Executive Director of the Social Policy Institute, Isobel Frye says the COVID-19 lockdown affected the human rights of South Africans.
Her comment comes as citizens mark Human Rights Day on Monday. This is the second year that the day is commemorated under lockdown.
Frye says the question of how human rights were impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown is a very complicated and intersectional matter because defiantly human rights were affected. She says the rights of free movement of people were restricted.
Frye says, “It was felt that the benefits to society of limiting and slowing down infection was justified, so certainly people’s rights to movement and to earn an income and a livelihood was affected. In addition to that, the points of access to food through social security and the socio-economic rights in the constitution were also affected. And also the right to dignity for many people who were not able to move from their homes in very poor settings, it had a negative impact on people’s lives.”
She says she hopes that moving out of the impact of the pandemic, the South African leadership will use the situation to look at different mechanisms to improve people’s lives.
“But again I think the inequality and the impacts of COVID-19 on a variety of fronts hit the poor and the vulnerable much harder than the middle-class and wealthy, who sit at home with WIFI access and order in food deliveries. So it demonstrated the dualism and reality between the majority of the poor in South Africa and the few elite.”
With regards to the Dudula Movement, which wants undocumented foreign national traders to be removed from Alexandra township, Frye says, “So globally what we find is that the reactions of the poor and vulnerable appear to be disproportionate to the threat.
So in South Africa with our incredibly high levels of unemployment, almost 50% of the workforce unemployed and over 55% of people living in poverty, what we see is lashing out and violence against people we perceive to be more vulnerable. So, on the one hand, we have very high levels of gender-based violence in households, we also have very violent attacks on non-nationals or foreigners who perceive to be more vulnerable than South African citizens.”
She says this reaction is illegal, immoral and that the violence and attacks need to be condemned in the strongest ways.
“We do need to see that and ask the question why these attacks are happening? We need to recognise that for many adults there is no access to the labour market and hence no access to income. So parents are seen as powerless by their children and therefore emasculated in that sense. The response is that we need to protect the vulnerable, which is the non-nationals and we also need to see the kinds of safety nets that we need to give to our citizens to ensure that their lives are not so brutal that they brutalise others in return.”
Frye says COVID-19 lockdowns deepened inequality in the country and that the people who were most vulnerable were often those who operate in the formal economy.
She says,” So as the months continued with regards to the formal economy, the Department of Labour, insurance funds, the banks were able to extend a system in a form of UIF TERS for instance for formal employees, for people whose livelihoods are in the informal economy there was absolutely no form of assistance. The state’s response was the introduction of the COVID-19 R350 cash grants and that went to working-age adults, who had to meet a very strict mean turf, so it really was for the most destitute people. It has actually been extended in this year’s national budget, but the R350 which is meant to replace piece jobs for people in the informal economy in no way was able to supplement the kind of incomes people were generating beforehand.”
Frye says the huge levels of inequality that existed before COVID-19 were deeply exacerbated.
“Another way which the inequality was deepened between the rich and the poor came with regards to the issues of commodities shares, so people who had shares in commodities found a huge return from the global market, with regards to the value of commodities, gold and other treasurable post-COVID. But during COVID the commodities boomed enabling their wealth to accumulate at an exponential rate and that again made a greater gap between the wealthy in South Africa and those who don’t have share portfolios.”
Frye speaks about a World Bank study on Southern African Customs Union (SACU) countries which was released last week, which found that South Africa is the most unequal county in the world: