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The poor have far more pressing issues other than Covid-19

Zingisa Mkhuma

Zingisa Mkhuma

Published Dec 10, 2021


Zingisa Mkhuma

Zingisa Mkhuma

It was quite tragic and sad that even elderly women - the pillars of our black society - found themselves having to go out and loot for essentials, including medicines.

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This was the stark truth during the recent riots and destruction that took place, in July, mainly in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal.

Traditionally and culturally, our mothers are the ones who bring sanity, discipline and hope in many of our female-headed households, where there is a dire shortage of fathers or male leadership in black communities.

Throughout the ages, elderly women have been cherished and respected for their tenacity, wisdom and leadership skills, both within family set-up, as well as in the community whenever the menfolk were either in apartheid jails or working beneath the earth in the ’bellies of the mines’ - as the late Hugh Masekela intoned in his hit song Stimela - trying to eke out a living.

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Examples of such women are many: the likes of Ellen Khuzwayo, Albertina Sisulu, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, Ntsiki Biko, Urbania Lonake Mothopeng, among many mothers and wives of Struggle heroes, including the unsung heroines we hardly ever hear about in this country.

Indeed, many leading public figures today can attest to how their grannies instilled respect, humility and how to fight and fend for themselves in a tricky world. Many owe their success and existence to these women who have always shown fortitude and courage in the face of oppression, diseases, such as TB and HIV in particular, when their children and grand-children were, effectively, wiped out. They were watched helplessly as the young generation perished, leaving them vulnerable, and to face the world alone.

To this day, 27 years after ’Uhuru’, too many of these elderly women still wake up in the morning, catch a taxi and go to work, or to sell their wares at street corners, well past their retirement age, because they have school-going grandchildren to raise.

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I have met many in public hospitals, bus stops and at shopping malls. How could I forget the elderly lady in a metro bus to Melrose Arch in 2015? She was petite and had a little shawl wrapped around her shoulders during the cold months. She got off along Oxford Road in Rosebank. And her frailty made her struggle a bit getting off the bus.

The lady sitting next to me said the white folks Gogo worked for, kept her going by giving her a salary and allowing her to come in whenever she could, because they knew her predicament: she had grandchildren to feed, and to educate.

The brave Gogos I encountered at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital had brought in their grandchildren, some with cerebral palsy, for treatment and for chronic medication, because their sons and daughters had succumbed to diseases, and they had to parent young children, all over again, in their mature age.

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And there are many elderly women across our communities, who have never enjoyed the meaning of “retirement”. Retirement belongs to those who have millions in retirement funds and far too few comprise the older black generation, because they worked during apartheid when black people earned peanuts, and very few were in executive positions offering meaningful benefits. And, they essentially had no real rights in apartheid SA.

So, the fact that we saw them coming out in numbers to loot side-by-side with their grandchildren, was a very sad indictment of our democracy, and how those who are well-off, particularly those in the governing party, have lost touch with the reality of the poor masses in South Africa.

I hear a voice say: the legacy of apartheid still lingers. I agree. I would add that so does the legacy of greed and corruption that has bled this country dry over three decades of black majority rule. One need only take one look at the Auditor General’s reports since 1994 and you will know what I am talking about.

Last year’s lockdown caused more damage to the poor families than we can ever quantify.

It is easy for the fat-cats to support and adhere to lockdown regulations by working from home, because they can afford all the necessary electronic tools to enable them to be productive and still earn a decent living.

They are the most vocal and noisy minority that is able to social-distance, and go out only when it has to, and this is the group of people who are now pushing vaccines, because they need the so-called Covid passport to resume their affluent lifestyle, including international travel.

Conversely, the poor, who make up the country’s majority, have a constant battle trying to gain access to basic amenities such as health facilities, running water and constant supplies of electricity, that the issue of a Covid passport, is the least of their worries.

I know that there is a community in Dube, Soweto, that has been without electricity for almost a year and another in Rockville, also in Soweto, which stayed without power for a good three-year period, until recently.

Health services are no better at all. The lawsuits on botched operations and deaths running into billions of rands faced by the Gauteng Health Department, reveals the inhumane face of democratic SA.

Noticeably, the poor of this country have learnt to be self-reliant even when they are sick, hence you will hear stories from these communities that Covid-19 affects only the rich, because if truth be told, we get to hear about how deadly diseases are when they start affecting the few who live outside of poverty’s circle of life.

It seems TB, Malaria and HIV, which are still the scourge of the poor, have been totally ignored lately, and tossed to the back seat, as Covid-19 is the major focus. We are brought back to reality and feign shock when stats come out that 10-year-olds are being infected with HIV at an alarming rate. And this should be giving us sleepless nights, because our children are our future, and where we should be pouring resources, if we really care.

Indeed, I observed at an informal settlement in Katlehong, Ekurhuleni, in July, when the Delta variant was reportedly wreaking havoc in Gauteng, scores of men sitting around and sharing a meal and drinking from the same beer bottle without glasses, while women and children were carrying buckets of water from afar, because water supply had been cut in the morning.

Writing with ethnographic licence, I disagree with the narrative that says, these people are reckless and deserve jail sentences for not adhering to lockdown regulations. Now, there is a worrying narrative from our rulers, that those who refuse vaccines must be jailed or banned from access to services, etc., because they are a threat to society.

The truth is that, the poor in this country, have other pressing issues to contend with than Covid-19. And these revolve mainly around, access to food – a daily meal for God’s sake! Their other pressing issues include basic amenities, such as access to electricity and water, and navigating the spate of violent crime, including murder and rape, that is in part, a consequence of the socio-economic structural set-up, as a result of history, in SA, with all its associated hazards, for particularly, the poor.

Take a walk and see how sewage randomly spills into people’s living areas, and how they are forced to use stinky portable communal toilets. How young children have to walk in mud and dirt and with pigs roaming around freely among humans, and no authorities raise an alarm about the health implications for these impoverished communities.

Before you bark orders, “get into their skin and take a walk in their shoes”, to borrow from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird.

A regular argument stands as follows: If you don’t care about where I live, what I eat or drink, whether I have access to primary health care facilities, whether me and my children are protected from criminals or avoidable killer diseases and malnutrition, why would you then care, if I get infected with Covid-19 or not? It’s just a question - to ponder.

Yes, there are social grants galore, but do we really expect an entire generation to live on social grants? There are graduates who have turned 40 and have never worked and now live on the R350 stipend. And then what? You go figure.

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