South Africa: People protest injustice, poverty, food shortages amid pandemic

August 6, 2020
A c-19 People's Coalition protest outside the Gauteng legislature in Johannesburg on August 1. Photo: C19 People's Coalition

On August 1, South Africa had its most widespread, coordinated protest since the end of Apartheid. The country now has the fifth-highest number of total, new and active cases of COVID-19, and the demonstrations occurred with infections still rising at an exponential rate.

The government enforced a lockdown on March 26 that only allowed essential services to operate, as a way of containing the spread of the virus. This meant that the majority of workers remained at home and daily survival became difficult.

Adults who had no other source of income were guaranteed a R350 (about US$20) monthly relief grant, which is barely enough to push through a whole month. For some, the grant is yet to be disbursed. This, coupled with the increasing injustices that have been experienced during lockdown, resulted in the Working-Class Day of Action.

The August 1 activities were partly coordinated by the C-19 People's Coalition. It is a conglomeration of community structures, trade unions, social movements, including contemporary movements such as Extinction Rebellion, non-governmental organisations and faith-based organisations that was formed to ensure that the principles of social justice are upheld during the pandemic.

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world with a soaring rate of unemployment. It is estimated that 3 million people lost their jobs at the start of the lockdown and the unemployment rate is now about 50%.

The unique nature of the protests on August 1 was that they were decentralised, occurring in more than 40 different locations, partly because of restrictions on movement. With the lockdown regulations, gatherings of more than 50 people are regarded as illegal.

Rural farmers, community health workers, teachers and casual workers, among others, joined forces and participated in local actions that day. This was seen by actions in different provinces from across the country ranging from women protesting against gender-based violence, to land occupations in urban areas.

This decentralisation had already been exemplified in two notable actions that took place during the pandemic and allowed for local issues to be prioritised. The first was on June 16, a day marked in remembrance of the Soweto Uprisings of 1976, and on July 18, which marks Mandela Day.

The Community Organising Working Group, an affiliate of the C-19 People’s Coalition, initiated popular education and food distribution across about 20 communities at the beginning of the lockdown period. This included in Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and constitutes more than a quarter of the country’s population.

It was pushed with the help of volunteers in various informal settlements, by encouraging people in communities to keep safe and prevent the spread of the virus by wearing masks, observing physical distance and hand-washing. 

June 16 was remarkable in that the actions took place simultaneously. A moment of silence was observed across communities, as a reflection of the 1976 struggles and linking them to the struggles of today. On July 18, actions took place in a similar fashion. Volunteering and popular education initiatives were conducted simultaneously across communities.

August 1 was a culmination of localised issues being prioritised. They ranged from land occupations to demanding protections for frontline workers.

In Protea South, an informal settlement bordering Soweto, mobilisations and actions were against schools re-opening. Teachers and members of the community occupied the roads leading to Protea South primary school and Almont secondary school. They demanded that, as the infection is spreading, schools remain closed to protect the safety of the community, rather than focusing on the loss of an academic year.

in Nigel, south-east of Johannesburg, there was a demand to protect shop workers, who are regarded as frontline workers. This was raised at a demonstration outside a hypermarket, where there were cases of racial discrimination against workers and where some workers were being underpaid.

In Eldorado Park, a community to the south of Soweto, there was a land occupation and planting of vegetable gardens as a response to the increasing hunger that communities have been exposed to. These are but a few examples of what is happening nationally in both urban and rural areas.

The largest demonstration took place outside the Gauteng Legislature in the Johannesburg CBD. This was led by the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) and the Simunye Workers Forum. About 250 protesters were demanding a Universal Basic Income grant and an end to police repression and gender-based violence. When police tried to stop the demonstration, the organisers countered the repression and observed physical distancing — a good adaptation and example for current protests.

Missing in action, however, were most of the trade unions, although leading trade unionists associated with the Workers’ Right group of the C-19 People's Coalition were present.

These important actions succeeded in highlighting the impact of the pandemic, especially on the working class, whose already deplorable conditions and situations have been greatly worsened.

[Abridged from Global Ecosocialist Network. Angela Chukunzira is an activist from Kenya. She is currently a student based at the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg.]

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