Johannesburg – Maggy Mokhina stands in the warm winter sunlight outside her shack. A trench filled with fetid wastewater, infested with garbage, runs past her slippered feet, cutting across Kliptown in Soweto.
As local community leader Sandile Mqhayi approaches, the 61-year-old pastor covers her face with a makeshift mask – a thin scarf.
“The situation that we are living in here in Kliptown, it may make you forget about the masks and so on because you are already dead,” says Mqhayi bitterly, gesturing to the bleak, barren living conditions of the historic informal settlement, the birthplace of the Freedom Charter.
“There’s nothing moving in our community. Look at how this old lady lives,” he says, pointing to Mokhina, “in a shack right next to her daughter’s shack. If that virus (Covid-19) comes into this yard, it can kill everybody.
We all live like this, here in Kliptown, on top of each other. What happens to your neighbour happens to you.”
Mokhina tells how she feels a sense of growing despair. “We try to protect everybody, but you can’t wash your hands regularly and stay in a clean place here. It’s impossible.”
In recent weeks, Soweto has become the epicentre of Joburg’s Covid-19 spread and Kliptown has not been spared, says Mqhayi.
“Corona is here, even if people are afraid to talk. Definitely, you might sideline yourself from my family and think everyone in my house is affected. For many people, it’s difficult for them to explain, but because of the symptoms, you can see for yourself, some just walk and drop.”
Mqhayi is afraid to leave his home. “Some people wear masks, but others don’t. There’s a lack of education about corona and you see people gathering together, all over.”
In Kliptown, thousands of people share a few unhygienic communal toilets and two taps. Mqhayi shows how a JoJo tank provided by authorities stands empty. “There is no water sometimes. You need to have more than four 20 litre buckets in your house because anything might happen, you never get water here.”
In an article in the latest issue of the SA Journal of Science on the economic costs of the pandemic and its response, Tania Ajam of the school of public leadership at Stellenbosch University writes how, although there may have been public health benefits from an early pre-emptive lockdown strategy, “it is clear that the longer the duration of a lockdown, the less effective is it likely to be from a public health perspective”.
“Social distancing and self-isolation during lockdown is only possible in middle class suburbia. It is simply not practical in the overcrowded informal settlements and townships, where access to water and sanitation has shamefully been lacking for decades.”
The poorer, more rural or less formal the home you live in, the less likely you are to have safe, affordable and reliable water services in South Africa, says Alana Potter, the director of research and advocacy, at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute.
“The danger of Covid-19 is that the humanitarian response swamps the systems response, that we prioritise investments into short-term, high visibility actions at the expense of building resilience. This is exactly what the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has done.
“The intergovernmental system is broken, and while the minister of CoGTA, the only minister with the power to put the checks in place over the local sphere of government, is focused on banning cigarettes, municipalities are failing and corruption is rampant and unchecked.
“And while Minister (Lindiwe) Sisulu attempts to reassure us that all will be well and that once her department withdraws the emergency response, municipalities will be able to sustain water services, this seems a tall order, given that two-thirds of the regional bulk infrastructure budget has been stripped for emergency provision. We welcome the call for CoGTA to ask municipalities to ring-fence 10% of their budget for operations and maintenance. This is, however, insufficient by international standards.”
A home is the first line of defence against the pandemic, says Potter. “The crux of the issue right now is this tension about land invasion versus unlawful occupation. People are desperate for housing; the backlog is decades behind.
“Anyone on any municipal housing list will not get one for at least another decade. And so, people occupy land and informal settlements continue to grow. Amid decades of hopelessly inadequate provision of well-located housing, government then tries to stop occupation by engaging anti-land invasion units who brutally evict and demolish people’s homes, imagining this will somehow magically repel land invaders from seeking refuge and shelter. All that happens is they build shelter elsewhere. Why?
“Because the reality is that people are homeless and desperate and have nowhere else to go. A home is the first line of defence against this pandemic.
“The only protection people have from a brutal winter and the eye of the storm of a global pandemic,” she says. “It is also from a home that people can have proximity to social and economic networks which they so desperately need right now.
“And so, if government simply implemented its own policy and upgraded informal settlements where they are, and provided basic services, they would be assisting in the fight against the pandemic, and helping people to rebuild their economic reserves.
“This will allow them to survive this pandemic and also to contribute to rebuilding a just and vibrant South Africa.”
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