Covid-19 follows the geospatial lines of apartheid

Khayelitsha, Cape Town
Khayelitsha, Cape Town

The coronavirus is hitting South Africa’s mainly black townships harder than areas that were once the exclusive preserve of white people, according to new data that highlights the lasting impact of apartheid-era housing policies.

More than two decades after the end of white minority rule, SA remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, with urban areas starkly divided along racial lines.

Townships in the Western Cape province, South Africa’s main coronavirus hot-spot, are suffering particularly high rates of infection, government tracking shows.

Nearly 12% of all infections in the Western Cape are in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town, even though it has just 6% of the province’s population. By contrast Stellenbosch, known for its winelands and a university town, has just 1% of Western Cape’s cases and makes up about 4% of its population.

Other hot-spots include Mitchells Plain township, which has 9% of infections.

We are seeing townships become virus hot-spots because we haven’t dismantled the apartheid city

“We are seeing townships become virus hot-spots because we haven’t dismantled the apartheid city,” said Edward Molopi, a researcher with housing and human rights charity the Socio-Economic Research Institute.

South Africans have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest police brutality in townships in an echo of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. Human rights defenders have said security forces were deployed to enforce lockdowns mainly in poor black areas such as the high-density townships, where higher population numbers and overcrowding made it impossible to properly isolate.

“Covid-19 has exposed the brutal inequality in SA,” said Chris Nissen, a commissioner from the SA Human Rights Commission, an independent watchdog. “People say all lives should matter, but what about people in townships? Don’t their lives matter too?”

South Africa has more than 58,500 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 1,284 deaths according to a tally by the John Hopkins University.

The government is expecting an escalation of cases ahead of a predicted August/September peak and rising community infection rates in townships.

But it is struggling with a shortage of test kits, healthcare staff and hospital beds. The city of Cape Town has partnered with the department of water and sanitation to distribute 41-million litres of water into informal settlements to aid hand-washing to stem the spread of the virus.

“We remain committed to doing all we can to find solutions to challenges in serving our vulnerable residents,” said Xanthea Limberg, a member of the city’s mayoral committee for water and waste in a press release.

Molopi said the virus has exposed how little has changed in SA cities since apartheid ended.

“During apartheid, black people had to live in sub-standard, crowded, unsanitary conditions, far from economic opportunity,” Molopi said. “Not much has changed.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

In the public interest, most of our coronavirus news isn’t behind our paywall, and is free to read. To support our mission of delivering award-winning, independent local news, subscribe from as little as R45 per month by clicking here.


Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.