, Opportunities and obstacles to screening pregnant women for intimate partner violence during antenatal care in Zimbabwe, Culture, Health and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, vol. 15, no. 5, pp 511-524.

Maphosa, V.  2020, “MDC-A legislator Mamombe, 2 others arrested” Herald, 14 May 2020 (Available at, accessed 20 July 2020).

Wilkins, S. 2012, Ndira’s wake. Politics, memory and mobility among the youth of Mabvuku, Harare, MSc Dissertation, Oxford: University of Oxford.


[1] Abducted MDC Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri speak on the painful ordeal

[2] Zimbabwe accuses MDC activists of made up state torture claims

[3]  Energy Mutodi’s Tweet can be found on the following link;*joana+mamombe+abduction&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897&sxsrf=ALeKk01n9XLS4NR76J9vP5NYrLn0yPAM8w:1597319230433&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjxosrqjZjrAhXDoXEKHXIdC0wQ_AUoAXoECAwQAw&biw=1366&bih=657#imgrc=qOaoCGXJFZxxuM

A hard life in a hard Lockdown

by Belinda Pakati

Growing up with my friends, we used to play games just to keep ourselves outdoors and enjoy the school holidays.

One of the games we used to play is Statue. One person shouted “statue” and everyone would stand still. No movement was allowed until the very same person who shouted “statue” …. shouted “go” … then everyone could move as they wished.

When the hard Lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africans were prohibited from unnecessary movement to curb the spread of the Corona virus. Many things had to be put on hold, shops became structures just standing still, taxis had to operate at a given time, people had to stand in long queues to enter grocery stores to buy essentials, the was no movement in the streets. I was taken back to those childhood years of playing Statue, but this is not fun, this is not a game, this is reality.

The reality of Lockdown is that we are always moving between “Statue” and “Go”.

This is a country that has child-headed families and orphanages that depend on donations and funding. This is a country that has issues of unemployment; people in my area survive financially by selling tomatoes on street corners and they do piece jobs to put food on the table. But now these people are prohibited from the means to survive, so that they can be safe. They have to stay at home and adhere to the rules of social distancing. For such people life under normal circumstances is difficult, during this unprecedented time they are finding it more difficult to survive.

I found myself in a situation where I had to buy a bag of 10kg Maize Meal, a pack of 5kg chicken feet and a bag of potatoes, because a family that survives by selling vegetables had run out of food and they had to ask for help. I knew the young woman from that family from when I was recruiting people to participate in data collection for research purposes.

“MmaNkati kogae agon adijo le mabone, mabanererobetsikatlala. Mogogoogola next week and Mmamogolo waka yena wa struggler since Lockdown di customer gaditeng,” she said. [“At home we do not have Maize Meal and electricity has run out. Yesterday we had nothing to eat. My grandmother is getting her social grant next week and my aunt is struggling because customers are not available due to Lockdown. Can you please help?”]

As a parent I felt helpless about this. I imagined how it could have been if my children were in a similar situation. My heart pounded with fear. I asked myself how many families out there are going through the same ordeal, who do they turn to in order to get assisted, how many people like me are able to help? This made me feel fearful of how the pandemic has forced people to change the way they survive in life. How am I going to be able to provide for my immediate family, and my extended family and friends who are sometimes dependent on me for some little help, even under normal circumstances?

This brought back memories about how young people who are unemployed (girls in particular) got involved in a lot of different things just so that they could survive a day, a month and a year of their lives. I also wondered how are they now during the lockdown maintaining their needs, how are they able to source money from their Blessers without first satisfying the Blesser’s needs (sex in an exchange for money in this instance) since their everyday lives have been channelled in a way that they do not have much freedom of movement.

Another young woman approached me recently. She was once a participant in an HIV/AIDS workshop I had facilitated back in the day, when HIV was still new to underprivileged communities, where young people were unemployed, where myths and perceptions about that pandemic had to be clarified. She asked questions regarding COVID-19 – she felt it was the same thing as HIV, and wondered if  I would be running a workshop, “because it’s a virus too”.

This made me realize that people aren’t really aware of what COVID-19 is. How do I even help them? Am I even allowed to give out information that might end up being deemed as false, ignorant or not constructive?

People have to learn how to deal with this pandemic, and I realize that I am seeing what I have seen during the years of HIV. People had to learn about it and people who were on ARV’s were given social grants in order to buy healthy food to boost their immune systems. In the time of Corona, people are still learning and still relying on grants.

There are two other things I have seen that are similar. In the early years, people who were HIV positive were isolated just like people who test positive for COVID-19 are separated from others. HIV positive people were placed in separate wards at hospitals and clinics, and some families used to put them in backrooms and hide them from people when they wanted to visit. This was driven by stigma, lack of information, misinformation and uncertainty.

A friend of a friend stopped taking their ARVs because they were tired of taking their medication in secret, so people did not ask questions. This person also said it was hard to explain to a man who was interested in a love affair that they were HIV positive. They feared rejection, they become isolated from the rest of the world, they did not socialise. They become a “statue”.

It’s the same with Covid-19: the infected person starts to panic, fear takes over their lives and they go into self-isolation or get quarantined. Although this is only for a short time, and is necessary, it is still very lonely, and the stigma around Covid is real.

Finally, people don’t always easily stick to the rules. The don’t like to self-isolate, wear masks, sanitise or give up their social lives to prevent COVID-19; and in the same way people don’t like being told about abstinence, sticking to one partner and having safer sex to prevent HIV.

I have learned that people don’t like being turned into “statues”, not then and not now.

Sex, Drugs and COVID-19

by Elize Soer

South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that a national lockdown would commence on 26 March 2020 in response to COVID-19 or what some have labelled the ‘panic pandemic’ (Locwin, 2020). Since the start of the lockdown, reports and articles on the economic effect of the lockdown conditions have been ubiquitous (Business Tech, 2020; APO, 2020; Arndt et al. 2020). The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) predicted that South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would shrink by 6.1% in 2020 and other sources claimed that the contraction would be around 8% (Business Tech, 2020; Institute for Economic Justice, 2020). Most sources noted that the unemployed and informal workers would suffer the most and that “the hardship will fall hardest on black people, and especially black women and children” (Institute for Economic Justice, 2020).

Although it is noted that the lockdown will have a more profound influence on some than on others, the general belief seems to be that economic growth is beneficial for everyone, while economic contraction harms everyone. This is based on the common conceptualisation of ‘the economy’ as a homogenous and abstract system, as well as an implicit faith in the ‘trickle down’ effect.[1] The following piece will argue that this assumption conceals some of the heterogeneous effects that the lockdown has had (and will have) on different economic systems in South Africa (SA). In order to illustrate this point, I will discuss some of the effects of the lockdown on two economic systems that are sometimes (mistakenly) seen as separated from SA’s official economy, namely the informal economy and the illicit economy. Some of the gendered aspects of these economies will also be discussed, especially in relation to sex work, which can be characterised as part of both the informal and illicit economies.[2]

The ‘trickle-down’ effect has been widely critiqued by academics and activists (Andreou, 2014; Lichtblau, 2019). Yet, in almost all of the media coverage concerning the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on ‘the economy’, it is assumed that this impact will be homogeneously damaging. It is clear that there will be massive job losses[3] and millions will be pushed further into poverty. Nonetheless, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have profited greatly. Lockdown situations around the world have led to increases in the number of people who work from home and shop online. Moreover, educational institutions, hospitals, police and military institutions are outsourcing more and more of their core functions to private tech companies (Klein, 2020).

In the midst of a turn towards tech-alternatives and requests for a future run on artificial intelligence, it is important to remember that these systems function because of human workers. Tens of millions of workers labour in warehouses, content-moderation mills, data centres, electronic sweatshops and lithium mines so that the economically advantaged can work from home and order online. Technology will certainly be a fundamental part of strategies to protect public health in the coming months and years.  This raises significant questions about how that technology will be used and under whose oversight; a discussion that falls outside of the scope of this short piece. Instead, I used tech companies as an explicit example of how some sectors of ‘the economy’ have benefited while others have suffered.

The position of technology companies is a rather obvious example of the heterogeneous economic effects of lockdowns. If we consider the so-called ‘informal’ and ‘illicit’ economies, then the effects become more complex. It is difficult to give an exact definition of ‘informal economy’, since it is so connected to the ‘formal economy’. However, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) current working definition includes small, unregistered enterprises and all employment without adequate social and legal protection (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 91). Informal employment accounts for approximately a third of employment in SA[4]. Nonetheless, it has received very limited and narrow support from the government and interventions usually consist of training and micro-finance loans that are centred on a very small group of informal workers.

Moreover, there are stark gender divides in informal employment. According to a 2015 analysis of SA’s labour market dynamics, women earn less within the same broad categories of employment and are also concentrated in the types of employment with the lowest pay (Rogan, 2018)[5]. Since 1994, informal employment has constituted a greater share of total employment for women than for men, mostly owing to the fact that household and domestic work is classified as informal work.[6] Childcare is also still commonly seen as ‘women’s work’ and this responsibility influences the incomes of female informal workers. For example, female waste-pickers often have to bring their children with them when they work in hazardous conditions on landfill sites. In an interview with Rogan and Alfers (2019) a waste-picker from Durban explained that she found it difficult to keep pace with her male counterparts because she had to bring her child to work:

“We collect recyclable materials by climbing into moving trucks when they enter the landfill. You need to act very quickly to catch up with the truck. We push each other whilst we are trying to get onto the back of the truck. Sometimes I don’t know what to do because I can’t leave my child on the ground. No one cares about you or your child. I no longer work as efficiently as I did when I didn’t have my child with me,” (cited in: Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 91).

Gender-based violence (GBV) is also common in informal economies in SA. In preparation for the 2018 International Labour Conference’s Discussion on GBV in the Workplace, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) conducted a series of interviews with informal workers. During the interviews, a group of female waste-pickers from KwaZulu-Natal reported that physical intimidation regularly impacted their incomes. Male waste-pickers physically intimidated them in order to access the most valuable pieces of waste first and forced them (sometimes at knifepoint) to buy recyclables (WIEGO, 2018). The municipality is responsible for the provision of security at landfill sites. However, generally, the municipal officers do not intervene, and/or they collect recyclables and sell them to the women in exchange for sex. Rape has also been common and about two rape cases are reported per month in these settings (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 98). It is therefore evident that women in the informal economy often work in an environment of insecurity and fear in which GBV and exploitation are widespread.

Before SA’s lockdown, the Professor of Development Economics Imraan Valodia noted that “whilst the government offers a vast package of support measures to big business, its policy is largely irrelevant to the survivalist segment of small business” (2001: 871). However, government policies have not been irrelevant. Not only do they support the big businesses against which survivalist entrepreneurs compete, but they sometimes affect these entrepreneurs negatively. For example, it is often difficult and expensive to access water in informal workspaces such as on roadsides and in markets. People (the majority of whom are women) who sell cooked food need access to water before they can start cooking and frequently spend their peak selling time looking for water. Not only does this decrease sales, but in Durban, for example, there is a municipal by-law which states that only a legal permit holder can oversee a trading stall. When the legal permit holder has to leave the stall to look for water, the goods can be confiscated by the police. One food seller in Durban declared that: “When I run around looking for water, sometimes I come back to my goods being stolen…the policeman comes and takes my things if I’m late. They ask for permits and they do their own theft” (cited in: Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 99).

There is also a ban on imported second-hand clothing in SA, with the aim of protecting clothing retailers. However, there is a large illegal market in second-hand clothes (Velia, Valodia & Amisi, 2006). When police officers catch sellers with illegal garments, they can impose a fine and confiscate the goods. This can demolish the income of survivalist sellers and even leave them indebted to the importers of second-hand clothes. This demonstrates how government policies are not necessarily irrelevant to survivalist entrepreneurs, but actively disadvantage them in favour of larger retailers. The second-hand clothing trade is also significant because it is located at the nexus between the informal and the illicit economies

Sex work is another sector that is part of both the informal and illicit economies, again illustrating the considerable extent to which these different economic systems are intertwined. Despite outcries from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force (SWEAT), sex work has remained criminalised in SA. Selling and buying sex are illegal and other aspects of sex work, such as running or owning a brothel or “enticing a woman into prostitution”, are also prohibited (SWEAT, 2019: 1). The criminalisation of sex work has not prevented people from selling sex to make a living, but has undermined sex workers’ access to justice and has also exposed many of them to exploitation and abuse by law enforcement officials. It is thus clear that sex work was already a precarious occupation before the lockdown. This is not only because the trade is criminalised and stigmatised, but also because sex workers are often from marginalised groups such as migrants and gender non-conforming people who have been pushed out of their families because of identity discrimination (Wheeler, 2020).

Along with most of the informal economy, sex work has been affected negatively by the lockdown. Sex work can be conducted online, but it is generally physical and intimate work. SA has about 158,000 sex workers[7] who were already impacted negatively when fears of COVID-19 began to spread, since customers and workers were afraid of contracting the virus. The increased police presence since the start of the lockdown has certainly increased the risks associated with conducting sex work. Sex workers have also reported interruptions to condom supplies and people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) have experienced a decrease in access to essential medicines. Moreover, sex workers do not have access to some of the emergency assistance available to other workers. Many assistance schemes require proof that employment has been lost as a result of COVID-19 and, because sex work is still criminalised, workers do not have the necessary paperwork and proof of unemployment (Mafolo, 2020; Wheeler, 2020; UNAIDS, 2020).

Organisations such as SWEAT and Sisonke have created solidarity fund raisers to assist sex workers and there has been an increase in online sex work as people have attempted to adapt to lockdown conditions (Collison & Christianson, 2020).[8] This is where the definition of sex work becomes particularly pertinent. The United Nations (UN) defines sex workers as “Female, male and transgender adults aged over 18 years who sell consensual sexual services in return for cash or payment in kind, and who may sell sex formally or informally, regularly or occasionally,” (Sonke Gender Justice, 2014: 5). This definition highlights two fundamental characteristics of acceptable, but often criminalised, sex work: it must be consensual and the participants must be over the age of 18. From the discussion above, it is evident that appropriate sex work has suffered due to COVID-19 and the lockdown. However, more illicit sex markets related to human trafficking and child pornography have flourished.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GIATOC) recently released a report about the ramifications of COVID-19 for human trafficking. The report noted that some forms of human trafficking, especially those related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children and domestic servitude, are likely to increase (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 1). Since the start of lockdowns around the world, there has been an increase in online Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM). The demand for CSEM has increased, because more predators have been confined to their homes and the supply has increased as people have become more desperate to acquire incomes. The inflated demand has also probably exposed children who were already being used for CSEM to greater frequencies of exploitation and violence (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 4).

It is not only children who have become more vulnerable. Due to an increase in movement restrictions, many migrants have been forced into immobility, “unable to continue on their journeys or return home,” (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 6). Migrants who are continuing with their journeys are more reliant on smugglers for assistance in environments that are more hostile towards migration. Smugglers often have connections to traffickers, who seem to be taking advantage of the situation. Trafficking and sex work are intertwined and the GIATOC noted that sex workers are more exposed to trafficking during lockdown.[9]

Transnational criminal networks are often involved in multiple illegal activities, including human trafficking and the trade of prohibited drugs. COVID-19 and its ramifications seem to have presented drug dealers with both challenges and opportunities. Challenges include disruptions in supply chains, restricted access to some markets and blocked distribution channels (Eligh, 2020: 1). On the other hand, in countries such as Afghanistan[10] the drug trade is a significant source of income for people with very limited options. As more people’s livelihoods are diminished in the aftermath of COVID-19, the pool of exploitable labour upon which drug markets depend will widen and workers will become more likely to accept even worse terms, similar to the ‘formal economy’. As the GIATOC noted, “structural changes caused by abrupt shocks tend to persist long after the shocks or crises are over,” (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 13). In addition to a more desperate and cheaper labour source, COVID-19 might also lead to further monopolisation in illicit markets since the shock could ‘weed out’ the weaker organisations. This will evidently harm some organisations while it is likely to benefit others in the long term.

It is also probable that supply chains of opium-based drugs (primarily heroin) will be disrupted. Conversely, drug expert Jason Eligh stated that the supply of crystal meth or tik in SA is unlikely to run out in the near future. In spite of this, many drug dealers have raised their prices based on the assumption that buyers will expect prices to rise in the midst of COVID-19. There has also been an increase in the sale of ‘adulterated’ drugs[11]. In some cases, this has been the consequence of actual supply-chain disruptions and in other cases, dealers have been opportunistic (Hyman, 2020). Organisations have also found creative ways to transport drugs and crystal meth has been found in shipments of medical supplies and food parcels. The last few months have also seen a rise in the trade of fake pharmaceuticals, especially medicines linked to COVID-19. Fake or counterfeit medicines are often sold online and can contain dangerous ingredients if they are not properly formulated. Sellers of fake pharmaceuticals are exploiting widespread fear and panic to sell their products (OECD, 2020).

It is impossible to discuss illicit markets without mentioning the lockdown-induced ban on alcohol and cigarettes in SA. Reporting on the ban has largely discussed it in a negative light. In particular, the tax income that the state is losing as a consequence of the ban has received notable attention. Hellen Ndlovu, the director of Regulatory and Public Affairs at South African Breweries (SAB), has been cited in multiple articles. She emphasised that excise tax and value-added tax (VAT) would be lost. She claimed that SAB would have paid R14 billion in excise taxes this year, which equates to an average monthly contribution of more than R1 billion per month that will be lost as a consequence of the ban (Food Review, 2020).

There was already a well-established illicit alcohol market prior to the lockdown and the illicit trade in alcohol was valued at R13 billion in 2017, which accounts for more than 15% of the total alcohol market in SA (Stockenstroom, 2020). There is no doubt that the ban on alcohol, which was partially lifted in late April, boosted the illicit trade.[12] In almost all of the articles that discuss the alcohol ban, the licit and illicit sale of alcohol are seen as completely dichotomous. However, many of the beverages that are sold on the black market are obtained from the licit market, albeit not always in licit ways[13], and sold by people who do not have liquor licences. This also implies that the initial tax has already been paid on beverages that are resold (Luthuli, 2020). This factor was not accounted for in SAB’s calculations of lost tax revenues. It also implies that the ban did not harm everyone, but harmed some and benefited others. While SAB’s profits evidently decreased, many organised criminal cartels and smaller back-yard brewers have benefitted. Although the ban has ended, it seems as if cartels have seized the opportunity to grow their business and strengthen their stronghold in the market (Ndlovu, 2020).

Similar to the illicit trade in alcohol, there was already a booming trade in illegal cigarettes prior to the lockdown. Illegal cigarettes accounted for about 33% of the cigarettes sold in SA and approximately 42% of the informal market. Illegal cigarettes come from a variety of sources. They can be smuggled into SA from neighbouring countries via illicit networks or they can be counterfeit versions of legitimate cigarette brands. However, the bulk of illegal cigarettes sold in SA come from “local, licenced tobacco manufacturers who do not declare all their manufactured product to the South African Revenue Services (SARS),” (BATSA, 2016). Not only are the manufacturers of illegal cigarettes well known, but they are also reported to be significant funders of multiple political parties, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) (Pauw, 2018). The same cartels who are involved with human trafficking and narcotics also collect revenues from selling illicit cigarettes and alcohol and it seems likely that their power has increased during the lockdown.

It is critical not to conflate ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, as most of the news articles about illicit markets have done. As in many other parts of the global south, gangs and cartels exercise a great deal of territorial control in regions of SA, and, in many cases, they can become arbiters of governance and power. Gangs often protect the communities in their territories in order to maintain local legitimacy and can become figureheads of stability in times of crisis. Gangs and cartels can thus become entrenched in local governance. In SA, this is clearly the case in some suburbs of the Cape Flats (such as Steenberg), where the Mongrels exercise a great deal of authority. Since the start of the lockdown, the Mongrels (under the leadership of Leon ‘Poppie’ Meyer) have set up soup kitchens to feed people in one of SA’s poorest communities. Naxz Modack, another underworld figure, has launched feeding schemes in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. He has commissioned security companies to deliver food parcels and pots of food to multiple poor communities predominantly in Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Athlone and Mitchells Plain (Hyman, 2020).

Distributing food parcels certainly does not justify the violence and brutality that cartels and gangs inflict. However, it is important to remember that state apparatuses also inflict violence and brutality. Activists in the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests have highlighted this, but it has also been evident in reports of police violence against lockdown violators and protestors in countries such as SA and Zimbabwe (Shoki, 2020; Dzirutwe, 2019). There are almost innumerable histories recounting the violent actions of nation states and, as illustrated by the example of the illicit cigarette trade in SA, state actors sometimes benefit from illicit markets. Moreover, there is not always a sharp distinction between licit and illicit markets, as demonstrated by the fact that illicit alcohol is often obtained from licit sellers but sold by people without liquor licenses. It is of course true that gangs do not always distribute food out of pure altruism and that they benefit from community loyalty in the long term. However, as Leon Meyer observed, “Why does that lady go to that drug merchant asking for help? Ask her, because the politicians and government officials come when they want the votes, and when they’ve got their vote it’s all over” (cited in: Hyman, 2020).

The literature on gender, drugs and crime has tended to emphasise women’s victimisation and there is a recurring narrative of dependence, exploitation and dysfunction (Anderson, 2005). In contrast, the state has attempted to represent itself as a protector of women’s rights and a champion of gender equality. During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest national address on 17 June 2020, he discussed GBV as “another pandemic that is raging in our country”. He mentioned various steps that the government was taking to curb GBV and commended the South African Police Service (SAPS) for their “excellent work in arresting almost all of the alleged perpetrators”. This evidently ignores the fact that SAPS officers are often perpetrators of GBV, as demonstrated by the example of some SAPS officers abusing female waste-pickers. Moreover, he blamed GBV on “the actions of violent men,” (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although this seems obvious at a superficial level, it ignores more structural drivers of GBV and individualises the problem.

In reference to victims of GBV, President Ramaphosa even claimed that “we will speak for them where they cannot,” (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although the President did not specify who this ‘we’ was, he was presumably speaking on behalf of the government. The narrative that emerges is thus one that presents the state as the protector of women against violent men. This is problematic for various reasons. As mentioned above, it individualises GBV. Furthermore, it creates a ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ dichotomy between the state and ‘violent men’. The President did not only present these men as separated from society, but in an earlier address on GBV he stated that they were attacking “the very foundation of our democratic society” and “our common humanity” (Ramaphosa, 2019). If violent men are depicted as outside society or as ‘attackers’ of society, then we run the risk of overlooking the complex drivers of GBV within our societies.

It is also worrisome that the state is allegedly speaking ‘for’ victims of GBV. This again perpetuates the notion that women are merely helpless victims that cannot speak for themselves and have to be protected by the (masculine) state. It can be argued that the President was speaking on behalf of deceased victims. However, this is still problematic because it overlooks the voices of thousands of protestors who demanded action on GBV. The state was thus not speaking for people who have been affected by GBV, but was responding to the outcries of survivors and activists.

In order to disrupt the narrative of the valiant state as the protector of women against violent men, we should also recognise the agency of women in illicit economies. Women in illicit economies, particularly in those related to drugs and sex work, do experience discrimination and are often victims of GBV. However, as the sociologist Tammy Anderson reminded us, “the situation is not quite as simple as it has been made out to be: ‘victimization’ and ‘empowerment’ can be, and often are, interrelated,” (Anderson, 2005: 375). On the one hand, men are more likely to occupy more lucrative and higher status roles in illicit drug economies and male actors in these economies often live out violent masculinities. According to Anderson, this gives men ‘structural power’, especially in relation to the possession of resources.

On the other hand, women seem to exercise a more relational form of power that enables illicit economies to function. This is particularly evident in the realm of sex work, which supplies “the drug economy with necessary money capital,” (Anderson, 2005: 376). Due to socially constructed gender roles, women often act as facilitators in drug deals and do a lot of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that supports drug markets[14]. Although men still generally hold structural power in illicit economies, women’s ‘supporting’ roles are not necessarily performed for men’s benefit. Anderson argued that “While it is true that women’s agency does not earn them a more structurally recognized position of power in the illicit drug market, less recognized is that their agency may empower them to better excel in future conventional (i.e. legal) activities than their male counterparts,” (Anderson, 2005: 383).

Anderson’s discussion of women’s agency in illicit economies supports the argument that there is not a ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ dichotomy between licit and illicit markets. In fact, when seen through a gendered lens, it seems as if illicit economies are structured relatively similar to licit economies. In both cases, ‘women’s work’ is central to the functioning of markets, yet it is often overlooked. In relation to illicit economies, Anderson noted that “the market is dependent on their agency, yet it disallows their accumulation of structural power” (Anderson, 2005: 383). This same point is equally applicable to the ‘formal’ economy, which depends on women’s capital as consumers and on their ‘behind-the-scenes’ labour. Moreover, women are allowed to become ‘empowered’ within the ‘formal’ economy, but are discouraged from changing its structure. The argument that women’s roles in illicit economies sometimes enables them to participate more effectively in ‘formal’ economies again challenges the distinction between different economic systems.

As mentioned at the start of this piece, reports and articles on the economic effect of the lockdown have been ubiquitous. Concurrently, President Ramaphosa declared that the state would implement an economic strategy that will “drive the recovery of our economy” (Ngobeni, 2020). According to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, this strategy involves stimulus measures that would amount to R800 billion. This included the monetary response of the SA Reserve Bank, which cut the interest rate and made concessions to banks. In order to benefit from the stimulus package, spaza shops would have to have licences and bank accounts and be registered at SARS (De Lange, 2020). The stimulus package includes a COVID-19 Block Exemption for the Retail sector. However, other businesses that want to access funds have to be owned by South Africans (thus excluding migrants), they have to “demonstrate strong business fundamentals” and have a detailed business plan. They also have to be able to demonstrate that they will recover within 18-24 months (White & Case, 2020).

This piece has attempted to demonstrate that speaking of the damaging effects of the lockdown on ‘the economy’ is highly misleading. Similarly, claims that the stimulus package will save ‘our economy’ obscures the heterogeneous repercussions that it is likely to have. The previous paragraph mentioned only a few of the policies in the government’s stimulus package. However, it becomes clear that retailers and banks are likely to benefit while people working in the ‘informal’ economy could become even more marginalised. The situation becomes more complex when we consider the links between different economies in SA. This was demonstrated by the fact that illicit tobacco sellers often obtain their products from larger licit tobacco manufacturers. At first glance it thus seems as if the illicit cigarette trade is flourishing to the detriment of the licit trade, but this is clearly an oversimplification.

Furthermore, it is problematic to assume that licit economies are ‘good’ while illicit economies are ‘evil’, as much of the reporting on the two interrelated economies did. This was demonstrated in the discussion of evidence to suggest that cartels and gangs are supplying food parcels to struggling local communities. This does not mean that the brutal actions of gangs are justified. Instead, we are able to draw parallels between the ways in which gangs and governments function. This point becomes clearer if we consider the gendered aspects of illicit markets, since they are analogous to the gendered dimensions of licit markets. This also disrupts the government’s narrative on GBV, which positions the (masculine) state as a protector of women against ‘evil’ men. All of these factors have implications for the policies that are adapted in response to COVID-19. Summarily, we cannot assume that a stimulus package will benefit ‘our economy’ because this leaves crucial questions unasked: Who will benefit, and in which ways?


African Press Office (APO), 2020. ‘Coronavirus – South Africa: COVID-19 impact on the economy’. CBN Africa. <> Access: 16 June 2020.

Anderson, T. 2005. ‘Dimensions of women’s power in the illicit drug economy’. Theoretical Criminology 9(4), pp. 371-400.

Andreou, A. 2014. ‘Trickle-down economics is the greatest broken promise of our lifetime’. The Guardian. w<> Access: 17 June 2020.

Arendt, C. Davies, R. Gabriel, S. Harris, L. Makrelov, K. Modise, B. Robinson, S. Simbanegavi, W. van Seventer, D. Anderson, L. 2020. ‘Impact of Covid-19 on the South African economy: An initial analysis’. Southern Africa- Towards Inclusive Economic Development.

British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA). 2020. ‘The South African Illicit Trade’. <> Access: 19 June 2020.

Business Tech, 2020. ‘April data shows how deep Covid-19 has cut into South Africa’s economy’. <> Access: 16 June 2020.

Collison, C. & Christianson, B. 2020. ‘South Africa: How COVID-19 Affects South Africa’s Sex Workers’. All Africa. <> Access: 5 May 2020.

De Lange, R. 2020. ‘Tito Mboweni’s rescue plan tops R800bn’. City Press. <> Access: 22 June 2020.

Dzirutwe, M. 2019. ‘Water canons, batons: MDC condemns ‘police brutality’ on Zimbabweans’. News Africa. <> Access: 19 June 2020.

Eligh, J. 2020. ‘Crisis and Opportunity: Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on illicit drug markets’. Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Food Review, 2020. ‘Four things you need to know about the illegal alcohol trade’. <> Access: 19 June 2020.

Hyman, A. 2020. ‘How organised crime is exploiting Covid-19’. Times Live. <> Access: 18 June 2020.

Institute for Economic Justice, 2020. ‘COVID-19- An emergency rescue package for South Africa’. <> Access: 16 June 2020.

Klein, N. 2020. ‘Naomi Klein: How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic’. The Guardian.

Lichtblau, M. 2019. ‘The Fallacy and Persistence of “Trickle-Down Economics”.’ Brown Political Review. <> Access: 17 June 2020.

Locwin, B. 2020. ‘‘Public Panic Pandemic’: How our reaction to the coronavirus makes things worse than they should be.’ Genetic Literacy Project <> Access: 16 June 2020.

Luthuli, T. 2020. ‘Illicit trade in cigarettes and alcohol has thrived during lockdown’. Daily Maverick. <> Access: 19 June 2020.

Mafolo, K. 2020. ‘Covid-19: Some sex workers move online as SA heads into lockdown’. GroundUp. <> Access: 17 June 2020.

Malloch-Brown, M. 2008. ‘Opium production in Afghanistan’. <> Access: 18 June 2020.

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Ngobeni, L. ‘Ramaphosa’s mega budget for Covid-19 response’. <> Access: 22 June 2020.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2020. ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the global trade in fake pharmaceuticals’. <> Access: 18 June 2020.

Pauw, J. 2018. ‘Mazzotti’s Smoke ‘n Mirrors – a matter of taxes, fraud, smuggling and cigarettes’. Daily Maverick. <> Access: 19 June 2020.

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[1] Very basically, the ‘trickle down’ effect or theory refers to the notion that policies that benefit the wealthy will benefit everyone because the profits will ‘trickle down’ into society.

[2] This also demonstrates how interconnected various economic systems are.

[3] Estimates are around 1 million in SA alone (Institute for Economic Justice, 2020).

[4] The labour market in SA has historically been characterised by informality and flexibility because the apartheid system was based on highly flexible migrant and contract labour (Valodia, 2001: 874).

[5] This is because informal economies (much like formal economies) often have a pyramid structure with employers, the group with the highest earnings, at the top. Men make up the majority of employers and “moving further down the different levels of the pyramid, the risk of poverty increases, as does the percentage of workers who are women,” (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 93).

[6] About 70% of women in the informal economy work in domestic and ‘elementary’ occupations (Valodia, 2001: 875).

[7] According to a 2013 study by SWEAT, these workers often support families of up to seven dependents with their incomes (Mafolo, 2020).

[8] These organisations have launched various programmes, which are accessible via their websites: and

[9] One reason for this is that sex workers frequently live in the places they work and the closure of brothels, bars and nightclubs has heightened their risk of losing their accommodation along with their livelihoods. One inspiring trend is solidarity groups that have formed among sex workers. For example, in Amsterdam sex workers have set up a crowd funding initiative to support their peers (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 6).

[10] About 90% of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan (Malloch-Brown, 2008).

[11] Adulterated drugs are mixed with other substances that decrease the purity.

[12] It is important to note that beer is the most commonly sold type of alcohol in the legal market while illicit traders focus on high margin, low volume products and are more likely to sell hard liquor. Licit and illicit traders thus focus on different types of demand (Stockenstroom, 2020).

[13] There has been a sharp increase in the looting of alcohol stores and storage facilities since the start of the lockdown (Ndlovu, 2020).

[14] This ‘behind the scenes work’ includes, but is not limited to: providing housing, subsidising male dependency and purchasing and selling drugs (Anderson, 2005: 393).

CSA&G to resume essential services on Hatfield Campus from 24 June 2020

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) at the University of Pretoria will resume essential services to staff and students who have received permission to return to campus under lockdown level 3 regulations.

These services will include:

  • voluntary HIV counselling and testing (with referral for ARV treatment for anyone who tests positive for HIV);
  • counselling related to sexual harassment and sexual and
  • gender-based violence; and counselling on sexualities and gender, primarily for LGBTIQA+ individuals.

COVID-19 screening, hygiene and social distancing measures will be in place. Hand sanitiser and other hygiene products will be available. Additional, but limited, PPE in the form of masks and gloves will also be available to clients who do not have their own.

The services will be available on a booking and walk-in basis from:

  • Date: 24 June 2020
  • Days: Monday to Friday
  • Times: 9:00 to 12:00 (hours will be extended at a future date)
  • Location: Akanyang Building, Hatfield Campus (above Vida)

For bookings or more information, please email us on: or phone us on 012 420 4391.

Mothering and Lockdown

by Dipontseng Kheo

(all mothers quoted here gave their consent)

As parents it is natural to want to protect our children from anything that could possibly harm our young ones. Pregnant mothers are feeling anxious about their unborn babies from this deadly virus.

I read an article about a woman who tested positive for COVID-19 in Belgium, just before giving birth to a healthy baby girl, and now must learn to care for her new-born infant with a mask on. She spoke about the pain of giving birth alone and not being able to see her other children.

When the lockdown was announced in South Africa, my children were still with my parents in Vereeniging, away from where I live. I also had started an online course which had about ten modules and back-to-back assessments. So, I decided to let them stay with my parents so that I could focus on my course and finish administration work I took home before the lockdown. Then COVID-19 statistics gradually went up and the lockdown was extended.

I started receiving homework for my children, one in Primary School and the other in High School. Then social media friends and family started posting activities with their young ones, and today’s slang FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) kicked in. Together with my partner, we decided we would have to fetch the kids. I went to the Police Station to get a permit, but under the regulations only divorced parents who were co-parenting were allowed a permit. The officer advised I write an affidavit stating my reasons. He also highlighted that if I met a roadblock, the law enforcement officials could send me back to Pretoria rather than allowing me to continue with my journey. Well to cut long story short, I managed to fetch the kids, no roadblocks.

For the first three days I was still excited that they were back and I started with trending activities like baking, cooking and exercising together. Some of these were activities we’d never really had time to do together before. In this first week I didn’t touch any school work. By week two I was exhausted, irritable and frustrated. I somehow felt I was not in control and had to try and create a routine. This was not exactly how I’d imagined things. From house chores to cooking, being a judge, doing homework, being a wife and working from home, I was drained. I recall telling our Deputy Director that I needed counselling because I was overwhelmed.

We are not used to being around our kids twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, except for some weekends. I came up with a routine to follow but we rarely followed it. I found new admiration for the patience of teachers; home schooling is really draining if you don’t have that love and patience for teaching. And it’s even worse when you don’t have a clue about what is being taught. I didn’t do EGD (Engineering Graphics and Design) and my Grade 8 daughter asked me to help her. I really didn’t have a clue and that really frustrated me. I thought of finding a tutor, but at the same time I was worried about their wellbeing. What if the very same tutor infects my children with this virus, a virus that’s really got us overthinking? So, we opted for online lessons; it was a bit of a challenge in the beginning, with one laptop, but eventually we found a way around it.

I started speaking to other women to see how they were coping during lockdown. That really helped and gave me the strength to come out of the negative shell I had created for myself.

This is what they had to say:

“As coronavirus was strengthening its grip on the world, we all watched with fear and anxiety. I saw the declaration of a total lockdown of the country in a positive light because at least I knew that staying at home, and not leaving to meet with other people, would actually delay or prevent myself and my children from contracting the virus.

Spending time with my kids proved to be an excellent experience as we spent the time doing small things which mattered the most to each one of us. New routines and habits were formed.

We exercised together, did cooking lessons, cleaned the house, worked in the garden and played together. Most of which are activities we never had enough time to perform before.

The only challenging experience was that of having to ‘homeschool’ the kids. First was the issue of not having enough data to log on to online classes, then we had to print out worksheets which was an impossible task as all shops were closed.

In a nutshell, for me this proved to be a great time for me and my kids to spend together and it allowed us to explore and express our individuality in many different ways.”

Khahliso Zulu, Pharmacist Manager

“As an essential worker I thought life would still be the same at home during lockdown, but only to find out it’s not going to be easy at all.

Being a mother, I had to leave my daughter with Daddy every weekday for work, but will most of the time be on the phone with them, regarding school work issues and making sure when she is home she still acts responsibly.

One beautiful thing about lockdown was that my 11-year-old daughter learned so much regarding house chores, because I would give her things to do after doing school work, then on weekends she will keep on doing all those helping Mommy. This was not an easy time for everybody but again we managed to bond a bit compared to when the world was normal.”

Dikeledi “DK” Letsiri, SABC radio & TV sports presenter

“I have always known myself to be a ‘jack of all kinds’ of mom but have come to realise that in these trying times even super heroes need time out. It has been very challenging to juggle between working from home and home schooling, while trying to keep it together and be prayerful that we keep the family safe from this pandemic. We have all had to adapt, and most importantly, we have to keep sane while trying to avoid stuffing our faces, even though I am trying out new recipes all the time! We might just end up rolling out of this lockdown…lol. I salute all moms out there! Keep being the best mom you possibly can be.”

Evodia Lenong, Policy Administrator

Based on these views of different mothers working from home, or as essential workers, we just have to figure out what works just to be sane during this pandemic.

I must say I am eventually getting the hang of things only weeks later. We still exercise, play games and meditate together. It’s up to an individual to view lockdown from a negative or positive perspective. What works for me might not work for you. Yes, these days are not the same but we still have to look ahead and create a better future for us and our children.

In conclusion, I will like to remind mothers that they should not be hard on themselves. This lockdown is new to everyone and all you’ve got to do is just try to do the best you can. If you are not coping, speak to someone you trust. Free counselling is provided for many many employees, reach out.

Give a woman a fish

By Christi Kruger

In his book, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New ‘Politics of Distribution’ (2015), James Ferguson discusses the politics surrounding social grants in the Global South at length.

He argues that the big “development story” of the last twenty years is not, as many scholars would argue, the story of microfinance but rather of “the rise and rise of social protection,” (Roelen and Devereux, 2013:1 as quoted in Ferguson, 2015). In countries across Southern Africa, the last two decades have seen the “creation and expansion of extensive social welfare programs targeting the poor anchored in schemes that directly transfer small amounts of cash to large numbers of low-income people” (Ferguson, 2015: 1). South Africa has been on the forefront of this expansion with more than 17 million social assistance grants transferred on a monthly basis. The South African government’s move to implement economic relief measures through the already existing social assistance system during the Covid-19 pandemic was therefore not unexpected and followed calls by many to distribute cash to poor citizens in this way.

For some South Africans the additional cash they receive through their social grants will bring a small sense of economic relief during this time. In the case of many others though, the small top-up offered will simply not suffice. Recent news footage visually demonstrated the extent of extreme poverty, which is bound to only increase over the coming weeks and months. Aerial photos showed a queue, of more than 3 kilometres, of people waiting to receive food parcels in the informal settlements of Mooiplaas and Spruit in Centurion (Njilo, 2020). A few days later, similar images surfaced; this time in Olievenhoutbosch, where some people waited in line for several days to access food parcels (Seleka, 2020).

These two reported instances almost surely mirror scenes across South Africa. After a five-week lockdown, which saw the South African economy screech to a halt, the country’s already extraordinarily high poverty levels have been exacerbated, leading to increased calls for urgent interventions to address food poverty.

I’ve written previously on the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the economic collapse intensified by the Covid-19 virus.[1] The notion of poverty, I argued, is often tied closely to our ideas of who qualifies as the deserving poor (and is thus entitled to help) and those who make up the category of the undeserving poor. Women and children are often counted among the deserving poor, while younger men mostly count as the undeserving poor. These notions are easily picked out in most debates around welfare and social assistance, which have always been steeped in assumptions about poverty, meritocracy, and dependency due to the demands of capital for a moralising lens that can sift those who truly cannot engage in paid labour from those who must offer up their labour at any cost.

One would assume that a global pandemic, such as Covid-19, would disrupt these moral categories. It is difficult to maintain the categories of deserving-undeserving poor when “laziness” and “irresponsibility” cannot be used to explain the fact that large portions of populations across the globe are unable to work and earn an income. Yet, these ideas persist in various ways and continue to guide, albeit subtly and perhaps unintentionally, the way in which social assistance in South Africa is being structured during the various levels of lockdown.

In this piece, I further investigate the implications of the current socio-economic conditions for those citizens often collectively referred to as “the poor” by specifically reading the forthcoming forms of state social assistance through a gender-lens. I outline the various forms of social assistance, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 21 April 2020, but pay particular attention to the way in which the child support grant is being utilised to distribute additional cash to primary caretakers. Using this grant as an example, I argue that we ought to take seriously the ways in which gender-conceptualisation is mediated by, and through, child support grants. Women, mediated via this gender-conceptualisation, are imagined as responsible mothering figures who are worthy of additional support and are expected to embody tropes of female stoicism and selfless care. This expression of femininity, while establishing women as worthy of social assistance, serves to push aside individual women’s life histories and projects onto women their supposed “natural” role as caretakers.

An obvious point of critique to note is that the child support grant is not gendered in and of itself; it is therefore perfectly plausible for a man to receive a child support grant if he is his children’s or grandchildren’s primary carer. In reality, however, only two percent of child support grants are paid to male caregivers (Khan, 2018). The majority of these men, Khan (2018: 219) shows, are single fathers who are aware of the fact that they construct forms of masculinity that counter the more dominant forms of masculinity in South Africa. More important is the fact that, in the minds of many South Africans, the child support grant is aimed at women.

The Development of State Social Assistance

The child support grant is one of several offered as cash transfers in South Africa. In terms of the rise of social protection in the Global South, South Africa leads the way with state social assistance and cash transfers. While the beginnings of state social assistance in South Africa can be traced back to the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and growing fears surrounding white poverty in the late 1920s, it was the deracialisation (in 1993) shortly before the official democratisation of South Africa that truly marked the start of state assistance (Seekings, 2006: 30). Today, state social assistance in South Africa is unconditional and non-contributory. This means that any South African citizen, permanent resident, or refugee may apply for and receive social assistance providing that their annual income does not exceed the means test that is linked to social grants (South African Social Security Agency, 2015).

Since 1996 the state has expanded the social assistance system to reach almost a third of the population by 2015 (Ferguson, 2015: 5). In July 2015, approximately 16.7 million monthly social grants were distributed, a considerable rise from the estimated 3 million recipients in 1994 (Seekings, 2008: 31; South African Social Security Agency, 2015). This large increase is largely due to the introduction of the child support grant (CSG) in 1998, an unconditional monthly transfer of R100 for all qualifying children between from birth to age seven.  Eligibility was extended to the age of fourteen in 2005, and to the age of eighteen in 2009 (Neves et al, 2009; Schreiber, 2014: 268). In addition to child support grants, the bulk of social grants are paid to the elderly in the form of state old age grants, care dependency grants aimed at caregivers who permanently care for a child with severe and permanent disability, and disability grants for those persons who are permanently unable to work (South African Social Security Agency, 2015).

For the purposes of this discussion it is important to pay attention to the changing composition of what is now known as the child support grant. The child support grant was first introduced in 1998. Prior to this, poor mothers were paid a monthly grant consisting, by July 1996, of a R430 parent allowance and a R135 child support grant. Research showed that very few of these grants reached African families with the majority of grants being paid to Coloured and Indian families. Attempts to extend this form of support to more families, and make it more racially equitable, resulted in an increasing number of parents accessing grants combined with a significant decline in the monthly amount paid per family (Hassim, 2005). The notion of the parent allowance was scrapped when the child support grant was introduced and the monthly amount made significantly smaller.

Women and Covid-19 relief measures

The wide reach of the child support grant made it an obvious tool for distributing cash to those in financial need during the lockdown. While some other measures were also introduced, most prominently a slight increase in old age pensions and the introduction of a temporary relief grant of R350 for unemployed persons, we can assume that it is the increased child support grant that will offer relief to the largest number of households. To an extent the economic relief measures that are set to be implemented from May 2020 reflect something of the pre-1998 model of parental support as primary caregivers once again receive a small amount over and above their monthly child support grant. In his 21 April address, explaining the social and economic relief measures being rolled out, Ramaphosa (2020) set out the following:

“This means that child support grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R300 in May and from June to October they will receive an additional R500 each month. All other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 per month for the next six months. In addition, a special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant of R350 a month for the next 6 months will be paid to individuals who are currently unemployed and do not receive any other form of social grant or UIF payment.”

Ramaphosa’s announcement was initially met by some confusion. Many assumed that the R300 and R500, respectively, would be added to every single child included in support grants, as is the case with all other grants to be topped up. Government officials soon clarified, however, that the extra amount would be paid per adult beneficiary and not per qualifying child. It would therefore make no difference whether one has one child or six children in one’s care: the single amount of R300, and later R500, would be paid to the primary carer. An important difference is thus introduced between the child support grant and other grants. While it is obvious that most child support grants are received and administered by a child’s primary caregiver, the assumption is that the grant is used to care for the child. For many women across the country the cash that is transferred through child support grants is their sole source of income. We can therefore safely assume that many child support grants are used to provide for entire families rather than being restricted to children.

The issue here is not the fact that child support grants are used to support family members other than children. In a context where nuclear family structures are minimal and poverty levels high, it is almost a given that child support grants, along with old age pensions, are often stretched to support extended family networks. The problem however, is the twofold way that many of the stereotypes upholding gender inequality is perpetuated.

The first problem is that the top up of the grants is limited to one per caretaker rather than one per child. Most likely this was done as a way to give at least some extra support to all qualifying families instead of devising a whole new system to provide relief to households. In doing this, however, plenty is assumed about what South African families look like. In reality, nuclear families are in the minority here and grandparents, for example, often serve as primary caretakers to their grandchildren. A grandmother who is the primary carer for six of her grandchildren would, in terms of this mode of distribution, receive the same added income as a mother looking after only one child. While perhaps not explicitly intending to do so, this way of distributing relief grants has a moral undertone which suggests that women with more children ought to be implicitly punished in some or other way.

Debates about whether child support grants act as an incentive to have children have been around for as long as the grant itself has, and despite research showing it to be untrue, it is a narrative that recurs frequently. In the minds of many, a majority of young women have children as a means to access child support grants. A quick search on Twitter after the Covid-19 relief measures were announced showed a similar rhetoric being widely shared by social media users: young women were once again being rewarded for having children it was alleged. In a similar vein, shortly after the increase in grants was announced, the MEC for Social Development in Mpumalanga, Thandi Shongwe, was quoted saying: “We are calling on our people, especially young mothers, to make sure that they use the money announced by the president to buy food for their children, not any other things. You must not buy weaves or makeups, because we are on lockdown and we are comfortable with the way we look,” (Khoza, 2020). Shongwe’s statement not only displays a shockingly poor grasp of the socio-economic position of many women during this time, but also plays into stereotypical assumptions about women, particularly working class African women and the idea that women, firstly, are likely to spend any increase on themselves but, secondly, ought to not want to invest in themselves in any way.

The second problem with the way in which grants are being topped up is closely interwoven with the first. The idea that especially younger women will waste any extra money means that women are placed in a position where they have to display a certain kind of femininity before they even received any money. Especially in the instance of younger women, women have to prove that they are mothers – not only in a biological sense but in a socio-cultural sense. Ann Oakley (1980) described the “myth of motherhood” as resting on three beliefs: “that all women need to be mothers, that all mothers need their children and that all children need their mothers.” What is implied by what we might call motherhood ideology is that all women ought to be (potential) mothers and that a real mother will find ways to care for her family. It also implies the erasure of much of a women’s identity beyond that of “mother”; that is, the overarching idea becomes that motherhood ought to be the single focus in a women’s life. To spend money on oneself, however little it may be, is to confirm that one fails at being a real mother.

Motherhood ideologies are of course underpinned by patriarchy yet upheld and reproduced by both men and women, as can be seen with the current (insufficient) grant top-ups for women-as-mothers. On the one hand, it excludes men to a large extent. It has been made clear in no uncertain terms to men that they cannot be trusted to provide for their families. On social media, in newspapers, and in commentaries it was said that it was a good idea to channel the extra cash to women. Men, and especially unemployed black men, are considered too unfaithful to entrust with cash transfers. They would, it is believed by many, waste it on alcohol, cigarettes, and sex workers. Of course, there are many families where men would have access to child support grants, either through equal access to cash or by taking it forcefully, but that is not necessarily relevant here as much as prevailing social perceptions are. On the other hand, women are expected to confirm their social position as being the binary opposite of men. They are simultaneously perceived as natural carers who will make the most of the little money they have and as possibly irresponsible “girls” who will fall pregnant as a means to enrich themselves while passing on the burden of motherhood to grandmothers, aunts and older siblings.

These women have been set up to fail though. Although an extra R350 or R500 is sure to cover some of their families’ needs, there is no possible way that this money could be stretched to make a significant difference in the lives of a household of eight or 10 people. Added to this is the fact that qualifying women cannot apply for the Temporary Relief of Distress grant if they already receive a child support grant – the government has thus reduced the entirety of their lives to the role of mother. What we are doing, therefore, is to give women a false sense of agency. Social grants in the forms of cash transfers are often praised for having increased its recipients’ autonomy and agency. Cash, instead of vouchers or food items, provides them with the agency to decide and prioritise how they want to spend their money.

This argument only holds true if the cash that people receive is enough to cover their basic needs. For many South African women during the time of Covid-19, the idea that they have agency in terms of social grants is bound to be a flight of fantasy. They are set up to fail because the grants they receive in the first place are not enough to cover their own and their families’ basic needs. The motherhood gender ideology, however, compels many to believe that a real mother, a true women¸ should be able to magically stretch available funds to ensure that her family is fed and healthy. The choice is stark: suffer silently and stoically to be perceived as a good woman, or speak-up and demand more and be perceived as self-interested.


Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections of the New Politics of Distribution. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hassim, S. 2005. Gender, Welfare and the Developmental State in South Africa. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Khan, Z. 2018. “Men and the Child Support Grant: Gender, Care and Child Welfare.” Unpublished PhD thesis. Johannesburg: University of Johannesburg. Available at [Accessed on 23 April 2020].

Khosa, M. 2020. “Do not buy weaves, make-up with increased social relief grant,” MEC urges young moms. 23 April 2020. [Accessed 25 April 2020].

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. President Cyril Ramaphosa: Additional Coronavirus Covid-19 Economic and Social Relief Measures. 21 April 2020. [Accessed 28 April 2020].

Seleka, N. 2020. Thousands Cue for Food Parcels in Olievenhoutbosch, Centurion. 2 May 2020. Available at [Accessed on 5 May 2020].

South African Social Security Agency, 2013. “You and your New SASSA Payment Card”. Accessed on 12 August 2015.

South African Social Security Agency, 2014. “Annual Report 2013/14”, SASSA, Pretoria.

South African Social Security Agency, 2015. “You and your grants 2013/2014”. Accessed on 12 August 2016.



Ubuntu and solidarity in times of Covid-19: Challenges and contradictions as communities grapple with ways of being and doing during a pandemic

by Vuyisa Mamanzi

Vuyisa: Hello, mother sukuvulela’mntu apho endlini, icorona iyabulala…(Hello, mother, do not allow any visitors in the house, corona kills).

Mother: Ewe, bahambile. uDade kapriest ebesithi undigqibele kudala, ngoku ke ebezondi bona, uvelela namanye amalungu.  (Yes, they have left. It was the priest’s wife, she came to see me because she had not seen me in a while. She is checking up on other congregants as well).

The above quotation is from a phone conversation between my mother and myself after hearing that there were visitors at home.

This is after we spoke at length the previous night about not allowing any visitors in the house and the need to adhere to social distancing rules. Meaning she needed to be strict and firm in turning people away, as difficult as that may be, a regrettably new normal. My mother is a people’s person, I knew and understood the difficulty she was now confronted with in having to turn anyone away. It went against her beliefs and sense of Ubuntu. As challenging and difficult as it was, it had to be done, especially after receiving news that two people known to the family had passed away from Covid-19. If the threat at any point felt distant, it was now real and personal, it was at our doorstep. One of the individuals who succumbed to Covid-19 lived in Gugulethu, she was a neighbour and a friend. I handed over the phone to my sister, I listened as she pleaded with our mother not to let anyone in the house, the risk of contraction was just too high, and we couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Not so long ago there were reports of at least seven people residing at New Rest Gugulethu, not far away from our home, who tested positive and were roaming the streets; refusing to self-isolate or self-quarantine. There was growing fear in the community and a community leader expressed that “Our concern as residents is that people are not taken into quarantine. People who have tested positive are living among us”. The provincial health department, the police, as well as community leaders were now going to work together, to force positive people to isolate in their houses. Safe and comfortable facilities were going to be provided for those unable to self-isolate in their homes[1].

Fear of contracting Covid-19 runs rampant throughout South Africa.  A study conducted by Ask Africa has reported high levels of social distress and low levels of optimism among South Africans. Interestingly, the same study reported that participants older than 65 were comfortable and were less likely to experience depression. That the highest levels of fear, depression and discouragement were among young people (Grobler, 2020). Maybe my sister and I were projecting our fears onto our mother. Subsequent phone conversations have revealed her continued sense of contentment, as she lives her life close to normalcy as possible. Perhaps age has brought her some calmness, wisdom and acceptance.

Be that as it may, because daily activities that put bread on the table, like going to work or the shops, now pose a threat of contracting the virus, many South Africans are fearful of the risk faced by family members. And many people miss social interaction and long for engagement with friends and family (Grobler, 2020).

A Google search on Covid-19 precautionary and prevention measures, will take you directly to the World Health Organisation’s public service announcement, which reads STAY HOME. SAVE LIVES. Help stop coronavirus. Keep a safe distance, wash hands, cover your cough and seek medical attention, if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Many will argue that South Africa, similar to countries like Norway in enforcing strict measures (including quarantines for international travellers and the closure of educational institutions), acted swiftly to contain Covid-19. However, only with time and reflection will it be possible to ascertain whether the strategy has been successful (Eriksen, 2020).

Many experts have noted that Covid-19 presents enormous and unique challenges. Among them Paul Farmer, a Medical Anthropologist and physician, who works to strengthen health-care systems in Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda and other low and middle-income countries: “we do not know, we have experience yes, but we do not know the specifics”.

What does this mean for a country like South Africa?

I agree with Fiona Ross (2020) that we face Covid-19 with skepticism, faith and a lot of history, I will shed light on these further on in the essay. But I am not entirely certain if we have learned from the horrible mistakes during the height of the HIV pandemic, as she suggests. If South Africa had learned anything, we should have focused on improving the quality of health care and learned that, when we fail to do this, we drive people away or make them mistrust the medical system (Farmer, 2020).

South Africa is confronted with rising numbers of health care workers who are dying of Covid-19 complications (Fokazi, 2020). There is growing fear and lack of trust in the medical system among some communities. The Western Cape provincial health department recently reported that there are some people who gave incorrect information when they went to test, in an attempt to avoid being tracked and taken into self-isolation or quarantine. I watched a video circulating on social media of a woman in Dutywa, a town in the Eastern Cape, telling health care workers who were conducting screening in the community that she was afraid of them. This was after news reports of a positive Covid-19 case at the same clinic where these nurses work. These health care workers can be seen and heard on the video saying that they have been tested but are waiting for their results. The woman now sees these health care workers as potential carriers of Covid-19 and a threat, exposing herself and her family to risk of infection. She politely refuses to be screened by them and tells the nurses that she will not take herself to hell (referring to the clinic in Dutywa).

What this highlights is just an aspect of complex and nuanced explanations for the lack of community trust in, or fear of, our health care system. We saw this when Ebola treatment units [ETUs] in Sierra Leone were seen as death-traps, bringers of Ebola, and people fled them (Farmer, 2020).

The current Covid-19 crisis reminds me of James Baldwin’s words when he said: “All of us are living through some kind of turmoil which endangers all of our relationships. This turmoil is historical and it is personal. The aims of a society are and always must be, to inculcate in its citizens a certain level of security” (Baldwin, 2017, 7:45-7:58).

I wonder to what extent the state has inculcated a level of security and trust in its citizens, as we face this turmoil called Covid-19.

The cohesiveness of societies in crises is often tested, based on trust or fear. In societies that are confronted with constant crises and have huge inequalities; generalised trust is generally low (Eriksen, 2020). However, in South Africa, the response to Covid-19 has seen people across all sectors coming together on a large scale to mitigate the harm through relief funds for businesses, the setting up of shelters and food parcel schemes, as well as an increase in existing social grant provisions (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).  In addition, new forms of quick response have emerged; social media has been used as a platform and enabled networks of people to come together and mobilise assistance and care, alongside older institutions of care such as family, religious organisations, charities, stokvels (rotating credit associations) and burial associations. All of these are critical in everyday survival strategies (Ross, 2020). There has been a call for the acknowledgement of social action of this nature and to encourage us to realise that as South Africans, despite our differences, in unity and solidarity we can achieve significant impact (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).

So I argue that in South Africa the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the revitalisation of the values-based philosophy of African humanism, Ubuntu. Broadly defined as an ‘African worldview’ that places communal interests above those of the individual, and where human existence is dependent upon interaction with others, Ubuntu has a long tradition on the continent  (McDonald, 2010: 139).

Similar actions have been seen In Norway, in reference to the dugnad, which refers to unpaid, collective, and cooperative work where every member of a community is expected to participate, regardless of their social position. To Norwegians, the dugnad, is a symbol of egalitarianism and the kind of solidarity mythically associated with rural communities. Politicians have repeatedly invoked the term dugnad to mobilise their constituencies, in order to get out of the crisis (Eriksen, 2020). Njabulo Ndebele and Judy Sikuza (2020) reminds us that Covid-19 does not respect the borders of countries, and the wealthy and influential are not immune. Regardless of race, religion, class, or nationality, people across the world are gravely ill.

However, the revitalisation of Ubuntu in South Africa has not been without challenges, argues David McDonald. He suggests that to convince South Africans that market reforms are democratic and egalitarian, the South African state and capital must revitalise Ubuntu theory and language to defuse opposition to underlying neoliberal change. This observation is made in a context where the very poor are disproportionately at risk of contracting Covid-19 due to crowded living conditions, insufficient public sanitation amenities, and a burden of existing disease (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).  This is in part, some of the skepticism, faith and history with which many South Africans face Covid-19 (Ross, 2020). There are strong sentiments that from housing to health care, there has been a downloading of the fiscal and physical responsibility of post-apartheid work on the backs of low-income households in the name of ‘community’. “Meaning that the language and practice of contemporary Ubuntu is too compromised by market ideology and discourse to be revived for a socialist agenda” (MacDonald, 2010: 146).

In a period of crisis and upheaval, trust is paramount. Whether it be on the state or among the people with whom you share a space (Eriksen, 2020).  In this essay, I have narrated ways in which trust has been lost among neighbours, where people have had to depend on the government to protect them against suspicious people with whom they share a social space. The inverse has also been demonstrated, where people have lost trust in the government to provide them with adequate health care systems and provisions during this crisis. In a documentary titled ‘Whispering truth to power’ Thuli Madonsela reminds us that with enormous power comes enormous responsibility. It is important to remember that the idea of shared responsibility and the degree to which we share this responsibility is related to how much influence and power we have.

In conclusion, in the same way that there is a tension between my sister and I and our mother – for her Ubuntu overrides safety considerations – there is tension between citizen and state – contestations around trust, cynicism about motive, yet a desire to join hands, even temporarily, to defeat a common threat. Do we see the state as the concerned priest’s wife, or the unwanted intruder at the door?

‘It is in your our hands’


ENCA (2020). Western Cape police to track COVID-19 cases.

Baldwin, J. (2017). Baldwin Speech: Living and growing in a white world.

Eriksen, T. H (2020). Norway’s response to Covid-19 and the Janus face of Nordic trust.

Fokazi, S (2020). Two more nurses die of Covid-19 in the Western Cape.

Grobler, R (2020). Lockdown: One in three adults in SA goes to bed hungry, according to latest research.

McDonald, D. A (2010). Ubuntu bashing: the marketisation of ‘African values’ in South Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 37:124, 139-152, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2010.483902

Ndebele, N.S & Sikuza, J (2020). African foreign nationals are being ignored in the fight against Covid-19: where is our Ubuntu?

Ross, F.C (2020). Of soap and dignity in South Africa’s lockdown.

Silver, M (2020). ‘The Dread of Responsibility’ — Paul Farmer On The Pandemic And Poor Countries.




CSA&G statement on attacks directed at Prof Glenda Gray

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender is very concerned about the attacks that have been directed at Prof. Glenda Gray, head of the MRC. Prof. Gray was fearless in her fight for AIDS treatments, as well as her rejection of Virodene as a cure for AIDS. She should be respected in her views and opinions and able to exercise her right to freedom of speech. Attempts to discipline and silence her, and to call her character into question are the antithesis of a society underpinned by ethical conduct and a commitment to an informed and questioning response to the crises it confronts.

The Unwarranted, Unneeded and Unprovoked Side Effects of Covid-19 on the Black Community

By Relebohile Naledi Sekese

When initial reports of the newly discovered coronavirus, aka Covid-19, became public, I, like many others, was intrigued, almost fascinated.

Turning on various news channels and observing how one of China’s busiest cities suddenly becoming a ‘ghost town’ due to this supposed outbreak of Covid-19, was something completely foreign to me. A sickness likened to the common cold or ‘flu, holding thousands hostage and killing hundreds more, was a completely extraordinary occurrence, almost too hard to believe. Nonetheless, none of my business I thought, after all I wasn’t the one eating bats or exotic snakes right (courtesy of President Donald Trump’s declarations at various press briefings and national addresses)? Wrong. Covid-19 quickly became my business, it became everyone’s business, overnight.

On 23 March 2020 the leader of the Republic of South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that our beloved country would be entering a 21-day lockdown as of immediately. Life as we knew it was about to change forever. Within a matter of days of the commencement of the lockdown, it became disgustingly clear just how divided and unequal our nation is, as if we needed any reminder.

Twenty-five years into democracy and the rainbow nation dream of our late Nelson Mandela, the ever so stark contrast between white and black has not faded. One would assume we would’ve managed to uphold the principle of Ubuntu (togetherness) far greater than the sad reality we face today in this country. The various ways in which both black and white people are regarded whether by media, educational systems, or even the handling of criminal behaviour, could not be more different.

It is no secret that historically, our black and brown community has a sour and poor relationship with our police and defence forces. Several videos and images of our people being degraded, humiliated and beaten, or should I rather say, subjected to ‘skop n donner’, quickly circulated in social media. Witnessing large drones of army vehicles parading around townships while screaming at civilians to return to their houses became a new reality. Sadly, once again, black and brown communities were being made ridiculous examples of by authoritative powers such as news stations and police members, over something they had no part in creating or spreading. The virus originated offshore and was sadly brought in by members of a travel group who had contracted it in Italy. The group thereby unknowingly spread the virus to multiple people within their proximity, which resulted in the alarming situation we now face today.

Entrepreneurs, ranging from street vendors selling apples and onions, to hair salons operating on a walk-in basis, all quickly had to come to terms with the new world order. Thousands applying for unemployment, grants and credit extensions while more affluent communities being afforded the luxury of cleaning out shelves and stores to selfishly hoard essential items, was a heart-breaking actuality. One could liken it to watching a sick and twisted episode of Black Mirror.

The consequences of Covid-19 will long be felt, most especially by the already disenfranchised and marginalized. Factors like poverty, inequality, access to quality education and so forth have a larger influence over a person’s health status and health outcome, rather than individual habits. Housing, employment and basic healthcare are all areas which have been alarmingly put in the spotlight in the last few weeks. Before this pandemic most of us did not truly realize the importance of frontline workers such as cashiers, nurses etc.

We do know however, that structural racism is a key driving force of those social determinants mentioned earlier. The community you come from, your birth name and your educational background are examples of factors that can dramatically tip the scale regarding the luxuries and privileges you can be afforded in life. Our communities are in crisis and will require explicit and intentional effort to address these factors, long term and short term. Testing, support to community-based organizations, access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for essential workers and added financial support are just a small number of factors that need to be handled in order to get through the worst of this pandemic.

Of course, with that being said, these are just superficial efforts that will grant temporary ease or aid. The core of issues surrounding disenfranchised and poor groups goes far beyond a few masks or grants. A complete restructuring of governmental departments, employment systems and wealth distribution will need to be reanalysed by the necessary authoritative parties. This most certainly won’t be a simple or quick task, but extremely necessary if underprivileged groups are to stand a chance of surviving this phase of life.

Can we get through this (Covid-19)? Yes we can. A little battered and bruised might I say, but nonetheless, we will overcome. We are a resilient nation after all, so racially and socio-economically diverse. And as the pitori (common lingo or language spoken by residents of Pretoria) proverb goes, “We fall, we phakam, we move”, meaning we never stay down for long, we dust ourselves off and always keep going.

About the author

I am currently studying BCom Economics in my final year. I joined the CSA&G’s Just Leaders programme in 2019 out of interest after I had seen some marketing campaigns on campus and haven’t left since. I am part of the Befriender, Research and Community Engagement programmes. I was moved to write this piece as a way to communicate my feelings and thoughts regarding our current global situation