In South Africa, Racial Tensions Simmer Amid a Pandemic

A swift government response has kept the coronavirus at bay, for now, but stark inequalities, heavy-handed security forces, and racist rhetoric are threatening the country’s hard-won unity.

City of Tshwane health officials are seen during a testing drive for COVID-19 at the Bloed Street Mall in Pretoria Central Business District on June 11.
City of Tshwane health officials are seen during a testing drive for COVID-19 at the Bloed Street Mall in Pretoria Central Business District on June 11. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

“Whites brought #CoronaVirus into South Africa from Italy and still, you cry to walk your dogs,” a Twitter user with the handle @MashSammy wrote on the eve of South Africa’s March 27 lockdown, garnering hundreds of likes.

As the coronavirus spread across the world, health experts warned that South Africa could be a powder keg—with tightly packed townships and the highest rate of HIV in the world making it all but impossible to fight the virus. Instead, the country has boasted a relatively successful coronavirus response thus far. In a country of 59 million, there have been about 50,000 confirmed cases and just over 1,200 deaths amid a strict lockdown and intensive public health response (though some fear the peak of the outbreak has yet to come). But the coronavirus and heavy-handed response have highlighted the country’s deeply entrenched inequalities, inflaming age-old racial tensions in the so-called Rainbow Nation.

The tweet about dogs, for example, is carefully crafted to spark outrage among both black and white South Africans, in a country where even poodles are political. Dogs have long been seen as a tool of oppression—used by apartheid police to brutally break up protests—with even the humble house hound sometimes taught to bark at black passersby. When President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the country under its strict lockdown, he banned all outdoor activity, including dog walking, a move that got some white South Africans complaining on social media. That, in turn, drew ire from black South Africans, who highlighted the hypocrisy of white neighbors caring more about their pampered pets than the majority of their impoverished compatriots.

But the dog issue is only one example of the racial debates blowing up. A Facebook post by Zelda La Grange, a white former aide to Nelson Mandela, in which she patronizingly advised employers to “teach” their domestic workers how to wash their hands went viral with commentators highlighting her racist tone. At the beginning of the outbreak, the radical opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), called for COVID-19 patients (mainly foreigners, read white people) to be quarantined on Robben Island—where many African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during apartheid.

“Our government loves … to keep white people happy and safe, even at the expense of Africans,” the EFF’s firebrand leader, Julius Malema, said in an April 27 speech marking Freedom Day, a public holiday commemorating the first democratic elections 26 years ago.

While Malema is concerned the government is giving white people special treatment, there are those in the white minority who feel it’s quite the opposite. White social media erupted after news spread in March that the government would be giving crisis aid only to majority black-owned small businesses—as part of its Black Economic Empowerment policy. While the government walked back on the idea, the right-wing Afrikaner advocacy group AfriForum responded by slamming it for its “attack on white people and businesses.”

A particularly vicious example of old-school white South African racism rearing its ugly head came when social media users shared images depicting a female minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as an ape.

“The lockdown, in its umpteenth day, is taking on some typically South African characteristics: it’s turning into a low-grade race war,” a May 15 column in the Daily Maverick newspaper warned.

Ramaphosa deserves praise for his clear and levelheaded leadership at a time of unprecedented crisis, and many South Africans have noted how lucky they are not to be stuck with a populist like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro or even former Presidents Jacob Zuma or Thabo Mbeki—the latter notorious for his denialism during the AIDS epidemic.

But race is inseparable from the coronavirus crisis. While most white people (and increasingly many members of the black middle class) live in spacious homes with gardens, social distancing is but a dream for poor black people in this country’s overcrowded townships—their very layout a product of apartheid. In the townships, large families are squeezed into one-bedroom shacks, regular hand-washing is impossible for those who have to walk far to their only shared tap, and working from home is a joke for the masses of unemployed people who eke out their living on the streets and travel to work on overcrowded minibuses, the main form of public transport.

Even though South Africa has one of the best health care systems in Africa, it is ill-equipped to deal with an onslaught of sick people, let alone with a population where some 8 million people already have weak immune systems due to HIV. When COVID-19 spreads—the peak is expected in the next few months—unrest could spread with it.

The president, led by science, moved swiftly to flatten the curve and likely prevented many deaths in instituting one of the harshest lockdowns the world has seen during this pandemic. However, there were those in his party who have relished the chance to implement bureaucratic and petty rules.

Among the measures that were most contentious was the ban on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, a move introduced to try to keep hospital beds free and lessen domestic violence during the lockdown.

While white people may have been missing their evening gin and tonics on the veranda, the real victims of the prohibition were black South Africans, who resorted to making their own alcohol at home, with sometimes fatal results. The ban also spurred an illegal cigarette trade, with children often illegally selling the contraband in the townships. Even Finance Minister Tito Mboweni broke ranks and questioned the policy, warning that the huge fall in tax revenue would hurt an already struggling economy.

The police went hard after rule breakers, with an estimated 200,000 people arrested, warned, or fined for relatively petty infringements. Those arrests, again, disproportionally targeted poor black South Africans. Police have been criticized for their heavy-handedness in enforcing the rules, at times resorting to deadly force, with many accusing Police Minister Bheki Cele of implementing a “skop, skiet en donder” approach—an Afrikaans apartheid-era police term meaning “kicking, shooting, and beating people up.” The army, too, appears to have taken the method literally, brutally assaulting Collins Khosa as he was drinking a beer in his own backyard in Johannesburg’s sprawling Alexandra township. Khosa later died of blunt force trauma. Most of the violence meted out for lockdown violations has been by a black police force against black citizens, prompting the question of whether institutional racism is alive and well despite the skin color of those in power.

And the official response has played out along racial lines from other corners. Last month, a huge row erupted over comments by Glenda Gray, a white South African scientist and president of the Medical Research Council. Gray, whose credentials in the fight against apartheid are stellar and who is widely credited with helping to turn the tide on HIV in South Africa, had criticized aspects of the government’s prolonged lockdown and expressed concern that it was leading to renewed levels of malnutrition in children.

The reaction from the government, increasingly vigilant against any criticism or alternative viewpoints, was swift: The head of the health department called for Gray to be put under investigation. While dozens of fellow scientists and some old comrades from the anti-apartheid movement have zealously defended her, the EFF didn’t lose time playing the race card.

“She must be dismissed as a stooge of the desperate White Monopoly Capital seeking to end Lockdown for profit!” tweeted Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, an EFF member of parliament.

During the years Zuma was in power, “white monopoly capital” became a buzzword often used to tarnish any dissenting voices. Ironically, it was dreamed up by Bell Pottinger, the now disgraced British public relations firm, at the behest of the powerful and politically connected Gupta family, originally from India, who were looking to inflame racial tensions and distract the nation from how they were ransacking the government and even influencing ministerial decisions.

That such words are in play again hints at the dangers of this renewed racial fervor amid the outbreak. Although alarmist interpretations suggesting violence could break out are sensationalist, the divisive, polarizing rhetoric is no less worrying for that. The return of such incendiary language threatens to undo the gains made in race relations over the last 26 years and undermine the progress achieved since Mandela ushered in a progressive era of reconciliation.

After one of the world’s harshest lockdowns, a recent relaxation of regulations means dog walkers are now back on South Africa’s streets, liquor stores are open again, and life is getting back to normal. However, the months of mudslinging and misinformation on social media and in political discourse were not only extremely ugly—they might even prove the more dangerous pandemic.

Kate Bartlett is a journalist based in Johannesburg, currently on a fellowship at the University of Oxford.

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