Feminise the pandemic: Covid-19 and gender inequality in South Africa

Like all countries around the world, South Africa is now dealing with the uncertainty of navigating in uncharted waters, as it moves from full lockdown to a gradual easing of restrictions – at the beginning of the month, mining and manufacturing went back to normal, and businesses such as sit-down restaurants, casinos, hotels and hair-dressers are expected to reopen soon.

With no vaccine or cure available, it is possible that South Africans will have to live with the virus – and varying levels of restrictions – for quite some time. In this piece, I want to reflect on a key aspect of the government response to the pandemic, one that will have significant influence on how South Africa as a society will continue to deal with the highly uneven health, economic and social effects of Covid-19: the gendered nature of the government’s calls to action. This is not only a South African problem and requires constant comparison with similar challenges faced elsewhere.

“Force or kindness” or hypermasculinity?

On the evening of 26 March 2020, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered an address to the military troops that were about to be deployed to enforce the national full lockdown that started four hours later. Unlike his usual suit and starched shirt or colourful political party pleather jacket, he donned combat gear, to signify his constitutional role as the Commander in Chief of the South African armed forces.

His camouflage uniform was so well ironed, any fly that landed on his seam would surely have perished. He lectured sombre troops and discharged them to “wage war against an invisible enemy”. He implored the soldiers to act as “a force of kindness”, not “as a force of might”. The army’s mission was “to save lives” and to defend South Africa against Covid-19.

Ramaphosa continued:

This is not a moment for skop en donner [“kick and beat” in Afrikaans]. This is not a moment for skiet en donner [“shoot and beat” in Afrikaans]. This is a moment to be supportive to our people. When they see you patrol with your guns, they will be fearful, but make sure that when they see you, they see the kindness of the state of South Africa.

The president knew that the moment he had decided to deploy the army, he had to assuage fears that a militarised state might come back under guise of Covid-19 containment measures, with memories of the brutalities of the apartheid state still fresh in the minds and bodies of many.

Despite Ramaphosa’s appeals, it was hard not to feel the weight of the military style as the troops left Doornkop Army Base in Soweto in a straight steel beige column, echoing familiar scenes from war zones. Cities and towns were bathed in blue light and warnings on loud hailers. The next morning, an eerie silence covered most streets like a blanket. Videos circulated on social media of people fleeing the military, as those apprehended were being frog marched home.

I wondered if the “force of kindness” was up to task. In Sepedi, one would say masole a setjaba a tshireletsha masole a mmele (“the country’s soldiers are defending the white blood cells”). An armed force that guards people’s immune systems. Is this plausible? Or is there an inherent contradiction that even Ramaphosa, with his measured speech, could not quite resolve?

The shadow pandemic

The masculine display of force of the South African military can be seen in stark contrast to another scourge that is rapidly picking up, as the virus continues to claim its victims in South Africa and around the world: the shadow pandemic of domestic and gender-based violence.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of United Nations Women referred to the unprecedented situation created by Covid-19 containment measures as “a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors”. A wave of reports from China, Bolivia, Italy, Greece, South Africa, Singapore, the United Kingdom, India, the Netherlands, and the United States of America, to name a few countries, indicates a dramatic rise in domestic violence across the world. Women, but also children and the elderly, are exposed to violence that could range from physical beatings to rape or murder.

The UN Secretary General António Guterres spoke about the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence”, cautioning that “peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes”.

In early April, South Africa’s Police Minister Bheki Cele – who also dons the military title of “General” – reported some preliminary statistics from the first week of the lockdown, which indicated a “general decrease in serious and violent crimes”, attributing this, among other things, to the closure of liquor outlets mandated by the state. At the same time, his speech also acknowledged that complaints for GBV remained high, and stated that the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units at police stations would be reinforced.

But while these efforts should be recognised, much more is needed. The disaster management regulations issued by the government at the end of April make provisions for people living with disabilities, residents of drug rehabilitation centres, the elderly, and children in care homes as well as survivors of gender-based violence. But the reality is that the specificities of domestic violence are not addressed, and the Department of Social Development has inadequate funding to cater for all sectors of the vulnerable South African population.

At a more structural level, domestic violence can only be truly stopped if the whole system of what feminist scholar and activist bell hooks refers to as “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is dismantled. In South Africa, gender-based violence is directly linked to the history of the brutal patriarchal racialised systems of colonialism and apartheid.

Feminising the pandemic

There is no doubt that the welfare of women should be located at the centre of national and global responses to public health emergencies. But what is also needed is a bold rethinking of the ideological and narrative principles that guide such interventions. With all the efforts Ramaphosa made in trying to smoothen the hypermasculinity of military imagery and rhetoric, an excessive focus on military intervention and metaphors – no matter how “kind” – is likely to create more problems than it solves.

The Covid-19 pandemic is showing that the work that matters the most in the fight against the virus is in fact already “feminised” work. From care work for sick family members at home to healthcare in clinics and hospitals, this is not just about the demography of those who work as home carers, cleaners, nurses, and community healthcare workers – who are for the most part women.

All these jobs have to do with the essential work of social reproduction and social protection that is needed to sustain human life. From the often invisible work of women in the home to formally recognised jobs, these sectors receive a fraction of the funding and support the state gives to the military and defence sectors.

The response of the South African government should focus less on the military and more on the frontlines that really matter: the hospital and the home. Affirming and adequately resourcing healthcare workers, caregivers, other low-income essential workers and everybody working in feminised spaces and industries is what will save us from Covid-19, and from the harsh inequalities the pandemic has thrown into stark relief.

These workers are the true “force of kindness” that will protect our immune systems from harm.

Kgomotso Ramushu is an independent researcher and writer. She has worked in education policy making and grant management for a decade.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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