The death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the United States reignited the debate on the systemic racism experienced by black people across the globe. In South Africa, the outbreak of coronavirus has exposed the inadequacies of the revolution of 1994. The social, political and economic systems that perpetuated the deep inequalities between black and white people during colonialism and apartheid are still felt to this day, 26 years into democracy. Consequently, the Covid-19 pandemic has subjected the majority of black people to the unbridled under-class status that colonial and apartheid legacies bestowed on them.
Unlike in other parts of the world outside of Africa where black people find themselves in the minority, the opposite is true in South Africa. However, the unjust treatment that many blacks continue to endure makes it even more damning to the present-day government and society.
The country’s handling of the pandemic has exhibited racial bias, perhaps unconsciously, towards black people. In enforcing the lockdown, as part of containing the Covid-19 spread, the South African government deployed large contingents of police and military personnel to townships and informal settlements, with visuals of the force subjecting citizens to dignity-stripping acts such as rolling on the streets and performing frog jumps. This contrasts with suburban areas which virtually had no police presence and no harassment at the hands of police authorities.
This is largely rooted in the belief of black people being inherently unruly and needing policing to be kept in check. The outrage regarding the difference in treatment was neither loud nor sustained, as we have largely become de-sensitised to the ill treatment of black people in townships.
South Africans have inadvertently accepted systemic racism as part of the status quo. This acceptance often finds expression in day-to-day life and the manner in which the population engages in social discourse. There has generally been muted outrage over the deaths of Collins Khosa, Petrus Miggels, Sibusiso Amos, and other black individuals who have lost their lives in the hands of law enforcement officers over the ‘breaking of lockdown regulations’. What followed from government can best be described as a Public Relations exercise to be been seen to be acting against those officers and soldiers responsible for those wayward acts, but as history has shown, we should not hold our breath for these perpetrators of human rights violations to face any serious consequence. In addition to this has been the largely latent public anger over forced removals and demolition of shacks of poor people during the winter season of the lockdown, mostly occurring in the Western Cape, which has a history of treating black people as second class citizens.
While it has been confirmed that the removals were due to illegal occupation, no rational explanation can justify the inhumanity of forced removals in the middle of winter during a pandemic. Even more unfortunate was the case of Bulelani Qolani, a man forcefully removed from his shack while naked with the incident recorded and spread via social media.
Government’s handling of the taxi industry and issues of passenger capacity has also made it apparent that poor black lives do not matter in South Africa. While having experienced pressure from the industry and bowing to its unreasonable demands, government failed to prioritise the safety of its people. The decision to allow for 100% capacity in taxis for local trips essentially says it is okay to social distance at a mall, but just not in a taxi, a transport mode you are forced to take as there are no alternatives. The socio-economic state of the country means that it is predominantly black people who find themselves requiring the use of public transport, with most being reliant on taxis.
Black learners have been left behind in the school curriculum, as government failed to adequately ensure that schooling continues remotely. On the other hand, those in the private schools, majority white, seamlessly went about with their schooling, with little or no interruptions. Even when the decision to open certain grades was made, the Department of Basic Education failed to ensure that all the necessary precautions and resources were available before learners went back to classes. The result was a high number of infections in public schools, affecting both teachers and learners. This prompted the President to announce another closure for a month, albeit in a differentiated manner. Grade 12 learners, for instance, only closed for a week. The decision has not affected learners in private schools, who are well on track to finish their school year in time. Again, it is poor black kids bearing the brunt of poor decision making and planning by government.
Though government would argue that its response to the pandemic is based on ensuring greater support and protection of the poor and vulnerable, the structural and institutional design of the South African society has unfortunately seen regulations and decisions by government affecting poor black people the most.
Written by Pearl Mncube