COVID-19 in South Africa: The intersections of race and inequality

Author: Vuyokazi Futshane, Project Officer- Mining and Extractives, Economic Justice Programme at Oxfam South Africa

Soweto Township, South Africa. Townships, whose demographic profile is predominately Black people and people of colour employed in low paying jobs that increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19, have become COVID-19 hotspots. Photo Credit: Sea Turtle.

A year after the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, we are nearing 100,000,000 cases and over 2,100,000 coronavirus deaths. And while the coronavirus can wreak havoc on anyone, anywhere, there is nothing equal about the impact that COVID-19 has had on marginalized populations.

Oxfam’s recently published report, ‘The Inequality Virus’, shows that the coronavirus has exposed, fed off and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race.

Across the globe, we have seen that the virus has disproportionately impacted those already made vulnerable by systematic racism and other intersectional injustices — and the dangers of this systemic inequality will only grow as vaccine programs begin to roll out. It is not an accident that across the globe — from Brazil to the United States to South Africa — Black people, Afro-descendants, Indigenous Peoples and other racialized groups are more likely to contract COVID-19, and to suffer the worst consequences. From access to health care, exposure to the virus related to occupation, to socioeconomic status, non-White people have been made more vulnerable thanks to inequalities built into the very structures of society. This is a frightening realization. Yet it is also an opportunity: if systemic inequalities were built, they can also be unbuilt. And doing so will be better for all of us.

In this blog series, Oxfamers from across the globe share their observations of how race, the coronavirus and inequality intersect.

Series edited by Raina Fox, Oxfam International Coronavirus Influencing Groups Coordinator

COVID-19 in South Africa: The intersections of race and inequality

In January 2021 Oxfam published The Inequality Virus report which shone a light on the dramatic economic inequality that became apparent during the pandemic:

While it took only nine months for the top 1000 billionaires to recover their wealth, it will take over a decade for the world’s poor to recover economically from the pandemic.

South Africa’s 4 billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by R83,321,600,000 since March, enough to give everyone of the 5.9 million poorest South African people a cheque for R14,049 each.

The pandemic also brought to the fore, how intersecting inequalities of race and gender are playing out during the pandemic. South Africa has alarmingly high levels of both poverty and inequality. In 2017, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), released their poverty trends report which found that by 2015 over half (55.5 %) of the South African population (30.4 million people, majority of whom are Black women) were living in poverty. South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world; a grim reality that has been further exposed by COVID-19.

The multidimensional nature of poverty and inequality in South Africa

Poverty and inequality in South Africa are both multidimensional and intersectional. Poverty is generational and inherited — with inaccessible socioeconomic opportunities and rights — most notably through a lack of access to housing, clean water [CB1] and sanitation, quality education, social protection, quality healthcare, electricity and the nonexistence of a job market that would provide the majority of people with decent living wages. South Africa’s economic growth has also remained stagnant, with increased inflation that has in previous years resulted in the government instituting what could be regarded as austerity measures that hit those most in need the hardest.

Poverty and inequality are also continuously reproduced in the racial, gendered, and class divisions that further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots. According to Stats SA, “the South African labour market is heavily racialised and gender-biased.” For example, on average women earn 30% less than men, who are more likely to find employment, executive positions etc than women are. Moreover, Black South Africans earn the lowest wages in comparison to other racial groups, with White South Africans being the highest income earners across all sectors. This skewed income distribution is further exacerbated by the fact that Black female headed households in South Africa are the most impoverished and have more dependents to support than male headed or male and female headed households.

Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of these dimensions of poverty and inequality have been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. When South Africa went into a hard lockdown on the 26th of March 2020, many informal workers and precarious workers found themselves without any means of generating income. Many of these workers are Black women, whose families are reliant on their for their survival. Recently the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey estimated that nearly three million people had lost their jobs because of the pandemic and the official unemployment rate now stands at a shockingly high rate of 30.1%. South Africans are now more afraid of unemployment than the coronavirus: unemployment is more than a state of joblessness, it means worrying about being able to afford everyday basic necessities’, how to send children to school, how to stay healthy and nourished and it means worrying about being able to access health care should anything happen.

Within this context it is Black South Africans in rural, peri-urban and informal settlements who are hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cobid-19is a socioeconomic pandemic as much as a health pandemic for South Africans in this segment of society, many of whom have suffered from job losses, and those who are considered essential workers who were able to keep their jobs but had to risk their health for a pay cheque. In April, in the Western Cape alone there were over 200 supermarket employees who tested positive for COVID-19 (the majority of whom were women cashiers who earn some of the lowest wages in the supermarket value chain).

Townships, whose demographic profile is predominately Black people and people of colour who are employed in low paying jobs that increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19, have become Covid-19 hotspots. This is because of dynamics such as spatial planning that holds the legacies of apartheid such as the Group Areas Act in 1950 [CB2] where Black and Non-white South Africans were forced to relocate to the areas outside of major cities and economic hubs. These areas are still largely underdeveloped, overly populated, have poor sanitation facilities, lack of running water in many low-income communities and a poorly structured public healthcare system. [CB3] [VF4] The pandemic is exposing how persistent the various factors of inequality are heightening the devastating effects of COVID-19

The persistence of inequality

Oxfam South Africa’s report on health inequality, The Right to Dignified Healthcare Work, demonstrated a link between the poor treatment of healthcare workers and the subpar standard of care and treatment in the health care sector experienced by patients. Nearly three decades into the democratic transition, South Africa remains highly inequal, with a clear rural — urban divide still visible. COVID-19 has exposed inequality in all aspects of life, and rural communities across South Africa have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

Moving towards a post COVID-19 future

One of the biggest lessons we are to draw from the racial, gendered and socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, is that the intersectional realities in the South African society need to be taken into serious consideration in tailoring responses to COVID-19 and future pandemics. The multifaceted nature of inequality requires us to address the underlying systemic causes of these inequalities. Principals of social justice and equity should govern the frameworks of interventions if we are to emerge as better societies as we look to future.

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.