COVID-19 among South African shackdwellers

April 29, 2020

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa has held small meetings with elected leaders in all the provinces where we have members to discuss the coronavirus crisis. The best available scientific information has been shared with our members. We have decided to suspend our entire program until the crisis has passed. This includes our annual UnFreedom Day rally which usually attracts more than 5,000 people.


The resources that would have been used for meetings, protests and rallies have all been redirected towards providing equipment that can help people to survive this crisis. We are all doing all that we can to communicate the best information, based on science, to our members and to combat fake news and conspiracy theories.

Already people who live in shack settlements are faced with many other diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, HIV, and various stress-related conditions. This is as a direct result of the failure of the government to provide housing and basic services to our communities; the failures and decline of the healthcare system, as well as the economic crisis that has resulted in mass unemployment. There is real fear that this new virus will hit impoverished people the hardest.

Class determines who has medical aid and who does not, who has access to water, sanitation and safe means for heating and lighting and who does not. It is now vital that we politicize the crisis caused by the coronavirus and that impoverished and working-class people take their place in this process.

On March 15 the President of South Africa made a call to all South Africans to take precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. However, many of the measures that are being recommended assume that everyone lives in a house that is at no risk of being destroyed by the state, a house which has water and sanitation.

But millions of us continue to live in shacks of indignity. It does not seem possible to prevent this virus from spreading when we still live in the mud like pigs, when in many settlements there is no water, or hundreds of people share one tap, and many settlements lack any access to sanitation.

Municipalities across the country do not collect refuse from shack settlements. In Mbizana, communities share water with cattle, which results in many diseases.


Our members have also expressed concern that the high unemployment rate and the extreme poverty in shack settlements makes it difficult for us to stay in our homes. If we do, we may die as a result of starvation before the virus gets us. Our members have noted that it is difficult to isolate ourselves from each other as we live under extremely congested conditions. Another concern is that we continue to have our shacks (illegally and violently) demolished by the state during this time of crisis.

Weeks ago we wrote to KwaZulu-Natal’s Member of the Executive Council for Health requesting an urgent meeting to discuss how we can work together to keep residents of shack settlements safe in this time of crisis. We have not received a reply, or even an acknowledgement of our email.

We would like to express our appreciation for and solidarity with all nurses, doctors and other health professionals working against this virus, including people working as cleaners and in other jobs in hospitals, and to call for a massive increase in financial support for the healthcare system. In our office in Durban we have pictures of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon. They were both radical doctors who took the side of the oppressed. Steve Biko was a medical student before he was banned and then murdered. We would like to invite all progressive doctors and other medical experts, to work with us, as comrades, as we oppose this pandemic.

Contact: Mqapheli Bonono 073067 3274, Nomsa Sizani 081005 3686, OJ Majola 063 181997

Land & Dignity!

—Abahlali baseMjondolo


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