Building Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19


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Khanya College Report – March 2020

Pandemics and natural disasters demonstrate clearly the social divisions, the social inequality, the quality of the political leadership of a country and the compassion in any society. COVID-19 or the coronavirus outbreak comes at a time when the working class in South Africa has been significantly weakened and defenceless. This is not surprising after more than 25 years of neoliberalism that has wreaked havoc and impoverished millions in a wealthy country. Since 1994 there is little evidence to suggest that the government will change its neoliberal policies and respond to the needs of working people, which are even more dire during a pandemic. It is against this historical background that a campaign to build solidarity amongst working people in all communities is needed, and was initiated by Khanya College as early as 14 March, even before the state began to act on the pandemic.

While the organisations of the working class are generally weak, Khanya College’s movement building work with grassroots organisations, although limited and still in a very early phase, is gaining traction.

In response to the emerging outbreak of COVID-19, the College first met with one of its main constituencies, Community Healthcare Workers (CHWs), organised in the Gauteng Community Health Care Forum (the Forum). In an extended Office Bearers meeting the implications of the pandemic and its impact on the South African working class in general, and the CHWs in particular, was analysed. CHWs have been on the frontline of the HIV/AIDS pandemic since 2002, and are pivotal to community healthcare. They are central to alleviating the burden of disease (TB, diabetes, high blood and other diseases). Despite this, the South African government and the Department of Health does not recognise them and they are treated as ‘volunteers’. The CHWs gather community-based statistics for government on morbidity and the failing health system. In this pandemic CHWs will once again be on the frontline and are hence integral to this campaign.

Analysis of South Africa’s neoliberalism and the pandemic

On 14 March the Forum and Khanya College facilitated an educational meeting/workshop on COVID-19 with the key constituencies that the College works with – high school youth, young writers, women coordinators from OVCs who organise children and youth, CHWs, waste-pickers (recyclers), community journalists, a women’s Feminist Network, and other social movement activists. On this day the whole day was used to discuss COVID-19, what it is and its impact on the country, especially working class and other working people.

The meeting first focused on the broader context of South Africa’s social inequality, widespread poverty, unemployment, the failing health system, poor nutrition and immuno-compromised communities, especially among youth and women. It also discussed the unhealthy and cramped living space in townships and informal settlements, general slum conditions and lack of basic services. The meeting reflected on how these conditions increased people’s general vulnerability to morbidity (diseases).

Assessing the South African government’s neoliberal track record over more than two decades; the general living conditions of the majority and the failing healthcare system, the meeting concluded that it was unlikely that government would put working class communities at the centre of any strategy to combat COVID-19. The meeting also noted government’s slow response to the encroaching pandemic. On two recent occasions, the President’s State Of the Nation Address and the Finance Minister’s Budget Speech, both in February 2020 failed to mention the COVID-19 pandemic. The finance minister also did not make additional budget provisions to combat COVID-19. In fact, the budget for 2020/2021 reduced the budget for social services in general and health in particular. It became patently clear to the grassroots constituencies that unless communities take responsibility and organise themselves, the pandemic will decimate large sections of the working class. The central role of women in the campaign was also emphasised. This arises from the way in which neoliberalism places the burden of social reproduction on women, and hence they form the majority in many working class formations.

The analysis that took shape in the workshop of the 14 March was put together in a small booklet that was published immediately after the workshop. (https://karibu.org.za/wp-content/uploads/Corona-Booklet-Inside.pdf)

Building a campaign: ‘Spread solidarity and not COVID-19’

The workshop also began to put together the elements of a campaign of struggle to defend communities against the spread of the coronavirus. The meeting agreed to a broad campaign to combat COVID-19 and identified three phases of the campaign. At the outset it was made clear that this was not a Facebook or Twitter campaign, but needs to be based on grassroots organising, while at the same time keeping activists safe, by being mindful of physical distancing, regularly washing of hands and not touching our faces. All three phases of the campaign need to be documented as a record of the campaign, community conditions and to monitor human rights in practice in each phase.

The first phase of the campaign would focus on education and awareness raising, aiming to alert and mobilise communities about the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to protect themselves. The emphasis of this phase was the need to highlight that “Prevention is better than cure!”. An educational pamphlet on COVID-19 was distributed on the same day to schools, clinics, reclaimers and communities.

The second phase of the campaign needs to focus on building working class solidarity in communities, and local neighbourhoods that should include initiatives to pool and share resources. For instance, to quarantine the ill in one house, share food, separate the elderly who are more vulnerable from children (possible ‘carriers’) and so forth. People need to be aware of the dangers, and precautions must be undertaken to keep as many safe as possible. Following the example of countries such as China and Italy, the meeting took into account that government would call for a complete lockdown of the country to ‘flatten the curve’ or minimise the outbreak. The window of opportunity for education and awareness raising was therefore limited and needed to begin urgently and immediately.

The third phase of the campaign, would likely take place during the lockdown and depend largely on CHWs and other essential workers who would be mobile, with their work in townships and local clinics. In this phase there is a need to support local community solidarity initiatives, to keep communities united, and all basic needs met.

Local Campaign Structures Setup

Organising communities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic presents major challenges as activists have to protect themselves against infection, and organise and mobilise various target audiences. While observing protocols of physical distance, activists will need to organise in neighbourhoods and ensure that the working class is actively involved in its own defence against the impact of COVID-19. This also means talking to people outside, waging a political battle for access to public space, while observing the protocols that prevent infection.

It was agreed that the immediate priority of the local campaign structures is to educate communities about the pandemic and how to protect themselves, and their families.

The aim of the local campaign structures is to organise in local communities, every street and neighbourhood must be organised. This must include the regular flow of communication and coordination of activities; educating people and facilitating neighbourhoods to self-organise, decentralise and make decisions based on their needs.

Based on the composition of the meeting, activists were organised into six local geographic campaign groups, namely:

  • Soweto,
  • Johannesburg Inner City and Alexandra,
  • Ekhurleni,
  • Vaal,
  • East Rand (This group will be subdivided into north, south to facilitate joint work with organisations like Casual Workers Advice Office)
  • West Rand.

Each group is action-oriented, and consists of about 10 activists. A coordinator was elected by each group to liaise and communicate with the office and the team. Groups set up convenient times to meet and distribute educational campaign materials; times and places for Khanya to drop-off of pamphlets (and bleach where necessary). As the campaign broadens, additional activists will be included, and it will expand to other localities.

Formation of a broader Campaign network

On 18 March a follow-up meeting was held with a broader layer of about 40 activists from various working class formations such as CWAO and GIWUSA (General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa), and NGOs such as ILRIG (International Labour Research and Information Group), and other social movements. The meeting aligned with the Khanya-Forum campaign orientation and agreement to actively support the working class to organise and defend itself. As the group develops they will link up with and expand local structures. Participating organisations and activists agreed to implement the campaign with immediate effect.

A platform statement illustrating the groups broader aims and orientation was circulated and finalised after comments from activists and the sponsoring organisations. The next step in the campaign network will be to build the network on the ground with activists from all the formations.

Report on mobilisation in March 2020

From 14 March to 1 April Khanya distributed about 200 000 educational flyers and engaged various target audiences as part of the campaign. This major distribution effort was done with the help of CWAO, which linked its own distribution effort to that of Khanya. In addition, the activists of Khanya and CWAO distributed bleach to communities, and to clinics in particular.

Schools

In addition to the distribution of pamphlets by school representatives at the 14 March meeting, Khanya used the opportunity to distribute and engage 11 schools on Monday and Tuesday, 16-17 March, in Johannesburg, just before they closed for the lockdown. The intention is for school youth to share this information with their family households and in streets and neighborhoods.

Taxi ranks

Khanya staff and interns distributed educational flyers and posters to all the taxi ranks in the inner-city of Johannesburg, including MTN Noord taxi rank, Bree 1 and 2, Faraday and Westgate taxi ranks. The CHWs distributed pamphlets to the taxi ranks in the West Rand, East Rand and in Tshwane. Activists reported that taxi drivers were surprisingly engaging and accommodating. Drivers allowed posters to be put in their taxis and the distribution of flyers but they complained that they were waiting for Minister Mbalula to fulfill the promises he had made: they had received no sanitisers, there was no water in many of the taxi ranks to wash their hands, in some the taps were broken and/or the water turned off. Drivers also said the taxi ranks had not been cleaned and disinfected as promised. Drivers asked Khanya for sanitiser as they couldn’t afford to buy any for themselves. They also reported that taxi-owners were not providing sanitiser for them. They also complained that they were stopped and harassed by traffic police who were checking up on sanitisers in taxis.

Communities

Activists in the inner-city distributed flyers and sanitisers to informal settlements in the inner-city of Johannesburg. The groups active in Soweto also distributed flyers in a number of areas. CHWs active in the campaign also ensured that all the communities around which their clinics are situated also had flyers distributed. In many instances the activists were well received in their communities, with community members expressing the desire to participate in this campaign and asking for more information on COVID-19.

Clinics

The CHWs also reported that they had distributed pamphlets and bleach to about 40 clinics in the four districts of Gauteng – West Rand, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane. CWAO assisted the Forum with the printing and distribution of flyers and bleach on the East Rand. On the West Rand, local activists who are members of the Socialist Workers Revolutionary Party (SWRP) assisted CHWs with the distribution of pamphlets in Potchestroom (in North West province) and Lenasia. The shortage of sanitiser has led to the use of alternatives like bleach. The Forum also assisted with the distribution of flyers in Mpumalanga, where CHWs are beginning to organise themselves into a Forum.

In the absence of education and sanitiser from government, the Forum’s distribution of educational flyers and bleach to the 40 clinics was well-received. In this the Forum has taken the moral high ground and earned respect from various quarters: from CHWs who are non-members, clinic management, local nurses and communities. In many clinics the Khanya flyer was the only informational material available – there was no information available from government that was distributed to either clinic staff or communities. The Khanya flyer was also translated into isiZulu and Sesotho, which made them more accessible. In the clinic, once the flyers arrived, all CHWs (including non-Forum members) participated in the distribution to communities. The response of communities has been very positive. Some local Small and Medium Enterprises in townships appreciated the work of the Forum and offered their support for the campaign. This indicates the goodwill and possibilities within the working class that is available for mobilisation in the fight against COVID-19.

Karibu!, FAJs and Media

Although the meeting of 14 March emphasised that the COVID-19 campaign will not be a Facebook or Twitter campaign, the role of the media in informing and mobilsing the community was emphasised. Khanya’s online newspaper, Karibu! is an important focal point to provide access to government regulations, critiques and daily news from working class communities. The daily news is provided by the Forum of Activist Journalists (FAJs), who are local activists based in townships. About 31 articles were uploaded onto the Karibu! website between mid and end of March, and thousands of visitors came to the site in this period.

The FAJs are an important source of monitoring community responses and human rights in townships. The Karibu! is thus contributing to much needed communication, information and exposure about the levels or non-existence of government promised implementation. Karibu! is also a space to interpret what is happening during the campaign.

In addition, three articles featured the struggle of CHWs on the frontline in the Mail and Guardian (March 19), City Press (21 March) and Amandla! (April). The Secretary of the Forum was also interviewed on Metro FM.

Political & theoretical analysis

The role and importance of political and theoretical analysis to understand and fight against the pandemic cannot be over-emphasised. Analysis is the key to understand the pandemic in its broader context, to develop a strategic orientation and to arm activists. This clarity provides the basis for organising working people and communities.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and government’s approach, a number of position papers were developed to deepen activists’ clarity of perspectives and to contest the public domain. The papers critique government’s response with regards to its implications for working class communities. Continuous and consistent analysis will be important as the campaign against COVID-19 unfolds.

Some of these papers include the following: ‘In the Eye of the Storm’; and Worshipping Markets while SA burns’. These papers have been distributed on Whatsapp, email, Facebook and uploaded on the Karibu! website (www.karibu.org.za).

Preparing for legal challenge

After an analysis of the responses of various neoliberal governments around the world to the COVID-19 pandemic Khanya College began work with the Forum to prepare a legal challenge to the government’s approach to the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to CHWs. The supply of PPEs has been one of the key struggles by healthcare workers all over the world, and the tardiness of the government’s response and its commitment to neoliberal austerity convinced Khanya that a legal challenge – among other strategies – will be needed to compel the government to meet its obligations to the CHWs and the community to provide adequate PPEs. Khanya was able to secure a committed group of lawyers led by experienced counsel who has worked with CHWs to prepare legal challenges to what is increasingly emerging as a policy of neglect driven by the policies of austerity.

Reprogramming Khanya work to respond to COVID-19

A considerable amount of effort in Khanya has been devoted to reprogramming the work of the College so that it could respond and continue to pursue its mission of facilitating the struggles of the working class under the new conditions dictated by COVID-19. Khanya was aware of the impending lockdown, and that many organisations will choose to ‘close shop’ for the duration of the lockdown. Further, Khanya became aware that against the background of epidemiological models, the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for months and for even a year. For Khanya College, shutting down the institution in this context is not an historical option. Instead, ways have to be found to organise and to continue delivering programmes in the time of COVID-19, and under the specific conditions under which the working class lives.

Against this background all Khanya programmes were redesigned to respond to COVID-19 and to find new ways of developing content and of delivering content in the short-term. In the medium term (which is counted in weeks in the context of COVID-19), Khanya is developing proposals on how to respond to COVID-19 in the context of its flagship programmes like the Winter School and the Jozi Book Fair.

Creating infrastructures of organising under COVID-19

As part of repurposing programmes for COVID-19 condition, Khanya spend efforts creating the technical infrastructures that will make it possible for the organisation to operate. The focus of these efforts were to ensure that working class activists are not excluded from participation in organisation, notwithstanding the fact that South African society is organised to exclude the working class in public life and determining its own destiny. The results of this effort have been important for ensuring that the Karibu! newspaper can operate, that educational flyers and materials like bleach can continue to be distributed, that the leadership of the Forum can continue to meet and lead the organisation, and strengthening other important organisational capabilities for Khanya College and other formations that it works with.

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