South African women and the struggle against gender based violence and covid-19

Gauteng Community Health Workers, predominantly female, and EPWP workers' march and sleep-over at Union Buildings in February 2020

The announcement of the most vicious cuts in social spending since the fall of apartheid, while simultaneously cutting taxes on big business, is a declaration of war against the working class, especially women.

The budget has been announced against a background of a war on women. As is the case throughout the world, women in South Africa have been the hardest hit by measures imposed to minimize the spread of the pandemic. The hard lock-down, which led to the shutdown of the economy and job losses worse than was experienced in the 2007/8 economic recession, has impacted disproportionately on the most vulnerable layers of the working class, especially its women.

In a survey conducted shortly after the highest level of the lockdown, from March to June 2020, women already then accounted for two-thirds of the total net job losses. Women also make up the majority of the five million workers employed in the informal economy – in community care, domestic work, street and market trade, waste picking, restaurant workers – most of whom lost their wages and income in the pandemic. Many of these workers who are paid, receive wages that are unashamedly regulated through the Sectoral Determination Act, at a third less than the national minimum wage of the paltry R3500 ($230) per month. For example, the majority – 74% – of domestic workers earn less than the minimum wage.

This same survey reports that women are more likely than men to live in households that reported running out of money for food already in April 2020 – a month after the imposition of one of the world’s harshest lockdowns. In addition, more women than men are living with children and spend more hours on childcare since the start of the lockdown. This is in addition to caring for those who fall ill after becoming infected with Covid-19.


According to another survey, risk factors contributing to women’s vulnerability to infection include that they often live in crowded conditions in informal settlements. Many are likely to suffer co-morbidities such as hypertension, diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids. During the first and second wave of the pandemic, many needlessly died because of overcrowding in hospitals, lack of ICU beds, oxygen and personal protective equipment. There were overworked healthcare workers who simply could not cope with the volume of sick and dying people. Many of the patients turned away from hospitals, or who opted not to go there for fear of infection, died in homes where the burden of care was on women.

Those women who have continued to work have been at an even higher risk of infection because they are mostly employed in front-line services such as nursing, cleaning and cashiers. Moreover, working women are most likely to be using mini-bus taxis where social distancing, sanitizing and ventilation is difficult to observe. Those trapped in their homes with no income, depending on their male partners who may or may not have lost their job in the pandemic, have been at greater risk of gender-based violence.

Already amongst the highest levels globally, gender-based violence, including the brutal killing of women by intimate partners, exploded during the lockdown. It led to the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, describing it as South Africa’s “second pandemic”.


The government used the budget announced on 24th February to escalate the war on working-class women and the poor. The cuts the budget announced will have an even more devastating impact on the working class whose jobs have been decimated during the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerating the downward plunge in jobs since the 2007/8 economic crisis. The government is claiming that its social welfare programme – which includes child care, foster care and disability grants – covers a far greater percentage of the population than similar schemes in other countries, such as the ‘Bolsa Familia’ in Brazil, and that it has played an allegedly significant role in alleviating poverty. But in South Africa, there is no income support for any adult between the ages of 18 and 59, after which they qualify for the equally pitiful state pension.

Yet under ANC rule, South Africa has become the most unequal country on the planet with estimates that poverty has escalated to 70% of the population. The face of poverty in South Africa is female and black. The austerity measures hurt women especially, who rely on social grants and public services to take care of the elderly, the disabled and children. Under public pressure, as the effect of the hard lock-down became immediately evident, the government initially introduced a small temporary top-up for child care grants and old-age pensions, as well as an insulting Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD) of R350 for those without jobs. The callous indifference of the government revealed itself in the disqualification of women with children from this support.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni was asked on television why the increase in pensions and other social grants was below inflation. Contemptuously brushing aside his spokesperson’s spin about the unavoidable necessity to continue with “budget consolidation” i.e. an escalation in already savage public spending cuts, Mboweni replied: “The political answer is that there is no need to be apologetic about that at all. There is no social contract that says every year there must an x amount increase.”

What is a reduction in real terms actually cuts far deeper than the official inflation rate into the ability of working class people, already eking out an existence, to survive. Food prices have risen rapidly. They will climb even higher as the increase in electricity tariffs granted by the courts to the electricity utility, Eskom, and the fuel levy increase in the budget ripple through the economy.

Hunger, especially for children, had already risen alarmingly under the hard lock-down, as the government stopped school feeding schemes in working-class areas along with the school closures.

These feeding schemes provide hundreds of thousands of children with their only decent meal of the day. Despite the easing of the lockdown, hunger will increase in a country where the growth of up to 27% of children is stunted because of malnutrition and 38% of children are at risk of “poor development”.

According to the ‘Economic Justice and Dignity’ group, women have reported that they cannot afford food, and so cut back on what they eat. They estimate that the average cost of feeding a child between 10 and 13 years of age is R678 while the child support grant is R440.

Working class response

Yet, these very same services are under assault with the latest budget cuts; only the organised working class led by the trade unions can resist them effectively and begin to reverse the downward spiral to the bottom.

The national strike called by SAFTU (South African Federation of Trade Unions) on 24th February, though poorly organised, could not have come any sooner, reflecting the growing pressure on the union leadership to ‘Fight Back’, as one of the placards on the demonstration demanded. The strike represented the first sign of the beginning of an organised counter-offensive against the attacks on the working class under the guise of the Covid -19 pandemic.

While supporting the strike, the Marxist Workers’ Party has called for a date to be set immediately following the strike to launch a concerted campaign to mobilize support for action that could draw in wider sections of the working class. This should include other union federations and communities that have suffered major cutbacks in services, in local infrastructure maintenance, electricity cut-offs and, above all, a bloodbath of job losses.

In preparation for this, there must be a conscious linking together of the workplace struggle to combat gender-based violence, including by tackling sexual harassment within trade unions and at the workplace with the trade union movement placing itself at the forefront in a joint struggle. This would be the most effective way to overcome the serious weaknesses of the pre-pandemic ‘Gender Based Violence’ (GBV) protests.

While there was significant publicity given to the anti-GBV mobilization that attracted a layer of young women, these movements have mostly been predominantly middle-class-led. One was organized, for example, in Sandton – said to be the richest piece of real estate in Africa – making liberal appeals to big business at the Stock Exchange to “do their bit”! Channelled into safe government-led initiatives and programmes to combat GBV, these struggles could not and did not develop into a movement that connected the virtual pandemic of GBV to the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in which such violence thrives.

Class fight

A campaign led by women trade unionists will fill the struggle against GBV with the class content it lacked in the pre-pandemic protests. A conscious turn must be made to that layer of women workers already in the forefront of struggle such as those in the EPWP (Expanded Public Works Programme) campaign, the cheap labour scheme promoted as poverty alleviation.

There is another contingent of predominantly women workers – the community health workers who have been at the frontline of tracking and tracing for the pandemic. The fact that these workers are employed as teaching and nursing assistants, care workers, fire-fighters, gardeners, security officers, roads, parks workers and many other service jobs, provides a perfect point of intersection. It links their struggle for permanent jobs and a living wage of R12 500 and the broader struggle of public sector workers for the payment of their stolen wages and the threat to their own permanent jobs inherent in the government’s assault on them all.

Already, there has been a very significant victory of the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers for recognition of community health workers as permanent staff. The union has now brought together the EPWP and community health workers (CHW) in a joint campaign to extend this victory to every other province. Given the nature of their jobs, both CWHs and EPWPs provide the best links with communities which the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) has pledged will be brought into the mobilisation for the next battle.

All these struggles need to come together. A united fight against the consequences of both pandemics – Covid-19 and GBV – linked with workplace struggles against the assault on the working class, as a whole, would represent a huge step forward. It has the potential to serve as a catalyst to revive the labour movement both in the workplace but also on the political plane in a united campaign for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

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March 2021