South Africa marks Freedom Day, but coronavirus is highlighting racial disparities


South Africa’s divisions over race and wealth inequality, which the COVID-19 crisis had briefly sidelined, returned to the fore on Monday’s 26th anniversary of the end of apartheid.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been praised for decisive action to curb the epidemic in Africa’s most industrialized country, which has one of the continent’s strictest lockdowns and has recorded just 4,546 cases and 87 deaths.

“South Africans have come together like never before to wage the struggle against this virus,” Ramaphosa told the country.

However, recriminations are rising over inequalities in conditions to cope with the restrictions and distribution of aid around an economy already in recession.

“Our government loves … to keep white people happy and safe, even at the expense of Africans,” Julius Malema, leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, said in a statement.

Twenty-six years ago, South Africans rejoiced at their first ever fully inclusive democratic election, which saw Nelson Mandela elected as their first president under black majority rule, ending decades of apartheid. Freedom Day has since been designated a public holiday on April 27.

But critics say Mandela’s legacy party, the African National Congress, has not done enough to redress inequalities in land, wealth and access to services that are apartheid’s most enduring legacy, and which on some measures have worsened.

A health worker stands outside a stadium where residents from Alexandra township in Johannesburg were lined up to be tested for COVID-19 on Monday. South Africa will began a phased easing of its strict lockdown measures on May 1, although its confirmed cases of coronavirus continue to increase. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

A government study last year found that whites on average earned more than four times as much as blacks. A year earlier, the state Human Rights Commission said in a report that the richest 10 per cent of South Africans owned more than 90 per cent of wealth.

Daniel Silke, of Political Futures Consultancy, said the coronavirus crisis had briefly put political divisions on the backburner before pumping them up with “steroids.”

“The corona outbreak has brought into sharpest focus the … inequalities that exist between black and white people in South Africa,” said Malema in a statement few would deny, although it omitted to mention a growing, wealthy black elite that includes him.

“Even when they want to be in self-isolation, our people do not have spacious houses to isolate into because they stay in shacks. Even when they want to keep maximum hygiene … they do not have access to clean water.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, white minority party Afriforum and allied union Solidarity threatened legal action against the tourism department, which they accused of overlooking white-owned businesses for assistance.

Of a 500-billion rand ($37.25-billion Cdn) coronavirus rescue package, nearly one-fifth has been set aside for the poor and unemployed. Much of the rest will help businesses keep afloat, not least the ravaged tourism sector.

A vegetables seller waits for customers on April 23 in Soweto. South Africa has been under a countrywide lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

But Afriforum and Solidarity, who plan to go to court on Tuesday, complained that “the Department of Tourism will … discriminate against you based on the colour of your skin” when it came to deciding who gets aid.

In a rebuff earlier this month, Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said that the state was offering one-off small grants to small businesses guided by black empowerment criteria, but added: “Any person or business in the tourism sector can apply for the fund, regardless of the colour of their skin.”

Cuban doctors arrive, screening is ramped up

Meanwhile, more than 200 doctors from Cuba have arrived in South Africa to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The doctors, including community health and infectious disease specialists, arrived early Monday morning and were welcomed by military and health authorities.

South Africa requested assistance from the Cuban government, which is sending more than 1,000 doctors to 22 countries, including Togo and Angola.

A Cuban doctor, at centre wearing white, among a brigade of health professionals who volunteered to travel to South Africa, takes a photo with her relatives before leaving Havana on April 25. (Ramon Espinosa/The Associated Press)

Cuba’s government supported the African National Congress in its fight against South Africa’s apartheid system of racist minority rule. Now the ANC is South Africa’s ruling party and has good relations with Cuba.

The Cuban medical personnel will stay in a two-week quarantine before starting work. They have arrived as South Africa is increasing community testing, especially in poor, crowded neighbourhoods.

In the economic hub of Gauteng province, which includes South Africa’s largest city of Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria, mass screening and testing is scheduled to take place throughout the week.

The screening and testing will also concentrate on the Western Cape province, which includes the city of Cape Town and which has largest number of COVID-19 cases.

South Africa has conducted nearly 170,000 tests. The country has 28,000 experienced community health workers who track contacts of people who test positive to help contain the spread of the disease.

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