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Coronavirus exposes 'brutal inequality' of S.Africa townships

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 12 June 2020 15:13 GMT

Shacks are seen through the doorway of domestic worker Alphonia Zali's two roomed apartment, as authorities around the world impose various guidelines on lockdowns and social distancing to curb the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Langa township near Cape Town, South Africa, May 7, 2020. Picture taken May 7, 2020. Mphakamisi Zali/Handout via REUTERS

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Infections data mapping highlights the lasting impact of apartheid-era housing policies

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By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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, South Africa 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 hotspot, are suffering particularly high rates of infection, government tracking shows.

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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 hotspots include Mitchells Plain township, which has 9% of infections.

"We are seeing townships become virus hotspots because we haven't dismantled the apartheid city," said Edward Molopi, a researcher with housing and human rights charity the Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg.

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 United States.

A man in protective clothing speaks trough a loud hailer as he addresses locals queueing ahead of food distribution amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Alexandra township, South Africa, April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Human rights defenders have said security forces were deployed to enforce lockdowns mainly in poor black areas like high density townships, where higher population numbers and overcrowding made it impossible to properly isolate.

"COVID-19 has exposed the brutal inequality in South Africa," said Chris Nissen, a commissioner from the South African Human Rights Commission, an independent watchdog.

"People say all lives should matter, but what about people in townships? Don't their lives matter too?" said Nissen in a phone interview.

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 shortages of test kits, healthcare staff and hospital beds.

A child runs past rows of communal toilets in Khayelitsha township ahead of a 21 day lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cape Town, South Africa, March 25, 2020. Picture taken March 25, 2020. REUTERS/ Mike Hutchings

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 handwashing to stem the virus spread.

"We remain committed to doing all we can to find solutions to challenges in serving our vulnerable residents," said Alderman Limberg, a member of the city's Mayoral Committee for Water and Waste in a press release.

Molopi said the virus had exposed how little had changed in South African cities since apartheid ended.

"During apartheid, black people had to live in sub-standard, crowded, unsanitary conditions, far from economic opportunity," Molopi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Not much has changed."

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(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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