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Dispatch

AD358: COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa highlights unequal access to services

Thomas Isbell 28 Apr 2020 South Africa
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Key findings
  • As of mid-2018, only four in 10 South Africans (43%) believed the government should have the right to impose curfews or set up roadblocks when faced with a threat to public security, the second-lowest level of support for such restrictions across 34 African countries surveyed in 2016/2018. While these views were recorded well before the COVID-19 crisis, they suggest significant popular resistance to government restrictions on free movement.
  • While about half of South Africans have piped water (53%) and toilets (50%) in their homes, many must leave their homes or even their compounds to access these essential services.
  • Rural, poor, and black South Africans face particular disadvantages in access to key public services and infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, markets, banks, and cell phone service, making it more difficult for them to quarantine at home.
  • While most South Africans (91%) own a mobile phone, only 62% have access to the Internet via their phones, and 36% said they “never” use the Internet, highlighting the importance of using other channels to offer these citizens opportunities and information.
  • While members of the South African National Defence Force are being deployed to enforce the COVID-19 lockdown, only about half (53%) of South Africans said they trust the army, and only four in 10 (39%) said the armed forces usually operate professionally and respect the rights of all citizens.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressures on governments, economies, and families, posing what many observers consider the largest global peace-time challenge since the Great Depression a century ago (Goodman, 2020; Rogoff, 2020). In South Africa, the government moved swiftly after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded on 5 March (Mkhize, 2020), turning away arrivals from countries considered high risk (Fabricius & du Plessis, 2020). By 27 March, a national lockdown required South Africans to stay at home except for essential food shopping and medical appointments. Security forces were mobilized to enforce the lockdown (Mahlati, 2020; South African Presidency, 2020).

To date, the South African measures appear to have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus, and have been lauded internationally (Brandt, 2020; Harding, 2020; Nordling, 2020). But they have also highlighted the challenges and costs of a lockdown, especially for the poor (New Humanitarian, 2020).

This dispatch looks at the lived realities of ordinary South Africans in terms of how easily they are able to stay at home and stay safe. Afrobarometer survey findings from 2018 suggest the country entered the COVID-19 era with large disparities in access to essential services, such as water, toilets, markets, and banks. Many citizens, especially the economically disadvantaged, are forced to leave their homes and compounds to access water and toilets, thereby placing themselves and others at risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Many also lack the resources to work from home, stay informed, seek help, and educate their children online.

In principle, South Africans are less supportive of government restrictions on free movement than most other Africans. And in enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, the army faces significant popular distrust and doubts about its professionalism and respect for the rights of all citizens.

Thomas Isbell

Post-doctoral research fellow and research assistant at Afrobarometer