Framing Poverty and African Men: thoughts on the South African socio-economic response to Covid-19

by Christi Kruger

Something of an opportunity appeared to show up for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government amidst the crisis of Covid-19. Being the president of any country during a global pandemic is certainly not an enviable position; yet for Ramaphosa, the moment might have presented an opportunity to truly assert and entrench his power. Ramaphosa stepped into the role of president following what has arguably been the most tumultuous of the post-apartheid years under the presidency of Jacob Zuma. From the onset Ramaphosa appeared to position himself as a force of calm and reason in opposition to the stormy Zuma-era characterised by a certain type of anti-intellectualism, large-scale corruption and so-called “state capture”. More than two years after he first took up the position of president however, the initial optimism that marked the start of Ramaphosa’s presidency started to fade. As unemployment grew and the South African economy slipped into a recession at the start of 2020, it seemed that little would come of the new dawn that Ramaphosa had promised (Statistics South Africa, 2020).

The crisis created by Covid-19 therefore provided Ramaphosa with a moment in which he could display efficient leadership. Indeed, as the crisis surrounding the virus began to unfold in March 2020, many duly praised his decisive and immediate actions. While world leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson met warnings regarding the virus with scepticism and disregard, Ramaphosa was commended by, among others, the director-general of the World Health Organisation for placing the lives of citizens before the economy (Harding, 2020; Maromo, 2020). In addition, and again in stark contrast to the anti-intellectualism demonstrated by Trump and Johnson, Ramaphosa was also commended for his willingness to listen to medical, scientific and epidemiological counsel.

In spite of this initial optimism serious questions ought to be asked about the ways in which the South African government has handled this crisis. One of the questions that stands out to me is that of the government’s treatment of South Africans living in poverty. The past month has shown that the South African state continues to imagine “the poor” in moralist terms. In this short piece, I focus, in particular, on the idea of moralising poverty and scapegoating certain citizens as belonging to the category of “the undeserving poor”. Black African men have furthermore been specifically imagined as such belonging to the category of underserving poor over the last couple of weeks, further entrenching a moralising aspect carried over from the past. I argue that the government’s – witting or unwitting – implicit stereotyping of black African men as “the problem” has impeded the state’s ability to engage with the pressing economic crisis facing the real majority of South Africans.

The Poverty Dichotomy

Serena Romano (2018: 1) argues that poverty is often conceptualised within the dichotomous framework of deserving/undeserving. This means that we tend to imagine people as either “worthy poor”, those thought vulnerable and worthy of compassion and assistance; or, we tend to imagine people as being responsible for their own poverty and therefore “unworthy” of compassion and assistance. The former tends to include groups such as widows, disabled persons and orphans, while the latter consists of people perceived by society as able-bodied enough to be able to find their own way out of poverty.

While Romano points out that there have been attempts to do away with this type of dichotomous thinking over the last century, the stigma that surrounds poverty lingers. Even in a country such as South Africa where more than half of the population is officially classified as living below the upper-bound poverty line, the idea that poor citizens are responsible for their own material position is persistent. It rightly seems absurd to think of such a large number of people being complicit in their own dire material circumstances, but the power of the idea of “an undeserving poor” often remains because of its use in upholding the political status quo.

Romano (2018: 3-4) outlines three ways in which the idea of “an undeserving poor” remains useful to those in power. It is, firstly, useful when governments are faced with limited social assistance budgets. Having a notion of the undeserving poor means, for such governments, that they are able to direct social assistance only to those who prove themselves “worthy” of assistance. The second is that the idea of the underserving poor serves as a means of social control over others in society as a whole. The exclusion of a portion of the population from, for example social assistance, reminds and encourages others to follow the implicit rules that have been set by society and the mechanism of the state. The undeserving poor, thirdly, “perform an action of ideological legitimization” of political agendas. In other words, this category is used as a scapegoat-category onto which all negative stereotypes and representations can be projected to validate certain political agendas.

There is something uncanny in reading through Romano’s description of the poverty dichotomy at the present time. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, and with a significant number of countries having entered lockdowns, the world economy appears to be in a freefall that is bound to last several years. The International Monetary Fund has already predicted, at the beginning of April, that the global economy will likely shrink by at least 3% by the end of 2020 with up to 170 countries to see a decline in its GDP per capita (Islam, 2020). In the United States, generally considered to be the world’s largest economy, more than 22 million citizens applied to receive unemployment benefits in the month of April (Ghoneim, 2020).

The state of the South African State

On the surface, it seems that the South African case contradicts many of Romano’s points as outlined above and that poverty would therefore be thought about differently here. Unlike many other countries, South Africa’s system of social assistance is unconditional and non-contributory. 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 attached to social grants (South African Social Security Agency, 2015). Further to this, poverty is generally accepted to be one of the legacies of the colonial and apartheid regimes, thus moving the poverty discourse away from individual agency and toward larger systems of oppression. It could therefore be reasonably assumed that poverty has become less moralised in South Africa than elsewhere; and, especially so in a period where the state is willingly shutting down the majority of economic activities. Still I argue, in this piece, that the moralisation of poverty continues to be upheld and entrenched not only by those citizens who find themselves outside of the poverty dichotomy altogether, but by the state itself.

Before I continue to unpack how the moralisation of poverty has unfolded during the South African lockdown, it is important to grasp fully the extent of poverty in the country. In 2019, 25.2% of South Africans were unable to afford the most basic nutritional requirements and 40% of could not afford both food and non-food items; and 55.5% of South African citizens able to afford both food and non-food items still fell under the widest definition of poverty, subsisting on an average income of less than R1227 per month (Statistics South Africa, 2019).[1] More than half of all South Africans, I would like to repeat, survive on less than R1227 per month.

Even before the added pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s official unemployment rate was 29%. Of this number, black African men below the age of 35 make up the largest unemployed demographic. The unemployment rate refers, however, to the ‘narrow’ definition of unemployment only: it considers only the unemployed who are actively searching for employment. When taking into account the ‘broad’ definition of unemployment, namely including the unemployed who are willing to work but are not actively searching, the number is significantly higher (Le Cordeur, 2015; Klasen & Woolard, 2008).

On the whole, this is a very dark picture indeed of state failure. In the almost three decades since the official end of apartheid, the state has failed to put in place measures that would ensure that its citizens have access to employment, housing, and other social benefits. In addition to the high levels of poverty and unemployment, Statistics South Africa’s 2018 Household Survey indicates that nearly 40% of South African households do not have access to a flushing toilet that is connecting to a public sewage system or septic tank; 12% of people’s only source of clean water was a communal or public tap; and 15% of South Africans had no access to electricity, to mention a few examples of the structural inequalities that many live with (Statistics South Africa, 2019). It is therefore surprising that it is the state itself that has put in place mechanisms which perpetuate the moralisation of poverty, simply reproducing the idea that some citizens are more deserving of assistance than others.

When he announced that South Africa would enter an official lockdown, President Ramaphosa set out several measure that would be put in place to assist and support those who would be affected by the lockdown period. The most pertinent and detailed of these measures was the establishment of a Solidarity Fund to which small businesses could apply for loans and the utilisation of the UIF-system to process payment from a Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although Ramaphosa mentioned that a safety net was being developed to support those working in the informal sector, it remains, to a large extent, unclear how and where this safety net will be deployed. As I am writing here, we are well into the third week of the lockdown and still there is little sign of any concrete help for citizens outside the formal economy.

In the weeks that followed the start of the lockdown, an interesting contradiction developed. One the one hand, the government’s attempts at financial support remained largely aimed at the formal sector, thereby excluding the one in six South Africans active in the informal sector. One the other hand however, Covid-19 screening and testing measures were scaled up in informal settlements, dense townships and other poverty-stricken communities. Even without any further discursive developments or concrete interventions, these two interlinked developments already begin to set the stage for the moralisation of poverty. The close linkage between poverty, illness (in both the metaphorical and physical sense) and immorality is, after all, an old one. These two events may seem unrelated, and it was almost certainly not consciously set up by the state in manner that speaks directly to the way I have set up here. Yet, it displays a particular type of thinking on the part of the South African state. It shows who the state imagines as worthy of assistance and who it imagines as the problem and as a potential obstacle.

Historically, the ANC has maintained an explicitly socialist approach to its policy development despite the various neo-liberalist turns the ANC-led government has taken from the late 1990s onward. Testament to this approach is South Africa’s impressive social assistance network: from 1996 onward it was expanded to reach almost a third of the population by 2015 (Ferguson, 2015: 5). In July 2015 approximately 16.7 million recipients received monthly social grants, a considerable rise from the estimated 3 million recipients in 1994 (South African Social Security Agency, 2015). Instead of utilising the existing systems of social support however, the South African state chose to pursue a neo-liberal approach. Economic support was made available to those who are part of the formal economy and are therefore, by default, needed to “rebuild” the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic, while the support for the poor was in actual fact left in the hands of non-state actors such as NGOs and private charity organisations.

Lockdowns, as implemented across the world at the moment, rest on a number of assumptions about citizens’ material positions. It assumes that one has access, in a structural sense, to everything one would need to survive at home for several weeks. It also seems to understand homes in a fairly individualised, Western sense: homes are assumed to be inhabited by nuclear families where parents are able to simultaneously work from home and provide childcare. Boundaries between households are also implicitly assumed in the idea that every single household has definite boundaries separating it from the next. In South Africa, generational poverty together with the spatial layout of the country during the apartheid era has led to high-density townships and informal settlements that tend to be far away from commercial centres. The houses in these spaces were not designed for, nor are they capable of, housing inhabits indoors for weeks on end. As I have pointed out above, many people who live in these areas have no running water, share toilets with neighbours, and have to use public transport to reach supermarkets. By default, therefore, more than half of the South African population were effectively set up to become dissidents before the period of lockdown had even started.

The Undeserving African Man

In this way, a cycle of undeserving/deserving poverty was put in motion. Soon after the lockdown started images of those who did not adhere to the restrictions started circulating. In line with the notion that women and children are counted as among the “deserving poor”, black African men quickly emerged as the most underserving among the poor. We saw images in news articles and on social media of young, black African men roaming the streets or inside illegally operated taverns; homeless men were shown to be unwilling to cooperate with local officials who were trying to take them to shelters; and mobs of mostly men were seen raiding liquor stores.

A very particular form of masculinity emerges here, in these images, as a representation of a social “problem”: the caricatured masculinity of black South African men. In his monograph, (Un)knowing Men: Africanising Gender Justice Programmes for Men in South Africa, Sakhumzi Mfecane notes that there has been a lack of theoretical engagement with African masculinities. We know, however, that African masculinity, conceptualised in its singular form, has historically often been used to connote a problematic identity. This has been deeply entwined with racialized constructs of African men as brutal and oversexualised (see, for example, McClintock, 1995). I should note, of course, that criticism of the ways in which African masculinities have been portrayed does not exempt actual men from the problems that have been caused by hegemonic masculinities. Mfecane (2018: 7) points out that “many of the most social problems created by men for themselves and women, like gender-based violence, rape, crime, alcoholism, and ill-health, are rooted in these hegemonic constructions of masculinity.” One should be cautious, however, of imagining all black men as a part of a homogenous group who all inhabit the same problematic identity.

It appears to me that such imaging is exactly what Ramaphosa and his government have inadvertently brought about. Black African men have been framed as the undeserving poor through current depictions of them. The particular way in which the lockdown has been implemented, together with the socio-economic conditions of many African men, has meant that these men are being portrayed not as poor, hungry and desperate, but as delinquents who put others as risk through their refusal to cooperate with the state. This presents a rather stark contrast to the kind of masculinity that Ramaphosa himself has presented since the start of this crisis. Whereas generic Black men have been portrayed as unengaged with current social issues and unwilling to work with the state, Ramaphosa has presented himself – and is, in turn, presented – as a calm, competent and rational statesman who has compassion for his country. He displays all of the qualities that have traditionally been expected of men: decisiveness, knowledge of global economies, empathy and the ability to make tough choices to protect “his” people. A father to the South African nation.

The South African father clearly expected his sons to misbehave however. The deployment of the South African Defence Force, for example, signals the kind of violence that Ramaphosa anticipated during the lockdown. The military, a force that carries with it a very particular kind of identity entwined with necessarily violent warfare, was called up not to fight the corona virus, but to restrain and subdue South African citizens who are then, by definition, cast into the role of enemies. Several news outlets have reported instances where poorer citizens – mostly those without access to private vehicles – have been stopped by military and/or police officials while legally walking to grocery stores. This presents black African men with a particular problem. As infantilised adults they can chose to cooperate with officials and subject themselves to being humiliated in front of others by doing squats, push-ups or other forms of nonsensical “punishments” for their perceived illegal behaviour. Or, they can resist and risk being arrested, injured or, as has happened several times now, killed. On Twitter one man shared how deeply the images of adult men being taunted by the army touched him as it reminded him of scenes that played out in front of him during the apartheid years. Other users too shared memories of fathers, uncles and brothers being humiliated and tortured by police and how the present moment echoes these collective experiences of trauma. One could argue that none of this is related to race or gender, but I have heard of no instances where white South Africans have been subjected to the SANDF’s “corrective measure”, and while there have been a few instances reported involving black women these remain in the minority. While there have been countless reports of illegal alcohol and tobacco trading in wealthier suburbs, black African men continue to be imagined as the ones illegally seeking alcohol and reacting violently to the lack thereof. In this way, black African men are not only deemed unworthy of assistance but also racially stereotyped in particularly harmful and unjust ways.

It is true, of course, that some men are violent alcoholics and that, as countless reports have shown, gender-based violence has soared worldwide in the advent of myriad forms of lockdowns instituted across the globe. This does not mean, however, that men are not worthy of assistance – and we ought to protect boy children from internalising the idea that they do not deserve the same support as girls and women. In fact, it calls for a thoughtful social and economic response to the social problems that are bound to continue during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of using this moment as one in which to affirm a post-apartheid government that has truly broken away from its colonial and apartheid roots, Ramaphosa’s government continues to demonstrate how firmly South African society remains saddled with the baggage of apartheid ideology.

This article was first published on Gender Justice, a project of the CSA&G and supported by the Irish Embassy in Pretoria.


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[1] These three levels correlate to the three different national poverty lines: the upper-bound poverty line, the lower-bound poverty line, and the food poverty line. In 2019, the rand value attached to these lines was, respectively, R1227, R810, and R561 per capita per month (Statistics South Africa, 2019:3).