Commissioner Solomon Ayele Derrso
Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights
Chairperson and the Commissioner Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the RSA
Dear Honorable Derrso
Rights violations threaten individuals and communities via lockdown regulations
in South Africa
We, members of the C19 People’s Coalition, listed below, note with extreme concern a number of human rights violations as well as difficulties in accessing rights, basic needs and services which have been brought to our attention during the current lockdown period. The lives of many of the most socially and economically vulnerable people living in South Africa are being put at risk because of inadequate cognisance of our constitutional rights imperatives by the government’s lockdown regulations and implementation methods.
We bring these issues to the attention of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights for support in advocating to the President of the Republic of South Africa and the South African Parliament that the issues raised must be addressed immediately and adequately as they threaten the daily survival of many, also making it difficult to observe the lockdown’s main aim of promoting health and safety to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
The lack of adequate access to basic needs and services as a result of curtailment of mobility and drying up of earning income have increased the vulnerability of the vast majority of the poor and working classes in black communities, in particular, women and children, the sick, those with disabilities, refugees and migrant workers and those criminalized via their work, such as sex workers. The combined stresses suffered by the most vulnerable amongst us have made them susceptible to additional insecurities, poverty and violence during this period.
We raise in this letter, some of the concerns with rights and basic needs that require the most urgent attention via your support and offer some possible solutions in addressing them.
With regard to access to basic needs, food, electricity and other household fuels, water and sanitation are of concern. Food, in particular, requires the most urgent and immediate focus as there is vast and growing hunger amongst many population groups in the country.
People living in working class and poor communities in all provinces, in urban and rural areas, are being impacted in a variety of ways by the curtailment of their mobility to access food. In urban townships and informal settlements we are hearing of people not being allowed by security forces to leave their homes to buy food or to knock on doors for help. We have received reports of soup kitchens set up by community members being closed by security forces, even though the required distancing protocols, use of PPE and other safety requirements are being observed.
NGOs and people in communities undertaking feeding schemes and distribution of food provisions are reporting experiencing a range of difficulties regarding permits, including accessing permits, and permits in possession being ignored or even torn up. In some provinces (e.g. Gauteng), police are preventing food distribution at the behest of the Department of Social Development (DSD), who claim adopting this measure to prevent unequal and uneven distribution in communities as well as spread of infection.
Individuals going to shop for food are being turned back forcefully by security forces who demand they have a permit, which is actually not a requirement of the regulations, with many such incidents reported. This means people are forced to remain indoors for days, with whole families thus trapped with no access to food, health care, electricity or data. We note, for example, in one rural area the report of an HIV positive man, otherwise healthy, who for days communicated with friends of growing weaker; they were unable to reach him for fear of the security forces; eventually he ran out of data and no more contact with him was possible. When his friends and neighbours did manage to go to his house a few days later, they found him dead with no food in the house–he had starved to death.
We have also received complaints from women in peri-urban and rural areas of being trapped at home with not data, food and electricity, and afraid to venture out for fear of being assaulted by security forces or gangs of men who threaten them with assault. We have received many calls and online message of highly stressed, almost suicidal mothers unable to feed their starving children.
Restrictions in transport hours and occupancy are leaving people stranded without transport in the middle of the day and unable to travel to buy food, because the regulations assume only essential services workers need to travel and fail to take into account that all people need public transport to access grocery shops.
In many ways, the lockdown regulations have impacted more greatly people living in poverty in rural and peri-urban areas than those in urban areas.For example, it has come to our attention that farm gates are being locked preventing people living on farms to get to town to do food shopping. Centralized food supply via large retailers means that informal traders and spaza shops were initially restricted from trading; as a result this source of food has been interrupted for many living in informal settlements in rural areas, and has not recovered with amendment regulations. In addition, many people there are living in extreme hunger as food parcels get distributed relatively slowly in informal settlements in remote rural areas as compared to those in urban areas.Small fresh produce suppliers are also not able to tend to their gardens or stock, meaning inability to sell their produce, loss of income and impact on produce growth, stock herds and supply relations.
When food distribution does occur, it is not always mindful of nutritional needs; thus, for example, food parcels tend to be bulk dry goods items with little fresh fruit and vegetables. This is especially worrying in terms of compounding the already critical rates of malnutrition among poor and working class black children. DSD’s insistence in certain provinces to collect and distribute food parcels that NGOs and charities are providing to communities means that fresh vegetables and fruit, dairy and other fresh produce are left to spoil in government holding or clearing areas. Attempts by NGOs, CBOs, private donors and faith-based organizations to provide urgent and nutritious food relief to the poorest households to pick up the slack in the slow pace of government is being hindered.
Food distribution via government—Sassa and DSD food parcels—are being reported as not only inadequate, with people waiting for weeks to receive assistance after applying, but is also uneven in size and distribution due to unclear mapping, and reports of suspected tampering with some food parcels. The latter is very concerning as the spread of Covid-19 in the tampering process is likely. We have also been made aware of politicians and other unscrupulous individuals intercepting food parcels to pass of to their own party members, families and friends, or to sell to the poor. Although government has condemned this, we are still hearing complaints in this regard. Feeding schemes by NGOs, CBOs, community run soup kitchens and faith-based organizations require adequate funding to operate; their attempts to access money from government’s Solidarity Fund, raised for this purpose, is reported as problematic, with many having applied but receiving no benefit as yet.
Small CBOs, community soup kitchens and organic community groups, mainly comprising poor and black working class women, newly emerged as a result of the disaster and hunger crisis to survive the pandemic and hunger and not registered as CBOs, are being refused help or funds by government, and in many instances international donors, private donors and charities. It is important to note that while measures such as this aim to prevent fraud are important, the fact that the burden of care and nutrition is often shouldered by poor and working class black women and organically formed groups should be recognized and they should be supported, which is currently not the case.
We recommend the endorsement of such CBOs, soup kitchen and organic groups via religious institutions and registered NPOs; that this be allowed and recognized not just in terms of issuing of permits but also to assist them with fundraising; Undertaking can be formalized by the “endorsing” organization to take fiscal responsibility to include this arrangement in their annual reports, with bank statements from recipients shown as proof of monies received and used for food provisioning purposes; there should also be some easy-to-do mapping and data collection regarding distribution of food or provision of hot meals agreed to.
Increasingly, it is being recognised that, especially as lockdown levels fall, there is need for provision of cash grants for the black poor and working classes, especially women, this in lieu of food distribution. This will ease the burden of food access as individual households are enabled to shop for their own groceries and needs. Cash should be made available both in terms of adequate amounts and ease of access. This could take the form of providing actual cash or food vouchers that can be redeemed at grocery stores. We also, in this regard, recommend that government provide monitoring of food pricing, especially of basics, which should include necessary fresh and dry food items and household-use fuels such as paraffin.
The current R350 per month emergency cash grant being offered by government is being reported as not only difficult to access, but woefully inadequate to cover household food and other basic needs in a month.
A basic income grant or BIG should be adequately assessed, taking into account shelter and other basic needs costs, including accessing proper and adequate nutrition.
We note with extreme concern the lack of proper attention to migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees where food access is concerned, both in urban and rural areas. We have received many reports of food feeding and distribution schemes excluding poor foreign nationals, and aggression shown them in their attempts to access food for themselves. The same applies to their attempts to be involved in provisioning of foods and earn a living via running their spaza shops or fresh produce stalls. Accessibility to cash grants too for purchasing food and other basic needs is also reported as lacking.
We also note the lack of information and proper attention regarding food provisioning and other basic needs to child-headed households, in particular in rural areas. We are aware of charities doing some relief work there but are unable to get a clear picture of provisioning for this extremely vulnerable group. Because of their age and isolation, as well as the extremely impoverished condition of black African children in general in comparison to other population groups, the needs of these children should be properly attended to via specific governmental mandates during the lockdown. We note also, the need to pay attention to the education needs of children in child-headed households.
We recommend that immediate food relief and cash grants, as described variously above, be made available to households and others in need. Food feeding schemes and distribution should occur without hindrance for NGO, CBOs, soup kitchens and faith-based organizations. The SAPS should be induced to work in a co-operative manner to ensure that requisite permits are granted for soup kitchens and distribution. They must inform and educate communities in a civil manner about the physical distance protocols, hygiene and safety measures to be followed for undertaking food provisioning work (i.e. wearing of masks, gloves and use of hand sanitizers).
The Department of Social Development (DSD) should ensure that cash and food distribution occur in prompt, efficient and organized ways. DSD and COGTA should work collaboratively with civil society organisations, relief organizations and charities distributing food; these departments should take it upon themselves to consult with communities to see where regulations are hindering the safe and efficient supply of food to people, and act swiftly to amend any such.
Corrupt practices by politicians and other persons regarding the issuing of permits, and food distribution must be outlawed and guilty individuals immediately arrested and charged. It is crucial that government departments do not neglect the needs of the rural poor and vulnerable by ensuring proper and efficient food and cash distribution to outlying communities. The same applies to children in child-headed households.
We urge government to extend its social welfare services and emergency relief regarding food access and cash grants to migrant workers, asylum-seekers and refugees.
Water should be regarded as a first line of defence against the pandemic, as advised by medical professionals, that is, washing hands properly with soap and water and bathing immediately after returning from outside the home (for essential food purchases, work or health treatment, etc.). Proper provisioning of clean running water to all households and communities is thus essential. Access to clean running water is being reported as a concern in poor and working class urban and rural townships and informal settlements even though government has made tankers available to many communities.
We thus recommend the current urgent need as an opportunity for public works projects to be undertaken and government tasked to efficiently tackle this issue now. At the very least, water provisioning via tankers should occur or be stepped up in these communities. Regular testing should be implemented and/or stepped up in communities put at added risk of Covid-19 via inadequate water access. We note that water provisioning and sanitation access go hand in hand, as discussed below.
The lack of proper toileting and ablution facilities is being reported as a health hazard and stress to poor communities, especially in black working class and poor communities in urban and rural areas, in including townships and informal settlements. We recommend the current urgent need as an opportunity for public works projects to be undertaken and government tasked to efficiently tackle this issue now. At the very least, mobile toileting and ablution facilities should be provided or stepped up, with communities adequately provided with essential cleaning equipment to maintain proper hygiene when using facilities to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and other sanitation-related diseases. Disinfectants, bleach and hand-sanitizers, with proper education on use, should be undertaken via community health service workers and providers.
Populations that fall outside the grid completely—homeless and others solely reliant on public toilet facilities–should be taken into account here as well. Public toilet facilities should be cleaned more often and provided with sanitizers such as soap. Regular testing should be implemented and/or stepped up in communities populations put at added risk of Covid-19 due to poor sanitation access where these groups are concerned. We note that sanitation and proper access to water go hand in hand, as discussed above.
Electricity and other household fuels
Impact on poor and working class people’s incomes means that buying electricity for cooking, bathing and other daily needs has become difficult. Many are running out of electricity and other fuels such as paraffin and gas and cannot perform these necessary daily tasks to survive. Those who depend on firewood, and whose movement is now restricted and prevented by security forces, have no means of building fires and are resorting to burning hazardous substances such as plastic, which is a serious health hazard.
We recommend that all socio-economically vulnerable people be provided with free electricity for the duration of the lockdown. The government should also prohibit banks from charging fees for purchasing electricity via online banking services; currently most banks charge those buying electricity via their bank accounts between R1.50 and R2.00 for each prepaid electricity purchase. The poor and working classes especially lose out here, paying vast amounts of bank charges as they tend to purchase small amounts of prepaid electricity as needed, even on a daily basis.
Paraffin and gas should also be distributed on a regular basis in poor communities relying on them. People should be allowed to collect firewood and educated to keep distancing protocols and to wear face masks.
Free data for communication in the absence of free mobility
Because people’s mobility has been curtailed, it is vital that free data be provided to enable all to maintain social contact with family, friends and their communities as well as accessing basic needs and services. This is especially important for socially and economically vulnerable individuals who daily need to move around in their communities to eke out food and water to survive. Breadwinners who are not able to earn, poor and working class black women especially, need to be able to access other means of feeding their families and children, including seeking support from others. The elderly, infirm, and those with disabilities have similarly become cut off from those they depend on daily for assistance for such basics as food and care. All these individuals, at the very least, require being able to communicate with others for information regarding food provisioning and other forms of help.
Women at risk from gender-based violence are particularly vulnerable; isolated in lockdown with perpetrators who are likely to harm them, they require the means to communicate at all times with the outside world, especially those who offer them support, and emergency and gender-based violence relief services.
People in need of psychosocial services, discussed in more detail under health concerns, are another particularly vulnerable group and access to community is a key challenge, with many in need of counselling, support and information to help them cope. This necessitates free data provision to access emotional/psychological services, especially for those in poor and working black class communities disenfranchised by the pandemic. Not all the services provided by telephone or online are free, and even though community-based organizations and practitioners may offer these services free, there is still the need for data to do so; the cost of data, text messaging and airtime by mobile companies and the government Telkom service provider is beyond the means of many.
We recommend the provision of free 3G data and Telkom telephone line and data services during the lockdown. The government should also consider making it mandatory for mobile phone and other landline phone companies to provide free data and air time to people on a daily basis. The government should also prohibit banks from charging fees for topping up prepaid mobile accounts; currently most banks charge those buying airtime via their bank accounts between R1 and R1.50 every time airtime, data or SMSes are purchased. The black poor and working classes especially lose out here in terms of vast amounts of bank charges as they tend to purchase small amounts of these prepaid services as needed, daily or even many times during a single day.
We note here the lockdown discounts and competition for lower costs to customers for these services by mobile data provision companies; even offering some free messaging, their services are still outrageously expensive to the poor and working classes; moreover, these companies still make an outrageous profit. Hence, they should not be viewed as an alternative to free data provision. At the very most, they should be petitioned by government to make a basic amount free, and above that charge for data at cost (perhaps, if even for a limited duration of time every day). This should be viewed as part of their corporate social responsibility during the lockdown.
Policing, SANDF and private security violations and repressions
Other submissions by the C-19 People’s Coalition will make more input on this issue. Here, it is noted in general that the deployment of security forces—SAPS, army personnel and metro law officers—to enforce the lockdown is being done with no clear guidelines given or adhered to by them; the same with private security. The result has been numerous instances of violence, harm and death even experienced by individuals, whether or not following lockdown regulations. The fear induced in people, particularly vulnerable groups, by this heavy-handedness has directly impacted the ability of many to access food, water, electricity, and other basic needs for survival. A variety of people’s basic rights are being violated.
In general, we recommend the guidelines be amended to clearly spell out how security force deployment and duties are to be undertaken, that is, in a civil and humanitarian relief oriented manner to support communities surviving the lockdown. All security personnel should be made aware that the rights of individuals still pertain during the lockdown. The regulations should be amended to make absolutely clear what restrictions are in place and exactly how they are to be implemented where security force involvement is concerned. How any right might be particularly affected and how not should be made crystal clear.
The general deployment with loose interpretation of security forces and how they exercise their duties have opened it up to abuse. It is a well-known fact from our pre-democratic history under apartheid as well as from examples around the globe that when security force deployment among the civilian population occurs or is stepped up, civil liberties are curtailed. Even now when it might be argued that the security forces are expected to play a constructive role to support quarantine efforts to stem the pandemic, it should be noted that the history has shown that their withdrawal from civilian-based duty or disengagement from the public space is often not a given; they become used to their power and find it difficult to give it up.
Thus it is important that parliament be made fully functional to act as a check and balance to the president’s powers during the lockdown, in particular where the security forces is concerned, seeing as he is the commander-in-chief of the security forces. Already we have witnessed the SAPS and army officers abusing and using excessive force on civilians in the name of the president, which should be critically addressed by parliament. The clear spelling out of the duties of the security forces during the state of disaster for the lockdown period should be required of him as part and parcel of his command duties of the security forces, and should be checked to be explicitly humanitarian in approach, with proper human rights monitoring involved and abuses addressed immediately.
Those incarcerated in prison are of particular concern to us, as locked away from public scrutiny, this population group is extremely vulnerable to a variety of repressions and human rights abuses, which is more than likely to occur. It is already widely acknowledged, including by the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), that overcrowding (by approximately 30%) in our prisons means that a human rights-based prison regimen is not possible to maintain at all or any given time; the advent of Covid-19 intensifies this problem. Already in other countries, prison riots have occurred, for example, in Colombia, with many as 70 prisoners killed and hundreds more injured. Similar riots have occurred in prisons in Mexico, Central America, Italy, Lebanon, France and the United States. In South Africa, prisoners are currently threatening to also riot as they are experiencing increased repressions under lockdown, including inadequate quarantining measures, impossible in our over-crowded prisons.
We draw your attention here to an excellent article by Justice Edward Cameron, retired Constitutional Judge and an Inspecting Judge for the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS). (Please refer to his OP-ED: Covid-19 and the perils of over-incarceration; available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-24-covid-19-and-the-perils-of-over-incarceration/). In it, Judge Cameron explains in detail the various ills of the South African prison system in general, including under-staffing of medical health care and pharmacy professionals and under-equipping of items for treatment, as well as limited and inadequate space for treatment in prison hospitals, all exacerbated with the additional challenges posed by Covid-19.
These challenges include the impossibility of protecting prisoners from infection, the likely, if not inevitable, rapid spread of infections with the overcrowded jail being the ideal incubation space for the virus, and inadequate quarantining facilities for those testing positive and needing to self-isolate or treated and cared for in case of serious illness as a result of the infection. In addition, he cites the current low morale of prisoners as a direct result of the fear and anxieties they are experiencing regarding the pandemic. Along with the general population, mental ill-health among inmates is increasing, raising frustration levels. It has already been reported in the media of DCS and SAPS officers testing positive for the virus, and the likelihood of them having passed it on to inmates is very high.
Moreover, the lockdown is preventing inspecting judges and those tasked with human rights oversight from entering the prisons to monitor and report abuses. The abuses and repression is also likely to be increasing, given the current militarized lockdown which has strengthened the arm of security forces, also highly likely to be copied by correctional officers. Judge Cameron points to the non-reporting of a single complaint on any issue, especially a human rights one, to be telling in terms of the blanket of silence that has descended upon this space under the lockdown. No matter what their crimes, the people incarcerated in prisons are human beings and anywhere, especially in a democracy, they should not be left to suffer unseen in such fearful, stressful and, likely, repressive conditions. As with all other groups in the general population, the lockdown does not mean a suspension of all our human rights, including prisoners’; prisoners retain the right for protection from infection under pandemic conditions as well as adequate treatment for diagnosis and care.
In this regard, Judge Cameron recommends the urgent restoration of mandatory reporting of prison conditions as a priority. In addition, to deal with the overcrowding issue, and to reduce the incubatory effect it has in the jail space, he recommends that during an epidemic such as this, carefully screened releases of a substantial portion of the prison population should be considered. As well, a reduced prison population will defuse the possibility of violent confrontations between inmates and prison officials, protecting each from the other in terms of physical violence and possible infection via direct contact with each other in such a situation. He points to the United States, Chile, Morocco, Uganda, Iran and India, having taken significant action in this regard. (We also note our neighbour, Zimbabwe’s recent efforts here.) He thus recommends that the same occurs in South African prisons in the categories of elderly inmates over 60 years old, petty offenders, including all offenders convicted of drug offences in non-violent circumstances, inmates with sentences of less than one year, inmates eligible for parole plus those approaching their parole date, and inmates imprisoned instead of paying a fine.
We add our voice to these and other possible measures that may be taken to protect prisoners from death due to Covid-19 infection or the result of violence and mental ill health caused by repressive and overcrowded prison conditions, as well as to observe the human rights of prisoners. We also refer you to an article written by a former prisoner (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/20-04-21-covid-19-prison-inmates-are-in-immediate-danger/?fbclid=lwAR0Ym2z7VpF4OHHiJpv6NjM9rne2VIOdqQKdrlxG3P9yzJ404VyPAvOfOeZM) who was approached by the Shadow Minister of Justice for input, the latter after having read this article, on possible ways to deal with the Covid-19 in our prisons.
Migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees from Africa and Asia
We note with concern that these are groups particularly vulnerable to the impact of the lockdown, especially where physical violence and access to basic and other needs and services are concerned. The general xenophobic context within which these groups live in South Africa place them at particular risk. Undocumented persons here face increased possible violence from security force presence on the streets. The exclusion from food distribution and feeding schemes, by omission or commission, by government and (some) community entities of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers is daily reported to us.
As well, the difficulties experienced by documented foreign nationals in these groups in accessing the Department of Home Affairs to renew documents place them at risk of breaking the law. Currently, we have received reports not only about inaccessibility to Home Affairs offices but also about the granting of papers for short durations only since 2019; this bodes a future crisis in legality issues for foreign nationals, especially as it is highly likely that the lockdown will continue. Dr Christine Hobden wrote, ‘As of November 2019, 147,794 cases were awaiting hearing at the Refugees Appeal Board.’ (https://theconversation.com/south-africa-takes-fresh-steps-to-restrict-rights-of-refugees-130606) Under Covid-19 lockdown, the Department of Home Affairs has announced that it will not be renewing all asylum seekers documents. Anyone who has an expired visa should get their papers renewed within 30 days after lockdown. It is of great concern that the vulnerability of non-locals, from Africa in particular, will only increase during the lockdown and given the indefinite nature of the lockdown they may also be further victimized for not having renewed their papers and can face deportation.
We recommend that the UNHCR and other migrant oversight bodies be tasked with special monitoring and oversight powers of these groups related to lockdown difficulties and any knock-on effect post lockdown. This is to ensure their rights to basic survival, access to legal services, proper documentation and renewal thereof as well as ascertaining their protection from infection. The UN should perhaps consider taking up a specific humanitarian role here regarding provisioning of food and health relief to people in these vulnerable groups during the state of disaster period, as it likely that these will continue to be withheld from them by government and many South Africans in social contexts.
We also recommend that cognizance be taken that xenophobia and xenophobic-related violence and discrimination are likely to increase following the lockdown. The impact on the economy via high increases in unemployment predicted is likely to fuel a sense of heightened nationalism which might be exploited by irresponsible political and other socio-economic forces. Early warning mechanisms and monitoring strategies to identify trends and to address possible flash points in this regard should occur immediately. Civil society groups and organizations should be early engaged and empowered to play constructive roles here, which is noted to be seriously lacking in previous xenophobic and xenophobic related riots in 2016 and 2019.
Gender concerns, including food security and gender-based violence
Other submissions by the C-19 People’s Coalition will make more input on this concern. Here, we note that it generally and urgently be understood that those most at risk from the impact of the lockdown and pandemic are poor and working class black women and children, especially black African women and children. This is ultimately linked with their on-going impoverishment post-apartheid. Thus food poverty and experience of gender-based violence, including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, are expected to increase in the home and outside from spouses, family relatives, members of their communities as well as security forces deployed to enforce the lockdown.
Already we are seeing daily reports in the media of the above, as well as receiving complaints and pleas for help in our daily work as civil society. Many poor and working class black women take on the burden of providing food for the survival of their children, families and communities, and this burden has increased and become most dire. The predominance of black working class and poor women-headed households even prior to the lockdown and pandemic means that restricted mobility impacts these women’s ability to earn money and act as breadwinners. Physical threats they are experiencing as well, as noted earlier, impact their ability to put food on the table. As well, they report being cash strapped so cannot access data and electricity and experience extreme isolation as a result. These women also shoulder the burden of ensuring the health and well-being of their dependents; their difficulty accessing PPE and health services related to Covid-19 and other illness, including chronic, mental health care and psychosocial services, are noted.
We recommend that the locus of social welfare and other forms of support be centred on this group during the lockdown and pandemic, as well as special attention paid for their advancement socio-economically post pandemic. The pandemic is making it clear in most dire terms that the feminization of black poverty (including for children and other dependents) is at the heart of the ongoing inequality in South Africa post-apartheid, including for poor, black non-national women who live here. We have noted that it is women from these groups and their children who are suffering the most in our daily work as civil society. We are regularly receiving desperate, almost suicidal, pleas for help with food to feed children from poor black women, including those in the rural areas, who tend to be more invisible in comparison to those in the urban context. Their plea is also for data.
Work access; safety conditions for essential services workers (including transport, screening, testing, physical distancing, use of hand sanitizers and face masks); adequate PPE for health care workers, psychosocial services; rural workers and impact on food security
Issues that the Covid-19 People’s Coalition is aware of include workplaces that do not have basic safety measures in place; for example, essential services employees working without masks, gloves, hand sanitizer or physical distancing protocols in the workplace. As well, in shops, cashiers must handle customers’ cards and there are several accounts of cashiers not being provided with hand sanitizer or cleaning materials to disinfect consoles. Further, use of poisons during food production and exposure to very cold work environments in pack houses and cold storage facilities place workers at risk of lung infections.
On several farms, in pack houses and in food retailers, essential services workers’ rights are being abrogated. On 28 April, the Department of Employment and Labour issued a directive giving clear guidance on mandatory safety measures that employers need to put in place to protect employees from risk of exposure to Covid-19. This directive, coming over a month after lockdown commenced, has in the interim, endangered people in the workplace; as well, many workplaces are continuing to ignore worker’s rights and concerns that they raise with management.
Undocumented labourers are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuses; for example, farms employing asylum seekers and migrants at lower wages and with less safety measures in place.
Workers are being laid off without pay or forced to take annual leave during lockdown.
Many seasonal workers have not had their contracts renewed; with no work or income to sustain them, seasonal workers are looking to make use of the provision of once-off movement in the latest lockdown regulations to travel to seek work in other provinces or municipal areas.
This poor treatment of these precariously employed casual workers now means the risk of infection spreading from hotspot areas to other areas with comparatively lower levels of infection.
Domestic workers (including on farms) are subject to poor labour rights practices, such as not being registered by employers for UIF. Workplaces are not applying for the UIF Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme on behalf of workers who need to self-isolate to wait out the required period in which the virus might be incubating.
Some workplaces opt to have their own medical arrangements for staff; however, an issue emerging is that medical staff, at factories, for example, are refusing to screen workers due to fear of possible infection (possibly related to the lack of safety regulations noted above) and the responsibility is shifted to the supervisors, or workers are simply not being screened at all. When essential services workers test positive for Covid-19 in work conditions without proper distancing protocols, the other employees working in close proximity to them are not tested or isolated. Contact tracing and testing is reported as being slow and essential services workers return home, placing their families and surrounding communities at risk.
We call upon the requisite oversight bodies to investigate these issues to ensure that those in government mandated with decision-making and implementation powers urgently act to put a stop to these workplace abuses endangering essential worker’s lives. These include those on farms and pack houses, agro-processing plants and food retailers, which puts our country’s entire food security at risk due to Covid-19 infection.Here, we note that as lockdown is gradually eased in the risk adjusted approach of proceeding to lower alert levels, ensuring that occupational health safety measures are adhered to in all workplaces becomes even more critical.
When workplaces in rural and peri-urban spaces shut due to avoidable reasons–such as employers and management failing to institute occupational health safety measures–this endangers everyone’s food safety. We believe that the measures above, and possibly more as these matters open up in investigation, will contribute to improved food security and rights realization.
People’s rights must be protected. While we accept the need to contain the public health crisis and the spreading of infection, the implementation of Covid-19 regulations must not threaten people’s rights. Labour rights and primary human rights, such as access to safety measures, PPE and health care must be protected.
We emphasize that most people want to work because they need an income. However, there is an urgent need for implementation of better Occupational Health Safety regulations in collaboration with the Department of Health and for better enforcement of the existing regulations, and amendments where needed. Management in workplaces providing essential services must respect the law when it comes to upholding labour rights and human rights.
Housing and shelter, including to homeless persons, those in informal settlement and crowded dwelling spaces in townships
We note with distress the relocation in some cities of homeless people into ill equipped camps, often in a “coerced” manner via the pretence of better conditions being provided for them. The reality is that ill-equipped camps have little or no safety precautions, physical distancing protocols and health safety measures in place, making them ideal incubation spaces for the virus. At the Strandfontein camp for the homeless in Cape Town, the media has reported that law enforcement officers had tested positive; yet within days of the alleged infection, the camp was quickly being emptied out of its occupants.
Although the City claims it has done adequate testing with no positive results amongst occupants, monitors have reported that there is no evidence of this and staff from Doctors Without Borders have pointed out that not only has the incubation time before the symptoms showing been inadequately observed, but that conditions at the camp put the occupants at risk from other diseases related to unsanitary conditions. The City has denied these allegations but shows no evidence to the contrary. The overcrowding and repressive means used by security forces overseeing these camps impact the physical safety, physical and psychological health of the camp occupants.
At the Strandfontein camp, within days of being relocated, a young woman was gang raped by male occupants, which is telling in terms of the lack of safety in these camps for occupants, and exposure to rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment of women and girl occupants. Similar camps of concern are known to us to exist in Tshwane in Gauteng and Ethekwini in KwaZulu-Natal as well; the lockdown, it appears is being used by these cities administrations to “clean” the CBD and tourist areas of the homeless, even though it is being claimed that the shelters are a protective measure for them during the pandemic.
We recommend that these camps be immediately outlawed and properly dismantled, with the occupants tested, and gradually relocated after sufficient time has passed in which no symptoms of infection with Covid-19 present. The occupants should be properly accommodated in dignified dwellings that meet human dwelling conditions were physical distancing and quarantining measures can be properly implemented. There are many school dormitories and university residences currently not being used as schools are still closed that can serve this purpose, as well as hotels. Camp occupants who test positive and fall ill should be treated at hospitals if needed, or in separate living spaces.
Moreover, we have been thinking around the question: What does it mean to be able to shelter-in-place, which is the best way of remaining safe from infection? This recognizes, first and foremost, that being in shelter-in-place amounts to healthcare during a pandemic, and like water (mentioned previously), is a first line of defence. This should therefore mean for all people in households/shelter the following:
- Rent and mortgage freeze during the pandemic, for as long as one is without an income; this depends on the level of lockdown and if one is able to return to work
- The provisioning to all of a basic guaranteed income, data, food, proper and adequate water supply and sanitation, and refuse removal services, including in informal settlements
- Cessation of evictions and demolitions of homes being used by occupiers for the period of the pandemic; this should apply to all now as the moratorium on evictions has been partially lifted with downscaling to level 4 lockdown alert
- All residents in shack dwellings testing positive to be given safe and dignified accommodation in which they can self-isolate; where necessary appropriate buildings may be requisitioned for this purpose
- The above to also apply to those living in crowded urban townships
- Provision of a basic income grant or BIG to be adequate and include the stipulation that such grants must be combined with rent and debt freezes; failing which they should be viewed effectively as bank and/or landlord bailouts as they will not serve the purpose of protecting people in the pandemic by keeping them indoors, healthy and fed.
Access to and provision of Health Services: screening, testing, isolating, access to care by those with other chronic illnesses, public education
The country could face a dramatic escalation in infections if it does not fully acknowledge and address the issues raised in the section of work safety measures noted above. The Western Cape, Gauteng Province and KwaZulu-Natal show the highest rates and are epicentres currently. For example, the Witzenberg area in the Western Cape has infection numbers that are on a par with numbers in suburbs. We have received urgent requests from these areas to help with a variety of work related issues, food, and urgent need for PPE and health care support, including testing and spaces in which to house those requiring self-isolation for the mandatory period.
This is a large area and needs more specific focus and we recommend special focus by the oversight bodies on the issue of health to identify concerns and measures to be considered as well implementation with human rights and community health practitioners. Current testing protocols should also bear similar scrutiny. It is highly likely that to contain the spread of infection with regard to essential workers, and now those also allowed to work under level 4 lockdown de-escalation, a national review might be necessary to look at adapted testing regimens. The likely need for not just once off testing, but regular testing of essential workers and others moving about more freely now should occur, possibly every two to three weeks. This could vitally ensure that the virus does not jump from hotspots or epicentres to other areas with no or relatively low rates.
It is projected that there will be a dramatic rise in mental illnesses as a result of the lockdown and pandemic, including stress, depression and anxiety caused by self-isolation, quarantine, restricted mobility and physical distancing as well as grief, hunger, loss of earning with work restrictions and the projected increase in job losses. There will also undoubtedly be a knock on effect on physical health as well as people’s mental health becomes fragile, even those with good mental health and no chronic mental health conditions. In fact, mental health is identified as likely needing as much as if not more attention paid to it as the post lockdown and post pandemic period remains highly uncertain.
The need for psychosocial support to individuals and communities, including by medically trained and other mental health practitioners will increase. As many of those affected will also emanate from the poor and working classes, provision should be made to make counselling and other services available to them free of charge and for adequate periods of recovery time. The C-19 People’s Coalition is invested in lobbying for free data and counselling services towards this end so all people can have access.
We are also promoting a community approach to mental health care, as we believe that not only are individuals affected but entire communities; thus it is important to invest in whole community support. This does not necessarily mean only medically or psychiatric or psychologically based treatment methods but also other targeted forms of mental wellness methods, community and culture-based treatments as well as methods involving creativity, traditional practices such as breathing, movement and meditation techniques. We see these as essential in building the sense of mental resilience of communities and individuals residing in them, especially those previously vulnerable to a variety of socio-economic and other stresses, and now even more so disadvantaged by the lockdown.
As previously reported, rising desperation and stress placed on breadwinners not able to put food on the table is noted. Mental health care thus cannot be seen in isolation from the provision of food and other basic needs. Women and children face particular stresses here, including from increased gender-based violence trends in homes under lockdown. Increase in other forms of physical violence and trauma as a result of security force deployment requires proper care intervention for survivors.
The ban on alcohol sales and restricted movement is likely to be leading to increased psychotic and other withdrawal related breakdowns and symptoms that need emergency care treatment and even admission to mental care facilities, including in public hospital facilities. At present, there is also not much clarity on accessing of health care for chronic and other life-threatening conditions. There is thus a need for information regarding this and psychosocial issues, more public education, again, provisioning of free data and concerted efforts to de-stigmatize psychosocial illnesses.
We recommend that psychosocial health care be properly focussed on and made available to all people, including migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, and those socially criminalized such as sex workers, prisoners, drug addicts and alcoholics. The survival of whole communities—especially those socio-economically vulnerable through race, gender, class, nationality, etc.–requires both investment in properly treating physical health conditions, including Covid-19 and other conditions and diseases, as well as mental ill health. There is no eschewing this fact, and a whole people-centred health approach needs urgent attention.
We therefore call for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to advocate the following on our behalf:
- The President of South Africa and Parliament to urgently engage with civil society towards amending regulations to address our concerns raised above.
- For them to make clear and proper amendments to the regulations concerning the issues above.
- For them to provide clear directives and guidelines to various ministries, governmental bodies and state institutions to follow the amended regulations in implementing their duties so that the rights to all regarding basic needs, services, security and safety as accorded by the Constitution are observed.
- To remain in constant dialogue with civil society institutions regarding any further rights, needs and concerns we raise regarding the socially vulnerable constituencies we serve and South African society in general.
The key areas regarding lack of or limited access to basic needs and services and impact on rights, as well as other related issues of concern have been identified above as the most urgent for immediate address, but are by no means exhaustive. We request that the Chair of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rightsremain open to further correspondence with us in due course to receive other similar requests as we become aware of additional and/or changing needs and vulnerabilities related to human rights and access to basic needs and services for the security of all those living in South Africa.
Roshila Nair (Basic Needs Working Group, C19 People’s Coalition, People Against Apartheid and Fascism (PAAF)
TheC-19 People’s Coalition was established in March 2020, and includes 290 organizations from across civil society in all provinces, including community-based organizations, social movements, non-governmental organizations, research institutions, faith-based organizations and others. It is the broadest grouping of civil society organizations that has come together to address the current Covid-19 crisis for the period of lockdown and beyond, with its primary aim to support the most vulnerable communities and peoples affected by the lockdown and pandemic in various ways. Read our Programme of Action (POA).