South Africa: Lives Over Profits! Bread Not Bullets!

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The C19 People’s Coalition was born a month ago and includes 250 organisations from across civil society in all provinces, including community-based organisations, social movements, non-governmental organisations, research institutions, faith-based organisations and others. It is the broadest grouping of civil society that has come together to address the current crisis. We have developed a Programme of Action (POA)

Our rationale is that government alone cannot combat a health crisis of this scale; community and wider societal participation is critical if the measures that medical science requires us to undertake are to implement in a just and equitable manner. The failure of government and the state to fully align itself with this approach has shone a light on acute societal problems that as a matter of urgency now need to be addressed.  

The People’s Coalition recognises that the pandemic will mean for many, many months we will be in the storm of a human catastrophe that will take countless lives and the only way to limit the human cost of this crisis is for government to work alongside all our people.   

We as the C19 People’s Coalition have got 10 working groups operational, focusing on issues of health, food, gender and gender-based violence, basic needs and psychosocial support, economic policy, community organising, repression, education, workers’ rights and regional solidarity. We have a further 9 working groups working across these issues in all the provinces. We have a system of providing data to key community activists and organisers, to ensure that their experiences and voices are foregrounded in all we do.

The People are hungry! Top up the Child Support Grant and open the informal sector!

The COVID-19 pandemic is being experienced by most people in South Africa primarily as a food crisis. An estimated 5.5 million informal sector workers have lost their livelihoods and have no cash incomes. This is affecting 16.5 million people. 

We reject the term ‘food riots’ which suggests that people are merely angry or ill-disciplined. What we are seeing are food rebellions of the poor – people who say: we will not sit quietly indoors and starve; if we have no alternative, we will take the food we need.

At present, state efforts to provide food aid have illustrated two central problems, a severely constrained capacity and the politicisation of distribution. What we require is the capacity to provide aid to millions across society in a non-partisan manner, this can only be implemented through activating hundreds of thousands of community volunteers to plan, implement and monitor such a programme. 

Corporate food system protected: informal sector shut down

We at the C19 People’s Coalition are organising alternative food distribution systems around the country and also working in poor and vulnerable communities with those who produce and sell food, especially in the informal food economy. This is a massive economic sector that contributes about R360 billion per year to our country’s GDP. While commercial farming, corporate supply chains and formal retail have been protected as essential services during the national lockdown, our member organisations and networks across the country show us that the informal food system, which is run primarily by and for the poor, has been largely closed down.

The food crisis and social solidarity

We welcome and stand in solidarity with all those growing, buying, preparing and giving food to those in need. The Community Action Networks (CANs) show what social solidarity can achieve. But none of this absolves the government of its constitutional duty to ensure that everyone in this country – whether they are a citizen or not – has access to sufficient food. If government prevents people from working to get money to buy food, then it must take adequate measures to compensate and ensure people can get the food they need not only to survive but to live a dignified life.

We see no way that food aid can reach the scale that is required, either now during the lockdown, or in the immediate aftermath when we expect this food crisis to continue, as businesses close and jobs are lost. Government, even with the best partnerships with civil society and the private sector, simply cannot do it. You can’t do food parcels for 20 million people, and you can’t sustain this for months. The only option available to the government is to use cash transfers as the primary immediate way to enable the vast majority of households facing a hunger crisis to access food.

Urgent proposals

We call on the government to:

  1.     Substitute for the school feeding schemes that provide a crucial lifeline to poor households and vulnerable children. Children must be able to collect food from schools or other accessible public collection points. This includes rural schools, where the children of farmworkers, in particular, are vulnerable; those who are producing our food are among those most at risk of hunger. In the absence of this, poor children are more at risk of dying of malnutrition than of the Coronavirus.
  2.     Open up and support the informal food economy: instruct all state institutions, including the police and army, to support and assist all small-scale farmers, small-scale fishers, informal food traders including those involved with transporting and preparing food, and expedite the issuing of permits to all those in the informal food system. Government needs to provide a guaranteed market to those whose supply chains have been interrupted. We welcome the R1.2 billion relief fund for small-scale farmers announced last week by Minister Didizia, and have yesterday submitted a proposal for how these funds can be better targeted and delivered. We call on the Minister responsible for fisheries to come up with an equivalent plan for small-scale fishers.
  3.     Open up public spaces and infrastructure for informal food traders. This will enable food vendors to trade safely, close to where people are. Instead of trading at taxi ranks and train stations, people can trade at schools and other public spaces, where they can have shelter and access to water. This will enable food vendors to trade safely, closer to where people are than shopping malls.  
  4.     Top up the Child Support Grant by R500 for six months, and do it immediately, in time for payout in the first week of May. This is the most far-reaching, pro-poor and pro-women way to compensate for the massive loss of incomes. Government has received two letters from a broad platform of civil society organisations, community organisations and academic institutions. All the evidence is there. Government does have the money and can make R40 billion available over the coming 6 months. This will reach 13 million grantees. Despite having had all this information, and widespread consensus across society, the government has not yet made any announcement. We call on the Cabinet to immediately approve and announce this urgent measure. Immediate relief is now essential, which is why our primary recommendation to deal with the food crisis is to top up the Child Support Grant immediately

Build one universal national health care system now!

We are concerned at the lack of readiness of the health system to roll out testing and care for the critically ill. Testing now and into the future existing requires massive expansion far beyond what is currently being implemented. Four weeks on we have only conducted 90, 000 PCR tests. Our ability to contain the virus rests on the ability to have a very clear understanding of infection patterns and hotspots demanding that hundreds of thousands of tests are carried out in the coming weeks. 

The government must share what its plan is to ramp up COVID testing to 30, 000 PCR tests per day by month-end. The current stockpile of kits of 600,000 is insufficient and raises additional questions. 

We are also facing a likely shortage of ICU beds, currently only several thousand with ventilator access. Integration of the private and public health system must occur to address this problem. In particular, the inability to bring the private sector into a coordinated response should be addressed as a priority and should contribute to building one future universal national health care system.  Need must be put before profit. 

The strategy of using Community Health Workers (CHWs) to screen and follow up people requires clear national coordination and support rather than leaving this to the discretion of Provincial Health Departments. CHWs must be paid adequately, resourced, supported and trained in safety protocols and supplied with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) so they are able to perform these critically important duties. All non-essential workers who are unable to work from home to be paid, irrespective of their legal status, should be paid UIF.

While we must respond in an extraordinary manner to the COVID-19 epidemic, we cannot afford to neglect basic primary care at the same time. Closure of essential primary care services will have desperate consequences for poor and working-class communities, women and vulnerable populations dependent on the public sector for health care and sexual and reproductive health services. 

We need to find ways to ensure that such essential services are not displaced by our COVID-19 response. We have seen hospital closures and threatened labour disputes as a result of poor infection control. 

The Peoples Coalition insists appropriate PPE and training be provided for all Health Care Personnel involved in containing the spread of the disease and that systems be put in place to protect their health. Protection of our front-line responders and their families must be given utmost priority. 

We need to understand what is the government plan to address the existing global shortages of such equipment.  

We need transparency from government as a matter of urgency, including the structure of ALL decision-making structures in COVID response including representation on the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID19. 

Essential workers should be those who really make an essential contribution to the welfare of the population and should be provided with safe conditions of travelling to work and performing their jobs.

Humanity over Militarisation!

The pandemic is a humanitarian crisis and not a security crisis. The rounding up of the homeless and the evictions of people from informal settlements the removal and relocation of refugees into camps is morally unacceptable. The harassment, beating, and rape of township residents and informal settlement dwellers by police and the army must stop.    

No racist scapegoating: close the refugee centres and provide their inmates with housing where they can self-isolate; follow the example of Portugal and Ireland and grant the right to remain to migrants and refugees.

We demand the Presidency direct:

  1. The Minister of Justice and Cooperative Governance instruct all Metro and local municipalities to bring about an immediate halt to all evictions; including those carried out under the guise of “land invasion” and “de-densification”.
  2. The Ministers of Police and Defence to immediately cease from using excessive force in enforcing the lockdown and other regulations  
  3. The appointment of an ombudsperson that will investigate all complaints of brutality, violence and corruption. We, therefore, call for the appointment of an independent retired Judge with a record in human rights work to oversee the implementation of the security services of the Disaster Regulations and the actions of State organs in respect of COVID-19.
  4. Defend civil liberties: no special powers to the police – restrictions on movement to be enforced by local communities. 

Respect Workers Rights!

Government must immediately honour the Public Sector Bargaining Council agreement and pay what was agreed. This is not just a matter of trust. Across the world, the welfare of front-line workers has been acknowledged as pivotal to tackling the virus. 

Public sector workers are already putting themselves at risk on a day to day basis. Denying them the agreed increase is adding insult to injury.  It is well known that many highly skilled public sector workers have to take more than one job in order to make ends meet. Our nurses for example have been forced into moonlighting for years. This is simply not sustainable. 

It is clear that even in the throes of the Covid 19 crisis, Government is attempting to maintain its austerity programme by stealth. An austerity programme that has already impoverished working-class communities, subjecting them to appalling and worsening levels of inequality, service delivery and poverty. The rich of course, the corrupt, and the chronically wasteful remain largely untouched. 

If the Government continues to undermine collective bargaining, they will be responsible when workers are left with no other option but to take industrial action.  Claiming that we must all make sacrifices to beat the virus has no meaning when some must sacrifice more than others!  

Next steps for People’s Coalition

C19 People’s Coalition will be hosting its first mass meeting, an Online People’s Assembly, next Tuesday 21 April, where we will further gather voices from across the country and develop our responses and proposals. We look forward to constructive work with government and others, to ensure a socially and economically just response to the COVID pandemic and its effects on our country. 

We plan to hold weekly press conferences every Friday to update the public about different aspects of our work, to report on what is happening around the country, and to make further proposals for our country’s way forward.