Under lockdown, electricity rationing, a curfew from 9 pm to 4 am and a ban on alcohol sales: this is how South Africa celebrated Mandela Day 2020 (18th July), the day that marks the birth of the man who freed the country. A day devoted to doing 67 minutes of good deeds for others, with others. 67 minutes that, this year during the Covid-19 pandemic, have been more than ever devoted to helping the poorest. The poor, whose number is increasing due to the effect of the economic crisis, decades of corruption and, now, due to a virus that is putting a strain on the country’s hospitals, in particular on those without the coverage of marvellous health insurance.
That’s because in South Africa – as in many other parts of the world – every aspect of life, of sickness and death has two different forms: one for the rich and one for the poor. So, not by chance this tenth Mandela Day had the hashtags #Each1Feed1 and #ActionAgainstPoverty (see picture). Even while Mandela Day was being celebrated, the number of infections was growing, making South Africa the fifth most affected country with 15,000 new cases right on the day of Madiba’s commemoration, bringing the total number of infected people to 351,000. The number of deaths is still limited and is not as concerning as the number of unemployed: a good 3 million since the beginning of the lockdown, which brings unemployment officially to 31% of the population. A more realistic level would appear to be around 38.5% of the population without employment, however.
Precisely in order to restart some economic activity, President Cyril Ramaphosa eased the measures, torn like his “colleagues” in the rest of the world between health measures and economic collapse. A difficult national and international panorama, in which Ramaphosa tried to play South Africa’s trump card: the reference to the icon of the struggle against apartheid, unquestionably the most adored man in the country. “Mandela’s example will help us overcome global pandemic”, he said in his official speech on the 18th July. Mutual respect, mutual assistance and solidarity are the strengths. All around the continent’s most westernised country things are moving at a slow pace, worries and tensions are growing everywhere, and inequality, under Mandela’s successors at the helm of South Africa’s government, has also deepened.
It was on the 27th of March when level 5 was announced and all the citizens of the Rainbow Nation shut themselves in their houses, be it a gorgeous villa with swimming pool in Sandton, a penthouse with a sea view, or a 20-square-metre tin shack with bathrooms shared with dozens of other desperate people piled up in the ever-expanding townships.
The alert level at which we celebrated July 18th had gone down to 3, with limited reopening of economic activity, even though contagion and deaths have begun to increase considerably, so much so that in mid-July, Ramaphosa started to use the military metaphors used by other heads of state. “We are at war,” he said in answer to the growing protests against the restrictions on individual rights. But then he also warned against the danger to come. “The storm is still upon us”: 5 thousand deaths that, according to the worst forecasts could become 50 thousand, 350 thousand cases of infection increasing by 12 thousand every day, public hospitals collapsing and the need to find new beds both in intensive care units and in general medicine units. Rumours about the digging of new graves have been denied: the Minister of Health of Gauteng, the region of Johannesburg and at the moment the most affected of the country, Bandile Masuku mentioned it when citing a sudden and random figure of one million expected deaths, an impressive number that went around the world and which he then retracted himself. The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, pointed out that “The government’s response to Covid-19 is informed by the imperative to prevent infections and save lives” and that therefore they are not “expecting and preparing for 1 million Covid-19 related deaths in the country”.
Even though weakened, the South African health system is actually working at its fullest potential to contain the spread of Covid-19, although the impossibility to guarantee social distancing in crowded townships and the extreme low temperatures are of no help. And, as every winter, the electricity rationing has made the situation worse. Rationing consists of an imposed power cut of up to 7 hours per day, which follows mysterious patterns that change depending on the geographical area, both in public and private buildings. The fault for that falls on the primordial backwardness of a national energy network, once considered to be of extremely high quality even overseas, and then for too long abandoned to the worst of betrayals, the betrayal of Mandela’s principles and the hunger for money and power.
So, since December 2014, systematically, periodically and above all in winter, in houses and factories, in schools and on the streets, in restaurants and clinics, people travel back in time to candles and generators. A huge problem that affects the economy and the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises as few other factors can, but also the lives of people, not to mention the credibility in the markets and among international investors. Eskom alone, the national electricity company, is responsible for 15% of South African government debt and this “death spiral”, as it has been defined, is not and will not be easy to reverse
So, electricity rationing coming on top of the lockdown creates more uncertainty, grey zones, dark zones, fear, discomfort and violence. That’s why a ban on alcohol sales was reintroduced on the 15th of July, having been previously suspended on the 1st June after several protests by producers, sellers and consumers themselves. Protests that included no less than attacks on the shops that sell alcohol. According to government data, the renewed excessive alcohol consumption caused a new increase in the number of cases in emergency wards linked to wine and spirits. Traffic accidents, aggressions and sexual assaults, rapes, homicides fell by 60% during the first phase of lockdown, thanks to reduced alcohol consumption; hospitalizations in trauma departments and those in intensive care fell by 200%. So, this is one way to reduce the effect on the fragile balance of public hospitals that are experiencing a further strain due to Covid-19, but also a way to try to contain the country’s already high crime rates.
Back in mid-April, 100 thousand soldiers were sent to strengthen controls in the areas most at risk but, as the title of a CNN report said: “The ‘war on women’ didn’t stop when South Africa locked down over Covid-19”. On the contrary, because the primary victims of this violence are women and children. In the middle of the pandemic, Ramaphosa mentioned this deep and open wound several times: “Violence is being unleashed on the women and children in our country with a brutality that defies any form of comprehension,” he said. This too is a situation with ancient roots and that is martyring above all the people of poor communities. In 2013, a shock campaign on national radio stations broadcast a jingle every 4 minutes, being the frequency of sexual abuses in South Africa. But even this general mobilization could not stop this “second epidemic”, as Ramaphosa defined it a few days ago.
Translation from Italian by Laura Vimercati, reviewed by Pressenza London