This article was first posted by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network

The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Maverick Citizen launched the Southern Africa Weekly Human Rights Roundup, aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. The Human Rights Roundup integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region

Across southern Africa, lockdown measures have exposed grave inequalities in societies with a disproportionate impact on the poor and economically vulnerable. The precarious conditions in which millions of ordinary people – the unemployed, women vendors and informal traders – live without adequate food, clean drinking water, decent housing, and toilets and jobs has not only increased the risk for the spread of Covid-19 but increased the dangers of facing police brutality, given that many governments have deployed the army to help the police to enforce the lockdown measures.

Unfortunately, the lockdown orders have also thrown millions more people into extreme poverty without the ability to work on their usual hand-to-mouth jobs. The fragile nature of the majority of livelihoods and the absence of government measures such as social safety nets to cushion poor people has produced this unintended consequence. The stay-at-home orders were imposed on a population that can ill afford and was ill-prepared to stay at home. In the desperate attempt to save lives, livelihoods have been sacrificed.  Increasingly, the Covid-19 lockdown measures are now translating for the poor into a simple question: how do you want to die, by Covid-19, by hunger and starvation or by possible police brutality? While physical distancing and good hygiene may be necessary and are good policies on paper, in reality, they are incompatible with the conditions in which most people live. The lockdown measures are now threatening malnutrition and starvation for millions of people.

Regrettably, except for South Africa, measures implemented so far to alleviate the economic damage have targeted the formal economy, neglecting the informal and communal economies where the majority of people, particularly women, are located. Authorities in the region have to a large extent failed to respond sufficiently to the region’s high level of poverty, unemployment, inequality and lack of social safety nets.

Such is the scale of concern about the impact of the Covid-19 measures on the poor that on 23 April 2020, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights expressed concern: “about the precarious conditions … constituting a real risk for the spread of Covid-19”.

Over the years, the informal economy in southern Africa has grown to unprecedented levels. For those lucky to be employed, thousands of jobs are being lost every day as small-to-medium enterprises and some big companies are folding as a result of stagnant economic activity. As people lose jobs and income, with no way of knowing when normalcy will return, rowdy scenes of people scrambling for food have become the new norm.

The International Labour Organisation recently revealed that in the current situation, businesses across a range of economic sectors are facing catastrophic losses, which threaten their operations and solvency, especially among smaller enterprises, while millions of workers are vulnerable to income loss and layoffs. The impact on income-generating activities is especially harsh for unprotected workers and the most vulnerable groups in the informal economy.

The World Food Programme has already warned that the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic. David Beasley, head of the WFP, reported that 135 million people are facing acute food shortages globally and that the coronavirus could increase this by another 130 million by year-end.

The world faces “multiple famines of biblical proportions” that could result in 300,000 deaths per day – a “hunger pandemic”, he said.

Recent estimates by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicate that a possible global GDP loss of 5% in 2020 could increase worldwide poverty levels by 20%, pushing another 147 million people into extreme poverty, and more than half of those at risk – 79 million people – are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Hunger pains grow across southern Africa

Zimbabwe, with an unemployment rate of over 90%, has the second-largest informal economy in the world after Bolivia. The country was already battling a severe socio-economic crisis spanning two decades.

Many have raised concern that measures to curb the Covid-19 will hit the most vulnerable people hard. The Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) estimates that 25% of the country’s formal jobs and 75% of informal jobs are at risk from Covid-19 containment measures.

This comes in the wake of a report that was issued by the World Food Programme (WFP) in December 2019 advising that the country was facing its worst hunger crisis in 10 years with 7.7 million people food insecure. In a country where half the population was already struggling to eat daily, and maize prices rose by a third in February 2020, the situation is dire.

A significant population lives from hand to mouth, with limited access to basic needs such as food, water, clothing and shelter.  Social services, particularly healthcare and education, are beyond the reach of many. Many rely on support from relatives, families and friends in the diaspora. Accessing Zimbabwe diaspora remittances has been a nightmare and is worsened by the non-availability of cash from outlets.

Parallel market money traders who operate the streets of Bulawayo, Harare and Mutare have reportedly resorted to working from home, as they cannot afford to abide by lockdown restrictions and because desperate customers are calling them.

Since the government introduced lockdown measures, many have lost their sources of income and now depend on food aid.

Newsday reported that close to 400 sex workers in Marondera were struggling to survive owing to lockdown restrictions, particularly physical distancing. Life Health Education Development director Primrose Fundai, whose organisation works with commercial sex workers, reported that sex workers have been greatly affected by the requirement to observe physical distancing. Some need to collect their medication for chronic conditions during this lockdown but they do not have written letters to permit them to travel.

The ruling Zanu-PF has been accused of using food to shore up support, especially in rural areas. The Zimbabwe NGO Forum reported that cases of partisan distribution of food aid are on the rise countrywide. In Sakubva, Mutare, community members reported that government food aid distribution in the area is being conducted on a political party partisan basis. On 12 April about 200 people were allegedly summoned by the Zanu-PF Manicaland Youth Assembly at Sakubva Beit Hall to draw up a list of food beneficiaries, deliberately excluding those who are not aligned to the party. Similar reports were recorded in Beitbridge, Matabeleland province.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project state in their monthly report that the government “announced it would disburse ZWL600-million to a million vulnerable households and the money (about ZWL200 per family (equivalent to $5 per month!) was to be disbursed through the Department of Social Welfare, which was to assess vulnerability and compile a list of deserving families”.

The government advised that 800,000 beneficiaries who would get support “were identified through the Econet platform”, while only 200,000 were identified by the Ministry of Social Welfare.

In an unusual turn of events, on 2 April 2020, Zimbabwe’s finance minister wrote to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other leading multilateral lenders, not only pleading for financial assistance but admitting to policy errors and pledging to address the issue of electoral reforms, among other issues previously raised by the international community, for the organisations to agree to reschedule the payment of arrears and allow Zimbabwe to access fresh finance that is needed for the creation of a social safety net.

Angolareports of partisan distribution of food aid have emerged after the government announced relief measures to cover businesses, informal sector workers, and families affected by the current lockdown regimes. Distribution of rations such as maize, rice, pasta, sugar and cooking oil were rolled out after the government announced a nationwide relief of over $550,000 USD through the Ministry of Social Action, Family and Women’s Promotion.

Civil society organisations have raised concern about the lack of transparency in food distribution by the government relief assistance. Families in the Luanda and Benguela provinces have reportedly complained that they were not properly informed about who qualifies to receive food aid and how the government is deciding on who gets the relief in communities.

Mozambique. On 6 May, the Forum De Monitoria Do Orcamento (FMO) met with the IMF in light of the US 309 million emergency fund that was allocated to Mozambique to guarantee social protection and strengthen the capacity of the health sector to address the Covid-19 pandemic. FMO called on the IMF to incorporate principles of transparency and good governance in the management of the funds and ensure the involvement of civil society as an independent monitoring mechanism, given the history of corruption and diversion of government funds by the ruling elite with impunity.

Malawiefforts to lock down by embattled President Peter Mutharika were suspended after High Court Judge Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda ruled against it. Malawi’s High Court temporarily halted the government’s 21-day lockdown pending a judicial review last week. The government was ordered to put in place necessary socio-economic protection measures to prevent harm to the poorest and most vulnerable of society.

In response, Malawi has reportedly introduced a US$51-million emergency cash programme to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on vulnerable groups for the next six months from May to October. More than 172,000 households in the cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba are expected to benefit from the programme. Other measures include a reduction of fuel prices, waiver of fees and charges on electronic payments and a moratorium on bank loan repayments. Data shows that more than 70% of the country’s population live below the poverty datum line.

South Africaranked one of the most unequal countries in the world by the World Bank, had a 29% unemployment rate prior to the lockdown. Even among the employed, 18% – 3 million people – work in the informal sector.

According to Africa economist Boingotlo Gasealahwe, “South Africa implemented some of the most draconian containment measures in the world. This has come at a huge cost to the economy. Even though the most stringent containment measures are being eased, large parts of the economy will remain closed. This together with the limited direct fiscal policy support means that the economy will continue to hemorrhage. The cumulative damage will depend crucially on the length of lockdown.”

Food has become scarce, resulting in rampant looting of grocery shops and supermarkets in South Africa’s townships. On 16 April, IOL reported that 11 people had been arrested for burglary and looting of grocery stores on Cape Flats in Cape Town amid lockdown. News24 reported similar incidents where a Shoprite in Gatesville, Athlone, Cape Town was looted by 16 suspects who fled with tills, cash and groceries. In Manenberg, about 5km away, large crowds also took to the streets and broke into two wholesalers, “helping themselves to grocery items”.

On 29 April 2020 people were shocked when The Daily Telegraph broadcast a video of poor people queuing for food parcels – in Centurion – in winding queues of over 4km just to receive food that lasts less than two days. Various private businesses donated 8,000 food hampers which were distributed in the informal settlement of Mooiplaas in Centurion.

On 19 April City Press reported that incidents of corruption and food looting had been reported in eight provinces where there were claims that those in charge of the distributions – mostly African National Congress (ANC) councillors – were not giving the food to the families that were most in need. The councillors were accused of nepotism and unfair discrimination when distributing food parcels and other Covid-19 related essentials in North West, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.

The allegations of partisan distribution of food according to political party affiliation was a phenomenon reported across the whole southern Africa region, prompting Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International Director for East and Southern Africa, to warn that “the distribution of food aid along party political lines is completely unacceptable and it is undermining the protection measures that governments have committed to implement to uphold the right to food for everyone”.

Access to water

The WHO has advised and southern African countries have reaffirmed that thorough handwashing with soap and water is a key component in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, in Harare alone, one million people have no access to water, a basic human right. Crowds of more than 50 people are seen gathered at community boreholes and water points to fetch water.

Further, crowds continue to mass at markets, shops and water points in Luanda, Angola, despite lockdown, arguing that “it is better to die of this disease or a gunshot than to starve to death”, evidence that physical distancing as a measure is near impossible in relation to people’s daily struggles. While expected to stay at home, people are forced to defy lockdown regulations owing to erratic supply of water.

Covid-19, migrants and asylum seekers

Undocumented migrants and asylum seekers constitute one severely vulnerable group in southern Africa facing severe hunger and starvation as a result of the lockdown measures.

South Africa is home to millions of undocumented immigrants mainly from Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They are neither eligible for any government assistance, nor can they access trading permits during lockdown, despite many of them being extremely vulnerable and food insecure.

In April, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the government of South Africa to guard against laws, policies and public statements that discriminate against non-citizens, especially during the public health emergency caused by Covid-19. ICJ added: “Lockdown regulations and directions must be conceived and implemented in a way that fully enables all migrant workers performing essential services, including informal traders, waste reclaimers and shop owners to operate on an equal basis with South African citizens.”

Status of lockdowns in Southern Africa: While most countries in the region have continued to extend lockdowns by an average of two weeks, lockdown restrictions are now being systematically relaxed in response to the devastating impact on their economies rather than as a response to declining infections.

  • On 1 May, South Africa entered stage 4 of lockdown, allowing the phased reopening of some businesses and industries under strictly monitored precautions.
  • The President of Namibia announced that the country would gradually reopen from 5 May as the country moves to stage 2. The six-month state of emergency will remain in force subject to the obtaining situation in the country.
  • Zimbabwe extended its lockdown by two weeks from 4 May, while gradually easing restrictions in what it called stage 2. Restrictions on mining companies and agricultural and food producers were relaxed in a bid to revive the economy.
  • Botswana extended its lockdown by a week, until 7 May, ahead of a gradual easing of restrictions over a two-week period.


Despite being urged by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to put human rights at the center of their fight against the pandemic, it is apparent that southern African governments did not have a strategy to prevent the health pandemic from becoming the humanitarian crisis that it has become. They locked down and hoped for the best.  The level of disaster unpreparedness in most countries highlights the extreme vulnerability of southern Africa if infections worsen as is predicted by the WHO. Given how strong economies with developed health systems have suffered across the globe, it is unimaginable what this plague could still do to southern Africa if the infection rates pick up. Such is the scale of the impact of Covid-19 measures on poor people that a warning of a severe reduction in the lifespan of South Africans has been predicted by a professional group of actuaries who felt compelled to write to President Ramaphosa encouraging him to change strategy.

The question is, is Ramaphosa, or any other of the political leaders across southern Africa, listening?

Time will tell.

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer, the director of the Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and the Technical and Strategy Advisor of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura is a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur, and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen.