On Wednesday 18 March 2020 around 40 activists from various working class formations met at the House of Movements in Johannesburg to plan a working class response to the coronavirus pandemic. This followed a meeting of the Gauteng Community Health Care Forum leadership that took place the weekend before to discuss its response as community healthcare workers (CHWs) to COVID-19. The following statement is a summation of these discussions.
On the 15 March President Ramaphosa declared a National State of Disaster
(NSD) in order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the declaration of the NSD the President has delivered numerous addresses to the nation as the infection count has continued to climb. On the 23 March the President announced a national lockdown for 21 days beginning on 27 March and extended the lockdown for a further 14 days on 9 April. This takes the national lockdown to 35 continuous days. Throughout this period and in all these addresses, the President clearly continues in the same line of action as previous regulations implemented since the declaration of the NSD, demonstrating the South African state’s failure to deal in any direct and serious way with the underlying factors that place the working class in danger of perishing in the hundreds of thousands.
No urgency on the part of the state
The ANC government has reacted incredibly slowly and ineffectively to the crisis. Despite the rapid spread of the coronavirus around the world in January and February, the President made no mention of it in his State of the Nation Address on 13 February and neither did the Finance Minister in his Budget Speech on 26 February. When they did finally act, the President’s declaration of a National State of Disaster on Sunday 15 March initiated a series of mild reactive measures and regulations in the face of the unfolding crisis. All these regulations reflect how deeply vested the South African state is in maintaining the interests of big capital.
The impact that the coronavirus will have is based on an understanding of the country’s economic, social and political context. In particular, our understanding of this pandemic has to be positioned within the crisis in the country’s health system. Above all else, we need to ground our response to the pandemic on the understanding that this is fundamentally a social and economic crisis, and that resolving this crisis will require a determined and uncompromising political struggle against the dominance of capital in policy-making and in the way the state is responding to the crisis.
1. South Africa’s health, social and political context:
The ANC government’s neoliberal austerity has resulted in a two-tier health system – wellequipped and well-staffed private hospitals for the elite; and dysfunctional public health facilities for the working class. Consequently, South Africa carries some of the highest rates of child mortality, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and TB in the world. It’s clear that people with pre-existing health conditions and the elderly are most at risk of dying from COVID-19. Despite this, in his budget speech, the Finance Minister made no new measures or plans to fight the coronavirus – in fact he slashed the budget of the public health system!
For 25 years the ANC government has sided with big capital against the working class. The stand-out example is the ANC’s role in the 2012 Marikana Massacre. Over these years, neoliberalism has devastated the South African working class, as retrenchments and unemployment create havoc, increasing social inequality and poverty. In these conditions of social disintegration and enormous stress, violence against women and children is rife, and amongst youth and against youth. Neoliberalism also positions women to bear the burden of social reproduction, especially as single parents with children, under dire conditions that acculturate the working class to food insecurity, poor education, healthcare and poverty.
The measures it has taken so far in response to the coronavirus pandemic gives no indication that it will change its orientation. Ramaphosa’s 23 March address confirmed this once again, with the state only allocating R150 million to its ‘solidarity fund’ which aims to combat the spread of the virus, while it pumped a combined R700 million from two state entities into SMEs and R3 billion into ‘vulnerable firms’.
The struggle to combat COVID-19 cannot be won without working class solidarity, and without breaking the stranglehold of the ruling monopoly capitalist class over the state and over society, (even if only temporarily). We agreed that while placing demands on the state is important, breaking the stranglehold of capital on the state can only happen through grassroots organising initiatives. These grassroots initiatives must involve creating community initiatives that include local food production and distribution networks, creating its own spaces for protecting the sick and old, as well as other defensive actions. Only this working class self-organising can force the state to take the necessary radical steps that fighting the pandemic requires.
2. Organising is the only way out!
The congested nature of South African townships, city slums and public transport makes “social distancing” impossible for the working class, creating a hotbed for the spread of coronavirus. With the state running far behind the actual outbreak as well as the accompanying social and economic crisis, practical expressions of “social solidarity” within communities are required. We have to ensure that we move fast to recognise and promote the solidaristic tendencies and practical activities that exist, so as to prevent as much as possible, instances of the working class violently turning in on itself.
Thousands of activists and volunteers will have to self-organise to defend their communities and the population at large. Due to the general collapse of working class organisation, the forces to carry out this project don’t currently exist and have to be created as a matter of urgency. The organisations that do still have active forces in factories and communities across wide geographical areas will play a central role in this.
It is also vital that all aspects of organising are gendered and purposeful, ensuring solidarity and sensitivity to women. While women have been central in resisting neoliberalism, they are often the ‘foot soldiers’, doing the work at home and in organisations while men dominate the political space. Notwithstanding current conditions, we must strive for democratic and transparent praxis and we must feminise all aspects of this struggle. Women will once again be central in the struggle against coronavirus and must not be relegated to particular ‘roles.’ They must participate and lead at all levels of decision-making. Similarly, the needs of women and children must be prioritised and our demands must be gendered. Activists must seriously engage how we internalise and promote patriarchy in our politics and behaviour – and so begin to take steps, in the course of this struggle, to overcome patriarchy. Feminising our struggles is a defensive and offensive approach that will enrich and invigorate the struggle, ensure creative responses and guarantee success.
2.1 Raising basic awareness about COVID-19
The first phase, which has already been happening in many communities, is to focus on raising our community’s consciousness and preparing the ground for social solidarity by distributing information (flyers, posters, performances) at various community centres and making contact with our community members. It is important to make contact with existing local community organisations, like church associations, sports clubs, youth and women’s groups as well. In this phase, which will continue well into the struggle against COVID-19, we need to emphasise the importance of basic hygiene, access to basic utilities like masks, sanitisers, food and physical (or so-called social) distancing, among other basic interventions. Determined and consistent political struggle to change the course of the present government must be grounded in this reality.
2.2 Political Awareness is going to be the key
All over the world the current the COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to be just as much of a political, economic and social crisis as it is a health crisis. Countries that have enormousproductive capacities – for producing all kinds of luxuries for the rich – are seemingly unable to produce, in the numbers required, the most basic products like sanitisers, masks and ventilators. In South Africa we face the same challenge of a ruling class that is able but not willing to take the kind of simple, practical steps needed to confront the pandemic. In this context raising political consciousness within the working class and clarifying the social, economic and political sources of the challenges it will face is going to be as important as fighting to supply food, sanitisers, masks and places for isolation in townships. While efforts by individuals, mass organisations and non-governmental organisations will be important in the immediate defence of the working class against COVID-19, we have to realise and accept that only the massive resources of the state as well as those of the capitalist class which need to be socialised, can meet the challenge of defeating this virus. Attempts by the state to “privatise” these defensive interventions (food, masks, sanitisers etc) and to provide them through the philanthropic activities of big capital must be resisted.
2.3 Build neighbourhood organisation
The second phase is to begin to organise local neighbourhood structures. Because of the nature of the virus, it is important for activists to adopt the approach of small group meetings and neighbourhood actions. Women know their neighbourhoods and local women’s leadership must be encouraged to emerge so that neighbourhood structures can begin to organise the community’s social and physical infrastructure, such as identifying local spaces that can be used as quarantine facilities, mobilising resources like water and food, and taking care of the sick and elderly. These structures can also begin to mobilise the community to force the government at a local level to provide the resources needed to combat coronavirus – like water supply, sanitisers, free testing facilities, medical equipment and personnel, etc. Neighbourhoods will also need to organise quarantines, they will need to separate elders from children, and respond to domestic (and any other) violence within the community. Communities must take charge of these interventions themselves, and not wait for, or leave it to the state to organise and deliver. We will need to struggle against the state’s approach that deliberately confuses dealing with the virus with locking people inside overcrowded houses and informal settlement. Only community organising that takes seriously hygiene and physical (social) distancing can combat COVID-19. We will learn this new discipline of organising through practice; long periods of locking the working class inside tiny houses is not a solution. The more deeply embedded and widespread these community structures are (from house to street to neighbourhood to area to township level), the more effective they will be. Most importantly, the youth of South Africa are a vital resource. The youth’s commitment and energy will have a major impact on the struggle of the working class against the coronavirus pandemic.
2.4 Fighting specific struggles to make demands visible
What will force the state and capital to respond to working class demands is the development of clear strategic and feminised approaches combined with specific struggles. It is local organising that will ‘make our demands visible’ (not social media campaigns) and this is already underway in many areas. Whether in the private or public sector, workers will have to redirect their focus on the hardest hit or most vulnerable areas. Informal sector worker struggles against both capital and the state for compensation of their lack of income in the coming weeks and months will give visibility to the general demand for a basic income grant. The basic income grant must be extended to everyone who is unemployed between 18-65, men and women; and significantly increased for single women with children, taking into account their gendered needs. These initiatives will need to be publicised widely and urgently to demonstrate what is possible under these conditions.
2.5 New ways of organising
The way we organise in this context will have to change drastically. We have to consciously feminise our organising and much of this will have to be carried out in small groups. The coordination of this organising will have to be done through WhatsApp, other social media platforms, and flyers etc. Street committees, small activist networks across townships, and other new ideas that will emerge out of struggle will create a new organising culture. The struggle against COVID-19 cannot eliminate the need for physical contact among activists. What it raises is the need to have a high level of consciousness and alertness about the conditions of the struggle. We have to think deeply and carefully about how we will organise neighbourhoods to provide food, to help the sick, and to shop for those who cannot shop for themselves. We have to reject the idea that this struggle means no one must ever meet. Without organisation the working class is nothing! Organisation, however, must be adapted to the conditions of the struggle.
3. Our Demands
Since the outbreak of the pandemic many formations within the working class, and within other classes, have raised a number of demands and taken action. We support many of the demands made, and emphasise the following:
– Access to water and sanitation:
Thousands of temporary handwashing facilities must be set up across every area in every township and place of employment in South Africa. The state should organise volunteers and other person-power to deliver water to areas experiencing lack of clean, safe water supply. Forced installation of water meters must be suspended. The state, at whatever level, cannot continue cutting water supplies to working class communities when water has become a life and death matter. A national moratorium on water cut-offs must be instituted immediately.
– Free testing and healthcare access for all, at both public and private facilities:
Testing must be free for all, regardless of nationality, including those without medical aid, and must be made available anywhere, especially at private facilities. Mobile testing stations must be rolled out and follow patterns of the movement and evolution of the coronavirus. All sick patients must be provided with access to all and any healthcare facility (public or private) if necessary, regardless of their medical aid status. The government must conduct random testing at key points within communities.
– Production and free distribution of, as well as public access to, necessary medical resources and equipment:
The state must temporarily expropriate companies and private facilities that produce/provide or have the potential to produce these resources and ensure working class communities have affordable access to resources such as face masks, gloves and ventilators, etc. Strict prices controls and rationing systems must be enforced.
– Quarantine facilities within local communities must be provided where possible and resourced with necessary infrastructures:
Local community structures must identify local spaces like churches and community halls that can be used as quarantine facilities. Medical equipment, staff, heating, food and other support must be provided by the state. This will necessitate the expropriation of resources currently monopolised by the private sector.
– Secured employment and income for workers
The state must guarantee that all workers receive their wages from the state and capital regardless of the shutdown, and protect all workers against dismissals – whether permanent, casual or subcontracted. The UIF must not be used to pay workers’ salaries during the lockdown. This money must come from the massive cash reserves of the state, banks and industry. Time taken off to recover from the virus must not be included as part of workers’
– Food vouchers for all in townships:
The state needs to set up feeding points for any member of the community who needs food at key points in townships. The state needs to give a food voucher that can be used at any food outlet, of at least R2 000 per unemployed family. In the context of profiteering and rapidly rising prices by big capital, the state needs to enforce price controls to make this grant
– Unemployed people must be employed by the state to respond to pandemic:
South Africa currently has a large pool of unemployed people, and especially youth who must be employed by the state to perform all necessary functions in service of the public. This will also offset the deteriorating conditions of working class communities as the pandemic worsens. The workers must be paid the minimum wage and work in shifts to ensure continuous supply of services during this crisis.
– All essential production must be ramped up:
Companies that produce goods and services that are essential to fight the coronavirus must ramp up production, while implementing the most stringent health and safety measures. These companies must be brought under state ownership and workers’ control if they don’t comply. The distribution networks for these goods must also be brought under workers’ control and directed to servicing working class communities. The permanent employment of all casual and subcontracted labour in these industries will be necessary, as will the provision of jobs to unemployed youth.
– A dramatic increase in community health workers employed:
Community Health Workers (CHWs) must receive recognition as permanent employees of the Department of Health, and more CHWs must be hired to deal with the pandemic – especially those that were dismissed in 2016. They must receive adequate coronavirus training, sufficient protective gear and the necessary equipment to combat the spread of COVID-19. COVID-19 calls for the employment and urgent training of hundreds of thousands of CHWs. The state already knows this. We must wage a struggle for a massive expansion of frontline workers against this pandemic.
– Down with repression and state violence! Get the army off the streets!
The first act of the state in the COVID-19 crisis has been to send the army and police into the townships. Meanwhile, there has been no additional health workers employed, very low levels of screening and testing, precious little food and no relief provided from overcrowded living spaces. Across South Africa’s townships and shack settlements the violence of the state is being experienced by the working class. Working class organisations need to call for all army troops to be removed from the streets! Besides the need for an accountable and disciplined police force, it will be an organised and well informed working class that will be able to ensure its own security, discipline and the creation of the conditions necessary for an effective struggle against COVID-19.
Casual Workers Advice Office
General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa)
Gauteng Community Healthcare Workers Forum
Simunye Workers Forum
African Reclaimers Organisation
International Labour, Research and Information Group (ILRIG)