Report

South Africa’s Twin Crises Are Feeding Each Other

Political chaos is worsening the third wave of the coronavirus.

Members of the South African Police Service line up to receive their dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during the vaccination drive at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto.
Members of the South African Police Service line up to receive their dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during the vaccination drive at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto on July 5. Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

South Africa is coping with two crises at once—a political storm caused by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, whose followers have caused chaos on the streets, and a deadly new wave of COVID-19 that’s hospitalizing thousands of people a day. On July 3, South Africa hit a record 26,000 cases of COVID-19, one of the highest new daily totals reported since the pandemic started over a year ago.

The country has been battling a deadly third wave of the pandemic, following previous peaks during the first and second waves between April and December 2020. As of July 19, South Africa has recorded 2.3 million cases and 67,000 deaths since the pandemic started, according to the country’s Department of Health.

South Africa is coping with two crises at once—a political storm caused by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, whose followers have caused chaos on the streets, and a deadly new wave of COVID-19 that’s hospitalizing thousands of people a day. On July 3, South Africa hit a record 26,000 cases of COVID-19, one of the highest new daily totals reported since the pandemic started over a year ago.

The country has been battling a deadly third wave of the pandemic, following previous peaks during the first and second waves between April and December 2020. As of July 19, South Africa has recorded 2.3 million cases and 67,000 deaths since the pandemic started, according to the country’s Department of Health.

On June 27, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would move to adjusted alert level 4 of lockdown for 14 days as the country faced a rising number of COVID-19 infections. After the end of the two-week lockdown and with a continuous spike in cases, Ramaphosa addressed the nation again on July 11 and announced an additional 14 days of restrictions.

Ramaphosa was facing both the COVID-19 situation and the violence across the country by pro-Zuma supporters.. Banks and government buildings temporarily closed to avoid attacks.

On July 12, Ramaphosa addressed the nation over persistent public violence and announced the deployment of soldiers to two provinces—Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the hometown of Zuma, where the violence started. As of July 13, more than 70 people had been killed and about 1,200 arrested.

“This violence may indeed have its roots in the pronouncements and activities of individuals with a political purpose and in expressions of frustration and anger,” Ramaphosa said, but added that no grievance or political cause could justify the violence and destruction. The violence has affected access to health services, with front-line workers unable to reach vaccination stations and pharmacies often shuttered to avoid vandalism and looting.

The unemployment and visible inequalities in the country exacerbated the violence. Thousands of South Africans have lost their jobs following lockdown restrictions, and there has been little government support for the economy. The violence created an opportunity to explore illegal options of survival. On top of this, the brutal police enforcement of the lockdown last year has aggravated existing tensions around police brutality, contributing to the unrest.

Ramaphosa acknowledged this in his address: “This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew: that the level of unemployment, poverty, and inequality in our society is unsustainable.”

As in so many other countries, the delta variant of COVID-19 now appears to be dominant, although the government has not published separate statistics for the different variants yet. Hospitals and front-line workers in the country are overwhelmed with the number of patients they are receiving each day. In some provinces, such as Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, many hospitals are operating above capacity, with shortage of spaces and oxygen for patients.

Front-line health care workers have been hit hard. As of December 2020, over 38,000 health care workers in South Africa had tested positive for the virus, with more than 390 dead, according to data cited by Ramaphosa.

The government is responding by calling for massive recruitment of health volunteers to beef up the staff strength at public hospitals.

Earlier on in the pandemic, African countries made some gains against the virus through precautionary measures such as border closures. For instance, in March 2020, South Africa was the first country on the continent to declare a state of national disaster on the pandemic, and stiffer restrictions were announced. But these initial successes are gradually being lost with the new wave of infections and growing death rate. The gradual relaxation of restrictions to save South Africa’s ailing economy, which started last June, has worsened the situation.

The World Bank says South Africa is among the most unequal countries in the world—something the pandemic has only inflamed. The unemployment rate in the country stood at 33 percent at the end of March and is highest among youth aged 15 to 24.

As the third wave continues to ravage the country, just 4 million people—about 7 percent of South Africa’s population of 60 million—have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

Since the vaccination drive began this February, priority has been given to front-line health care workers and people over the age of 60 under the Johnson & Johnson Sisonke program. The government recently announced that vaccination for people between the ages of 35 and 49 would begin by Aug. 1.

But critics and opposition parties have criticized the government’s response and low vaccination rates across the country. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said the government is using the vaccine rollout program to enrich itself.

In defiance of COVID-19 protocols and rules for large gatherings, the EFF staged a protest in June against the government and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority. The protesters are demanding greater vaccine rollout and the inclusion of the Sputnik V and Sinovac vaccines in the vaccination program of the government. Amid pressure, the government has approved the Sinovac vaccine following growing evidence of its efficacy against COVID-19. After the protest, the police said it had opened a criminal case against the organizers.

Corruption is certainly slowing South Africa’s fight against the pandemic. Since last year, Corruption Watch, a South African anti-corruption organization, has been tracking corruption related to the pandemic. For instance, in April 2020, the organization raised concerns that corrupt officials might exploit the pandemic to their personal advantage.

“You will expect some people to use every opportunity they see to enrich themselves,” said Kavisha Pillay, the head of stakeholder relations and campaigns at Corruption Watch. “That is the situation now, and we are working with law enforcement, especially the financial crime department, to track cases of embezzlement around the pandemic.”

A report released in April by the Financial Transparency Coalition, a coalition of civil societies working to end illicit financial flows, reveals a broad lack of accountability in the use of COVID-19 emergency funds.

Pandemic-related corruption has also sparked public anger. Last year, public officials and private contractors in South Africa were arrested by security agents over fraud in the procurement of personal protective equipment for health workers on the front line.

Ramaphosa has been fighting corruption within the ranks of his African National Congress party and has repeatedly reassured the public that coronavirus-related corrupt activities would not be tolerated. Last month, the president put Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on indefinite leave over corruption allegations linked to COVID-19 contracts. Mkhize has denied any wrongdoing and insists he did not profit from the contracts. Investigations by South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit are ongoing.

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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