The Women’s Legal Centre reflects after President Ramaphosa addresses the nation for the third time on Monday evening on the status of our COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa.
The WLC recognises that this is a difficult time for everyone; our government, public interest sector and nation. Our main reflection during this lockdown is what a feminist response looks like during a pandemic. We firstly recognise that it cannot be business as usual and that we will need to use a different approach during these times. We also acknowledge that there will not be a one size fits all approach as womxn are not a homogenous group. Womxn on the ground and the womxn who work at the WLC are at the centre of our organisational focus and work mission during this crisis. We now, more than ever, recognise the intersecting forms of discrimination womxn face, based on their race, identity, religion, culture and socio-economic background.
On the 27th of March 2020, the President of South Africa implemented a national lockdown in an attempt to curb the further outbreak and spread of the virus in South Africa. The lockdown was implemented in terms of the Disaster Management Act 2002. As an organisation, we were equipped and ready to continue our work and services to those womxn who need it most during this time but in this op ed, we reflect on what this lockdown means for the lived reality of poor black womxn living in South Africa and how all of us could do more.
LIVED REALITY OF VULNERABLE WOMXN
In 2020, womxn remain the face of poverty and human rights violations and South Africa has a very specific socio-economic context that cannot be dismissed during this crisis. We live in an extremely unequal society where substantive equality is but a notion and far from reality for poor black womxn in South Africa. Our biggest fear is that both the government and the social justice sector has not addressed the necessary socio-economic realities for a COVID-19 lockdown, especially in the way that this lockdown will affect poor black womxn living on the Cape Flats, rural and peri urban context. These womxn are the domestic workers, farm workers and migrant workers who lack access to basic services such as water, electricity, sanitation, health and safety.
The WLC has recently joined a Constitutional Court matter where we applied to intervene as amicus curiae to bring a specific feminist lens to the Mahlangu case which spoke to the exclusion of domestic workers from the Compensation of Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. Our submissions focused on the discrimination that the exclusion placed on black womxn who conducted domestic work in private homes and how this discrimination was regressive in that it perpetuated apartheid style treatment of black womxn whose work was determined less important.
COIDA protects employees who may have contracted an injury or disease during their employment by providing them with compensation. We are now faced with the reality of many domestic workers’ who may have been infected by the virus while employed in the private homes of rich affluent employers. These employers may have travelled internationally over these past few months and come into contact with the virus, bringing it back home to South Africa. The womxns’ vulnerability are compounded by their lived reality of where they live and work. The contrast is that the employer will have the necessary medical funds and speedy access to health, whereas the domestic worker will not only struggle to access adequate healthcare for herself but will go home to infect children and other dependants living with her. These are womxn who use public transport services and place others at risk of infection too.
Farm workers and farm dwellers are another vulnerable group in society and even more so during this time of lockdown. The President in his address thanked the “essential workers”, especially farm workers for contributing to the economy and food supply during this lockdown. But the lived reality for farm workers are that they live in unhygienic conditions on farms without access to water, sanitation or electricity. These are people far removed from the rest of society working on private land with little resource and access to heed to the national safety precautions against COVID-19. These persons live with weakened immune systems and pre-existing conditions due to their working environment where they are not provided with the necessary protective gear. These conditions make womxn who live and work on farms more susceptible to fall seriously ill should they contract COVID-19. These womxn live in poor infrastructure which is in close proximity to other farm dwellings and will not physically be able to self-isolate from their children and families.
In reality, self-isolation for people who live on the Cape Flats, informal settlements and rural areas are nearly impossible. In families of colour you find on average 3 to 6 people living in the same household in a wendy house, shack or one-bedroom dwelling. There is no space to keep a family member separate to monitor their health or isolate them should they show signs of an infection. An additional problem is the high risk and increase of domestic violence during this time when public interest organisations, service providers and even courts have closed its doors for the best interest of their own staff, family members and service users. The approach by all social justice organisations have been to provide telephone, email and social media details for persons to contact should they experience human rights violations during this time. Is this realistic? Will it help?
The lived reality of a womxn experiencing domestic violence during this time will unfortunately not be able to call a law firm to report her perpetrator when this perpetrator is stuck inside the house with her. For other womxn, they will prioritise food and home necessities over data and airtime. There have already been reports of people being abused by the SAPS and SANDF members for still being outside their homes and even though there have been directives of a moratorium on evictions in the Western Cape, there are reports of unlawful demolitions in other communities.
The continued spatial make-up of the Western Cape resembles our historic and apartheid effects of spatial segregation where people of colour live on the urban periphery with access to little and no basic services. As a result, these persons form the most vulnerable group in a pandemic because of their poor living conditions with already burdened access to health, safety, policing and socio-economic needs. These areas are riddled with crime and already overburdened with resource capacity for general assistance to communities. These are the communities our government should have approached and consulted with to determine the necessary assistance needed and community specific measures to put in place to aid these vulnerable groups during a lockdown. We would further urge the President and our government to consult with womxn and persons living in poorer and disadvantaged areas to develop a broader strategy of how to deal with the safety of black womxn in South Africa during this crisis and what form of assistance would work best.
ARE WE DOING ENOUGH?
This is a crucial time for the social justice sector to reflect on how we continue our work and services through an intersectional and collaborative lens. As lawyers and human rights activists, we need to check our privilege and resources first, to ensure that we do not adopt saviour mentalities and implement measures which are best suited and accessible to middle class people. Let us also not forget the mental well-being of our own staff members who will have to adapt to different personal and professional circumstances. Let us take this opportunity to truly lead in our social justice and human rights efforts as a collective as opposed to working in silos and to work as business as usual.
As a sector, we talk about protecting and serving those most vulnerable. But do we seriously consider the lived reality of womxn and inform our measures to their needs and input. Why is it that the President and our government has not allocated a special working service of the legal aid office which is designated to serve the indigent and provide them with access to basic legal services. Instead, our government is often the drivers of systemic violence against womxn and poor people in South Africa. Surely no mechanism implemented can be effective if not informed by womxn on the ground.
For the WLC, this has meant that we rethink our feminist strategy by taking a step back to determine how we serve womxn and ourselves best during this time. We relook our priorities both professionally and personally. As a feminist organisation it was important for us to take the lead in approaching this crisis in an intersectional and gendered manner and we did this by evaluating the well-being of our staff and their family members two weeks before the lockdown was announced. This meant first consulting with all staff members to determine their professional and personal needs. Ensuring that everyone had access to IT and data to work remotely and that these costs were covered by the organisation. We assessed who would fall within a high-risk category during this time and ensuring that they started working from home as soon as the virus reached South Africa in the first week of March. For those womxn who still needed to attend to the office, we ensured to arrange private transport paid for by the organisation to protect staff members from having to use public transport and place themselves at risk of infection. The organisational approach was to work remotely until the end of April to ensure not only the safety of our staff members, but also to ensure the safety of the womxn who use our services as we acknowledge the emotional and physical toll this will take on womxn.
The Women’s Legal Centre is an African Feminist legal organisation that was established in 1998 to advance the substantive rights of womxn through strategic litigation, advocacy, legal advice and rights-based education. Its objection is to develop feminist jurisprudence and policies that takes into account the lived realities of womxn through an intersectional and substantive equality lens. The WLC works with five strategic programmes, namely, violence against womxn, relationship rights, sexual reproductive and health rights, access to land and housing and women in work which focuses on Women’s Rights to Work in Just and Favourable Conditions. We will continue to be a point of legal access to womxn should they need legal advice or guidance during this time. For now, our points of access are firstname.lastname@example.org and 0214245660 and 0794218197. These portals will allow you to leave your name and contact details and someone will call you back and follow up on your query.
Chriscy Blouws is an attorney at the WLC and heads the Women in Work programme.