WHAT DOES COVID-19 MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN SOUTH AFRICA?

Webinar hosted by Social Change Assistance Trust & Social Justice Initiative highlights the vital role played by social justice organisations

When the lock down began in late March to respond to COVID-19, the country’s almost 200, 000 community organisations, along with civil society networks and human rights advocates worked tirelessly to respond to the increase in hunger, gender-based violence, and poverty. While they have been at the frontline, dealing with tough issues countrywide, their role in the COVID-19 response has not been given the attention it deserves. 

Set against this backdrop, on the 25th June, the Social Change Assistance Trust  and the Social Justice Initiative hosted a dynamic conversation on the role of civil society on managing and assisting with the economic and social fallout, among the poorest and most vulnerable. The intent was to showcase how their staff, who understand local structures and have deep insights and connections to the people they serve, have responded. Both Social Change Assistance Trust and the Social Justice Initiative are invested in the communities they serve for the long-term.

Dr Sithembile Mbete from the University of Pretoria, who moderated the webinar, acknowledged that while tackling inequality is nothing new from those working in the social justice space, that the crisis has exposed them “in all manner of ways, and exasperated them.”

“These organisations are not just committed to helping communities deal with it but also that human rights are protected, and social justice prevails in this time of crisis” she explained.  The focus of the discussion was to demonstrate how civil society partners are playing a role in responding to the immediate needs and to chart a way forward on how to create a fairer society.

Wendy Pekeur, founder of Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth, a former farm worker herself and passionate activist for justice in rural communities, painted a vivid picture of how seasonal farm workers had suffered from the pandemic.  

“We know that rural people spend more than 70 percent of their income on food and [that their] jobs are already insecure as, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Then, you have lockdown and we are talking not just about a day’s work but about months without an income,” said Pekeur.

The cases of COVID-19 spread quickly amongst many of the seasonal farm workers, who often move from farm to farm for work, live in different communities which increased the risk of infection.  As seasonal farm workers were quickly let go due to the shutdown, most families were forced to depend solely on the child support grant, often hitting women the hardest. “Farmworkers feed the nation but during lockdown they are the ones who have no food,” she said.

Ubuntu responded by engaging with the Department of Labour to help farmworkers access emergency funds, monitoring worker rights violations, providing food parcels and responding to victims of gender-based violence. 

The conversation moved from the rights of farm workers to the enormous toll being taken on emotional well-being and how it was playing out across the country. Nomfundo Mogapi, Executive Director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, who has over 20 years of experience working to help address mental health through psychological support, shared how the organisation had been working to respond.

“Mental wellness and unresolved trauma impacts on the development agenda and is a social justice issue in South Africa. Institutions are supposed to deal with dignity instead [they are] wounding people. Many people can only hear violence,” Mogapi observed, suggesting that the country needs a national initiative to help those working on the front line to help tackle this culture especially now that COVID-19 had worsened daily pressures.

The Centre’s focus has been to put mental well-being and inclusion of vulnerable groups high on the National COVID response using their networks to advocate for a more human focused and inclusive response. This ranged from helping migrant and refugee communities, who have faced xenophobia and lack documentation, to be included in the Government response, and to better access victims of gender-based violence and get them the help they need.

They worked with community health workers, who were doing COVID tracing to use their household visits to monitor and screen homes for signs of abuse and violence.  They set up an emergency line so they could then follow up on cases which required immediate support.

Michael Clement, the Acting Director for the Lawyers for Human Rights highlighted the legacy of institutional violence that has showed its face as the cases of police brutality have grown during the lock down.  “The United Nations has cited South Africa’s high levels of police brutality during lock down. We are still seeing too much impunity as the cases of brutality including assault and deaths in custody continue,” Clement said. “The spotlight is now during COVID 19 but we know this existed before and is the result of a deep seated problem of violence in policing for the poor.”

The Lawyers for Human Rights working with a network of public advocates and private companies set up a 24 hour hotline so people could get legal advice during lockdown and track cases of human rights violations. They have collected considerable evidence on rights abuses from police brutality, to illegal evictions to violence. 

Clement anticipates the rights abuses will continue in the post COVID-19 period and they expect litigation services to grow. Yet, she also stressed that there has been a push during the crisis to better educate and inform people of their rights so they can prevent abuses in the first place.

The webinar ended with a strong message that we need to grow the solidarity between different organisations, sectors and partners. “One of the positive outcomes of COVID-19 is that it has ignited our focus on inequality and strengthened our collective solidarity” said Mogapi  “It has provided an opportunity to strength philanthropy and collaboration with private sector to engage with Government on responding to social justice issues. Inequality is not sustainable and we as a society need to address it. “