South Africa: Hunger, anger and a new social movement in response to COVID-19

By Kate Alexander

October 8, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Review of African Political Economy — South Africa’s government moved quickly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The first confirmed case was on 5 March 2020; a State of National Disaster was promulgated on 15 March, with this accompanied by closure of schools; a full lockdown was implemented from 26 March and the first death was announced the following day. Lockdown was draconian. Travel was prohibited except for essential services; only food shops, pharmacies and medical facilities were permitted to open (even the sale of cigarettes was illegal); and a curfew was enforced. From 1 May there was a slight easing of restrictions, with more industries and shops allowed to open; and there were further relaxation in most areas from 1 June. The number of confirmed cases is higher than elsewhere in Africa with 570,000 cases and 11,500 deaths recorded in mid-August. In our survey, 84.3% of adults felt the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was doing a good job or a very good job.

However, this is only one side of the story. South Africa has a higher level of income inequality than any other major country; and nearly 40% of the labour-force was unemployed even before the crisis. The implications of this inequality were apparent from the outset. For instance, when the wealthy Oppenheimer family donated R1 billion (about $55 million), leaving them a mere R134 billion approximately, this was widely commended, but when vast numbers of workers lost their jobs or were banned from informal trading, leaving them with next to nothing, this was barely noticed by mainstream media. Dividing the population between those on lower incomes (defined as less than R10,000 per month, about $550), who represented about 83% of adults, those on middle incomes (R10,000 to R40,000 per month), about 13% of adults, and those on higher incomes (above R40,000), about 4%, we found that 89% of those on lower incomes had difficulty paying their bills, compared to 27% on middle incomes and 13% on higher incomes. Differences were reflected, in particular, in responses to a question about the adverse impact of the crisis on your child’s education. Here 82% of those on lower incomes, 53% of those on middle incomes and 13% on upper incomes were ‘very concerned’. This contrast reflected, in particular, capacity to cope with on-line teaching. Hardly surprising, then, that when asked about personal happiness, only 11% of those on lower incomes were positive, compared with 26% of middle-income earners and 39% of those in the upper-income group.

The government’s response to suffering among poorer people has been lackluster, inadequate and shambolic, notably in relation to food distribution. At the best of times, millions of people in South Africa suffer malnutrition, but starvation is minimized through delivery of hundreds-of-thousands of food parcels and school feeding schemes. Yet during lockdown there was a sudden burst in unemployment, with at least 3 million losing their jobs (many without any benefits or savings) and schools were closed, so there was a surge in the number of people without food. In truth, the government did not know the magnitude of the problem, and its food banks and supply systems were under-resourced and unprepared. Municipal councilors, mostly members of the governing African National Congress (ANC), were entrusted with distribution and frequently abused their power, delivering only to their supporters with the aim of winning votes ahead of next year’s local government elections. Pushed along by riots, telephone hotlines were established, but were quickly swamped by calls. Food queues sometimes extended more than a kilometer, and there were stampedes. The government attempted to work with NGOs but doing so through cumbersome procedures that slowed relief efforts. The food problem remains acute.

The crisis has revealed the government working against, rather than with, civil society. In many places this builds on years of distrust. There has been anger, in particular, over failure to deliver basic services and, more broadly, to dismantle structural injustice inherited from apartheid. How has civil society responded to the challenges of the pandemic and lockdown?

Civil society’s response

Trade unions were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, which culminated in the 1994 election, and they played a powerful role in improving workers’ conditions in the years that followed. But tensions emerged. The leadership of the largest federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), backed the government, which many workers regarded as favouring business interests. Matters came to a head after the Marikana Massacre in 2012, when the police shot and killed 34 striking mineworkers employed by Lonmin (whose largest shareholder was Ramaphosa, already a senior leader in the ANC). The federation’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers, broke away and established the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

Under the lockdown, there has been some unrest, mainly among workers in essential industries, but labour’s response has been weak. There are various reasons for this. In most industries, work was halted; gatherings were banned; COSATU supported the government; SAFTU’s charismatic leader Zwelinzima Vavi was taken ill with Covid-19 (though recovered); and retrenchments and short-time work have ensured that many, perhaps most, workers fear for their jobs.

Beyond the workplaces and unions, there has been a flurry of activity. Much of this has been purely local. In some of the more affluent areas, community activists have established soup kitchens for their hungry neighbours. Some churches and other faith-based organizations and some business owners have also been active. At a national level, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, named after Nelson’ Mandela’s close comrade, has encouraged the development of Community Action Networks. However, the most substantial body to emerge so far is the C19PC.

C19PC was born out of a meeting held on 18 March, which was held partly online and partly face-to-face in Cape Town, where the convening organization, Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, had its office. The meeting appointed a drafting team that, through numerous discussions and iterations, drew up a Programme of Action (POA). By 23 March, when it was published, the POA had attracted support from over 100 organizations, some small but including SAFTU and major not-for-profit organizations with a mass base, such as the Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, and Right-2-Know. The POA begins: ‘We, as civic organizations, trade unions, organizations of informal workers, faith-based organizations and community structures in South Africa, call on all people, every stakeholder and sector, to contain infection, reduce transmission and mitigate the social and political impacts of the Covid-19 virus.’ It then elaborated 10 areas of concern that raised key socio-economic issues. The POA has now been signed by 320 organizations; the drafting team became a Task Team and, later, a Facilitation Team; 21 working groups (WGs) were soon established, some issue-based, some providing technical support, and others for the country’s various provinces (there are 9 in all); and these WGs formed their own Working Group Conveners’ Forum.

In Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and about a quarter of the country’s population, we had our first meeting on 23 March. This established a provincial Task Team and a number of working groups, including one that soon became the COWG. One leader of the COWG is Cleopatra Shezi, a Soweto activist who had been politicized by the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, and she drew in a layer of community activists involved in service delivery and housing struggles. Another leader is Bongani Xezwi, an organizer for Right-2-Know. We were joined by new activists who had come through Extinction Rebellion and student struggles. I had worked with Shezi for many years, and she was a CSC research assistant, and Xezwi and I conducted research together with them on the Marikana Massacre. Somehow, I emerged as the group’s convener. From the outset, we aimed to link activity around Covid-19 with strengthening community organization.

We had drafted a popular leaflet about Covid-19 by 22 March, and this was distributed in English and isiZulu. From the start we insisted that, for safety’s sake, activists wear a mask and surgical gloves and carry a bottle of sanitizer, and these became a kind of uniform that complemented our public education. Shezi was called upon to help pensioners at their monthly pay-out queues, and at supermarkets, she organized people to physically distance themselves from each other. Xezwi was active in a densely-packed shack settlement, where, with a large team of volunteers, he managed to persuade people to remain in their yards. This was no mean achievement, and it disproved the notion that that social distancing was impossible in informal settlements. His team even reached the point where it was possible to convince owners of illegal drinking places to close their businesses. Word spread and provided an example of what is possible through peer education. When the government relied on the guns of police and army it achieved far less.

Within a couple of weeks, the COWG had 16 team leaders, who, between them, mobilized about 250 volunteers in working-class areas of Johannesburg and elsewhere in south Gauteng. Some activists obtained official permits as essential workers, but in most cases the police just turned a blind eye. In addition, the group included half-a-dozen support workers, all volunteers, including the head of a legal NGO, a finance person, and a student with communication skills who helped with use of Zoom and, later, Google Forms. We worked with the C19PC (Gauteng) Food Security Working Group in developing a $1 million funding proposal and, to pull everything together, the two working groups secured the support of a community-oriented NGO willing to act as financial manager. In addition, the C19PC established a media working group that publicized what we were doing and assisted with crowd funding. Funds were slow to arrive, but they did eventually come in.

Food distribution was always going to be the big challenge. For this, we put together lists of very vulnerable households. Unlike the government, we included undocumented migrants. On 16 and 17 April bags of maize meal were delivered to 2000 households. A few days later we received a request to distribute 2500 of the government’s large parcels, which weigh about 22kg and are supposed to provide a family of 4 with enough food for 3 weeks. There was one bureaucratic obstacle after another, but eventually the parcels arrived on 13 May. Some were delayed because the freight company’s truck had been hi-jacked by criminals. We were already worried about security, mainly because people were very hungry and we could only feed a minority, and partly because of harassment from ANC members (who had sometimes thought, erroneously, that our activists were members of a different ANC faction). The team leaders required a measure of courage and considerable organizational ingenuity to get the job done, but they managed. They reported that recipients were happy, volunteers were happy and tired, and they were happy and tired and relieved.

Popular education and delivery of food might seem like small achievements, but in the circumstances they signaled possibilities for others attempting to maintain and strengthen working-class community organizations in South Africa’s lockdown, and they highlighted a weakness in the government’s response, which lies in its failure to work with civil society.


Given the level of economic crisis the South African government had lifted most of its lockdown restrictions by the middle of August. It is under pressure, not only from businesses wishing to make profits, but also from workers wanting to reduce hunger. The government promulgated a series of regulations to reduce spread of infection for returning workers, but these are widely flouted. By the middle of May medical experts were estimating that about 40,000 people will die from Covid-19 before the end of November this year. Once infection takes off seriously in high-density areas, which is already beginning to happen in Cape Town, death is likely to spread quickly. There is a good chance of a shortage of hospital beds before the curve flattens, and there will be additional deaths from other causes as medical facilities are emptied to make space for Covid-19 patients. While unemployment will be reduced somewhat by lifting the lockdown, no experts believe it will return to previous levels, and it could pass the 50% mark. Hunger will not disappear. The government introduced a temporary ‘Social Relief of Distress Grant’ for unemployed people not receiving other grants, but it is only worth R350 ($19) per month, and many non-South Africans will be excluded, so food parcels were needed for many months.

There was resistance here and there. Hospital workers have protested, not only about shortages of PPE, but also because patients with TB and other serious illnesses are being sent home. Mineworkers won a court judgment about preconditions for returning to work. Teachers refused to re-open schools early in May. Such actions save lives. Elsewhere there were militant community protests about lack of food and failure to deliver critical services, and one protest included the slogan: ‘No electricity, no lockdown’. There has been a high level of protests in South Africa since 2012, and even before, and there was a peak in 2019. Many issues are unresolved, and with the easing of restrictions protests are likely to return. Ramaphosa has increased the size of the army, and military repression cannot be ruled out.

From the perspective of the working-class, there is a need for greater co-ordination, both around issues raised directly by the pandemic and lockdown, including political issues and distribution of food and masks, but also around socio-economic concerns that will deepen. Is the C19PC capable of offering such co-ordination? This is far from clear. It faces a number of challenges. It developed, semi-spontaneously, with a multi-centred structure, and initially this was a strength, but it has been slow to respond to political challenges and there is pressure for greater centralization. At the same time, there is realization that the Covid Crisis will be with us for the rest of 2020, at least; it is not just a short-term emergency.

Many leaders are exhausted, under pressure from their normal jobs and, with a longer view in mind, would like to see a more professional form of organization (the national structure, unlike that in Gauteng, does not even have a bank account or serious fund-raising capacity). There was tension between the Facilitation Team and the Working Group Conveners’ Forum. Meanwhile, some of the activists question the tendency towards centralization and professionalization, and also oppose the politics of certain working groups (especially that on economics), and have made charges of ‘NGO-ization’ and ‘pragmatism’.

Whatever the future of C19PC, its short history has already demonstrated the capacity for working-class activists and their sympathizers to mobilize for social justice even under the conditions of a draconian lockdown.

This piece draws on a survey that the Centre for Social Change (CSC), of which Kate Alexander is the director, undertook with researchers from Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC); much of the detail comes from participation in the COWG and the Coalition more broadly; and the conclusion includes reference to long-term research on protests.[1] 

Kate Alexander is an activist and Professor of Sociology, South African Research Chair in Social Change, and Director of the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg. Kate is a Contributing Editor of ROAPE. A version of this blogpost has also appeared in Spanish, ‘Hambre, ira y un nuevo movimiento social en Sudáfrica’ in Breno Bringel, Geoffrey Pleyers. (eds), Alerta global: Politicas, movimientos sociales y futuros en disputa en tiempos de pandemia(Buenos Aires: CLASCO, 2000).


[1] The Centre for Social Change is located within the University of Johannesburg. The HSRC researchers come from that institution’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division. Findings and analysis from the survey have appeared in a series of 10 short articles published by Daily Maverick. The articles have various authors, all members of the research team. These include: Kate Alexander, Martin Bekker, Narnia Bohler-Muller, Yul Derek Davids, Charles Hongoro, Mark Orkin, Benjamin Roberts, Stephen Rule, and Carin Runciman. For a glimpse of the work undertaken by COWG activists, see Bongani Xezwi and Kate Alexander, ‘State must enlist community activists in the war against Covid-19’, Daily Maverick, 31 March 2020. On protests see Peter Alexander et al ‘Frequency and turmoil: South Africa’s community protests 2005-2017’, SA Crime Quarterly 63 (2018).