This blog was co-authored with Ncumisa Willie, human rights lawyer with expertise in migration and refugee law. Ncumisa works with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

The Coronavirus has proven to be a global public health emergency which continues to cost many lives and threaten social dynamics, hard-won rights and the very existence of humankind as we know it. Yet, governments have responded to the pandemic with nationalistic approaches that demonstrate a lack of appreciation of not only the global nature of the pandemic but also our interconnectedness and interdependence as a species. South Africa is a prime example of this nationalistic approach.

On the 24 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a speech at the African Union Bureau of Heads of State and government where he argued that “the COVID-19 virus does not respect borders.” He accordingly urged African leaders to contain the pandemic as a continent and asked that their work be underpinned by the principles of Pan-African unity, solidarity and coordination. Having heard his speech one would be forgiven for thinking that South Africa’s response to COVID-19 would be underpinned by sentiments of Pan-Africanism, inclusion and ubuntu. However, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Socio-economic exclusion

The national lockdown in South Africa has led to a situation where many migrant-owned small businesses have either collapsed or are on the verge of bankruptcy. Many working-class migrants have lost jobs and are unable to meet their needs and provide basic necessities for their families. Many who sell items on the sidewalks of streets and traffic intersections have all but subsisted on their capital and are therefore without any means of livelihood. The bulk of working-class migrants in South Africa operate retail kiosks (locally called spaza shops) and hawk goods. Many such shops that are located in townships resumed operations as of 01 June 2020, with the relaxation of the national lockdown. Notwithstanding the easing of the national lockdown, many migrants are struggling to provide for themselves and their families just like working-class, poor and unemployed locals who do not have the luxury of working from home.

The state’s response to the crisis ignores the full range of vulnerability and its dynamics. It is also not based on the structure of the society and local economies in townships and inner-city neighbourhoods. Local economies integrate people, irrespective of nationality and residency status. The state was only able to adopt an exclusionary citizenship-based criterion that excludes small enterprises whose employees, customers and creditors are made up of locals and migrants, by categorising the vulnerable into those deserving of social support and the undeserving. This action of the State is daily shown to be wrong-headed by the lives of dispatch riders who crisscross urban South Africa delivering critical sources of survival, from food to medication. Bracing the risk that comes with meeting numerous persons whose COVID-19 status they do not know. These underpaid and vulnerable migrants, excluded from state support, keep many people fed and safe while they expose themselves on regular delivery trips.

Another dimension of the exposure of poor and working-class migrants is obvious in the shadows of the economy. A group of hairdressers is forced to operate clandestinely in one of the lower middle-class settlements of Cape Town beckoning on people whose hair looks bushy and likely to consider having a haircut. The hairdressers are not allowed to work as part of the current nation-wide Level-3 lockdown, neither are they provided for in the relief packages. The closed barbering shop from where they operate has no ventilation. This creates the condition for easy transmission of the Virus but also other ailments. The decision of the state to exclude a section of society places many in danger, including the portion of the society that the state sees as its constituency and therefore deserving of support.[1]

Who will be responsible in the likely event that such clandestinely operated small businesses become hot spots for the transmission of the disease? Given the existing sentiments in the country, it will not be long before organs of the state and popular frustration against the lockdown is directed towards poor migrants as a unitary group.

It is obvious that even in a narrow nationalist state outlook, self-interest dictates that the relief measures be extended to this vulnerable segment of society, most of whom lack familial support structures on account of migrancy. It is concerning that there exists an officially sanctioned exclusion through the requirement of an identity document (ID) for social relief food parcels and the relief fund for unemployed persons.[2] Requiring an ID excludes all migrants except those with permanent residence, most of whom are likely to be the middle and upper classes. Moreover, it excludes refugees and asylum seekers even though South Africa has an international obligation towards them. In an unexplained inconsistency, refugees are excluded from the relief package although they are eligible for the South Africa Social Security Assistance (SASSA) grants for pensioners, persons with disability and indigent children.

Exclusion from accessing COVID-19 related health care services

Migrants are disproportionately susceptible to exclusion, stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented. The South African state bears a responsibility to ensure that migrants – documented or not – can access screening, testing and treatment services. South Africa has a large migrant population estimated to be around 4.2 million. Yet the state has failed to ensure migrants can access COVID-19 related health care. For example, the 'Person Under Investigation' (PUI) registration form requires people to provide information on their ‘nationality’ and identification details. The form only provides an option for an ID number or a passport number thereby excluding persons who do not have those identity documents. This excludes refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and other categories of undocumented individuals (whether they are South African or not).

The exclusion of any section of society from accessing testing, treatment and the palliative measures put in place during this COVID-19 period will, ultimately, undermine the government’s efforts to curtail the spread of the virus. It makes early detection, testing, diagnosis, contact tracing and seeking care for COVID-19 difficult for refugees and migrants thus increasing the risk of outbreaks in these population and presenting an additional threat to public health.

The virus and its implications necessitate an inclusive approach which leaves no one behind because our individual and collective wellbeing is precariously interconnected. Such an inclusive approach was signalled in the regulations issued in terms of the Disaster Management Act in which the government committed itself, without reference to nationality, to releasing resources to ensure the delivery of essential services, to prevent, limit, contain, combat and manage the spread of COVID-19. More than ever, the urgency of the moment places collective humanity as the primary focus of state action. The preservation of life should not be determined by nationality.

The narrow citizenship approach was always inadequate in dealing with an intertwined sociality. This has become more apparent in the face of the Coronavirus. The interdependent reality of life and death that COVID-19 reveals makes urgent a broad outlook in the definition of who belongs. COVID-19 necessitates the recognition of the reality on the ground: membership of a society is a constant work in progress. To close it off is to deny the social process and doing this can be lethal.

Narrow nationalism will not do at this moment; migrants are integral to the fabric of many communities in urban, peri-urban and rural South Africa. The bonds of sharing and solidarity and similar social circumstances and aspirations often break down the tensions and conflicts between locals and migrants. Influential sections of society such as politicians harp on about migration as the root cause of most of South Africa's problems and therefore drive xenophobic sentiments and attacks. A different mobilization based on evidence and an alternative vision of society will have to counter such narrowness as the groundwork for building a more humane society.

[1] It is important to note that many working-class and poor in society who are citizens are similarly excluded and therefore struggling to survive.

[2] The closure of the Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for renewing and issuing refugee permits, asylum permits and residence permits has made many vulnerable to harassment and extortion by law enforcement agents who are likely to ignore the moratorium on arrests of all those whose permits expired during the lockdown.