We Shall Fight, We Shall Live – the frontline in Nigeria and South Africa
Reporting on the struggle for food and survival in Nigeria, trade unionist Gbenga Komolafe states that the repression and starvation of the poor must end. While in South Africa, Ashley Fataar argues for a wealth tax on the rich to feed workers and the poor.
‘No Palliatives, no lockdown’
By Gbenga Komolafe
Distributing food items as ‘palliatives’ has been a huge scam. My members from all over the country reported extremely vexatious levels of nepotism and elite capture. In Lagos, ridiculous quantities of food was parcelled to vulnerable groups through the ruling APC party structures (the All-Progressives Congress). These extremely clientelist structures cornered most of the food and sent whatever they deemed fit to the so-called Community Development Associations which are nothing more than APC patronage machines. At the end of the day, these food parcels became objects of ridicule even by the poorest members of the communities.
The government also lately distributes food parcels in bagco [a Nigerian Bag Manufacturing Company] bags to people they invited through the Lagos State Residents Registration Agency at the Ministry of Agriculture Office. Again, the quality and quantity dispensed cannot reasonably feed a family of five for a day, according to one of my members who was able to get it.
Ogun state reported an even more badly managed food distribution system. Osun distributed expired rice. Ekiti targeted only ‘vulnerable’ groups. We hear of cash disbursement in some northern states, but I’ve only heard complaints from my members in the North.
This takes me to the last issue I would like to raise. In distributing ‘palliatives’, what criteria has government used to measure who the ‘poor’ is? Disability, gender, age? That would be grossly inadequate. How do you define carpenters, plumbers, masons, barbers, hair dressers, mechanics, welders, cobblers, photographers, drivers, bus conductors etc, most of whom have not been able to earn a dime and yet have to feed families? With little or no savings, no social safety net of any type, how do they survive the so-called lockdown?
In January this year, private developers, using the Nigerian Navy and Lagos State government as a front, destroyed 24 communities and rendered 55000 people homeless. That’s a trend that has impacted a million people since 1999 spurning a huge number of homeless people.
And just yesterday, April 18, Lagos State government destroyed even more communities! So, what is the programme for the homeless and those rendered homeless? I know in other climes they are housed in empty buildings and even hotels. What’s happening here? Why are we not raising hell about this?
At the level, of my organization, FIWON (Federation of Informal Workers’ Organizations of Nigeria), we have gradually reached a consensus that government talk of lockdown is a lot of nonsense because they cannot really keep people at home. Goggle mapping has actually shown that there is an increased movement of people in the neighbourhoods than before.
It can’t be otherwise in a situation where seven people live in a room and 75 people share a toilet and bathroom and people are forced to literally live on the streets, and that’s not even the technically homeless ones. What we have had therefore is a mere ‘lock up’ of people’s livelihoods. But the middle class seem unconcerned because they are insulated from this reality and their income is not really terminated as is the case with those in the informal sector. In this scenario, only God knows how we can determine the thousands of people killed so far under this lockdown by hunger and hunger induced illnesses.
The only logical demand would be to radically scale down this lockdown while urgent steps are taken to provide means for people to maintain basic health protocol for Covid-19 prevention. Improvised water drums in the communities to encourage constant hand-washing, provision of face masks and training on how to use this effectively, urgent revamp of healthcare facilities, free universal healthcare services (health insurance doesn’t work with the poor), an urgent revamp of public schools with water and hygiene provision as most public schools are overcrowded, construction of more classrooms, and employment of more teachers, a real stimulus package for the informal sector to get people back to work and stimulate local economies through cooperatives and independent organizations of the working poor.
The recent Central Bank of Nigeria stimulus has nothing to do with the informal sector and micro-businesses as the conditions are wholly unsuitable for this sector. Lastly there should be one off Bank Verification Number (BVN) transfers of not less that N20k to the urban poor. Those without BVN can be rapidly assisted with special arrangements with banks and appropriate physical distancing. It won’t be worse than people currently using ATM and it will help to boost financial inclusion.
The lockdown should be rolled back immediately while there should be demonstrable commitment to implement programs that will indeed enable our people to cope with Covid-19. It is not going away soon, and we cannot starve our people any further!
Gbenga Komolafe is General Secretary of the Federation of Informal Workers’ Organizations of Nigeria (FIWON)
Repression and Hunger for the Poor
By Ashley Fataar
14 April was the day that simmering discontent boiled over in South Africa because of the government’s handling of the lockdown in the country.
When the President announced a nation-wide lockdown, only those working in hospitals and super-markets were allowed to work. All other workplaces were closed. For those working it meant an income.
However, in some instances super-market owners did not inform their workers about the arrangements. Several simply left the urban area they lived in and hastily travelled to their rural homes. At least there they could try to grow crops to feed themselves.
But in addition to this, many workers saw it as an excuse by bosses to retrench workers. Towards the end of 2019 many workplaces warned of looming job cuts in the new year, even before Covid-19 became an issue.
For the majority of those employed it simply meant no income. Before the lockdown, the government stated that some relief would come in the form of Unemployed Insurance Fund (UIF) payments to those not at work due to the lockdown.
The lockdown was announced on the evening of Monday 23 March and was to start in the early hours of Friday 27 March. The country had just three days to prepare.
But in the days leading up to 27 March it became clear that the government was completely unprepared (please see the posts by Heike Becker). The day before the lockdown a government minister stated that UIF payments would only be processed after the lockdown. Workers would not be paid for at least a month.
Two weeks into the lockdown an extension of two was announced. This further delayed UIF payments by at least two weeks. Subsequently the application criteria changed making it more cumbersome to apply.
In order for workers to claim UIF, bosses have to be up-to-date with UIF insurance payments. Unfortunately, South African employers have a history of paying late or not at all. So not all workers would even receive UIF payments.
In the Alexandra township of Johannesburg residents gathered outside a school on Easter Saturday to receive parcels of food. Three hundred did not receive anything. They were told to return the following Monday.
When they did so, they were told to return on Tuesday. Whilst walking back to their shacks they stopped in groups to discuss the dire situation that they were in. Police then pounced on the groups and opened fire with rubber bullets.
It was a similar story in the village of Hhoyi in Mpumalanga. Health officials turned up to conduct screening and tests for Covid-19. The villagers told them that they needed water and hand sanitisers, not testing. They then stoned the officials and set dogs on them.
In the Mitchells Plain township of Cape Town a group of residents turned up for food parcels. When the parcels did not arrive they refused to leave the streets and fought the police. In other areas of Cape Town youths began looting shops.
On the same day in Port Elizabeth, dozens of patients turned up at a medical clinic in one of the northern townships. They were turned away because the clinic had run out of clean water. Decaying council water pipes had ruptured.
The next day Gauteng provincial premier David Makhura admitted that 20 percent of the population of the province was food insecure in normal times. During the lock down that figure had doubled.
In the Western Cape province, the provincial government put out telephone numbers to call for food parcels but it turned out that the government was only going to distribute food to registered Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) or charity organisations. These NPOs would only distribute to those people on their databases.
Local municipal councillors were also given food parcels to hand out, yet the history of councillors in South Africa is riddled with corruption. Frequently, they only attend to their political supporters. If you are not a supporter of the local councillor it can mean no food for you.
The day before the lockdown was extended by two weeks hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people got into mini-bus taxis in the Western Cape and attempted to travel to their rural homes in the Eastern Cape. As soon as the mini-bus taxis drove into the Eastern Cape they were stopped and prevented from going further. They were later ordered to return.
This has all happened despite the violence that has been meted out to workers.
In most townships space is a luxury that no workers have. Houses empty out onto pavements. Shacks are erected right next to each other with a narrow passage to walk between. The lack of both water and electricity is a problem for millions of workers. One tap can supply dozens, sometimes hundreds, of households. In addition, there are no sewerage pipes or pipes are blocked. Hand sanitisers are a luxury.
For those who live with no yard, being out in the street is the norm. It is also the only source of fresh air because many shacks have no windows. For children it is the space to play and run around – it is simply the only place where life can exist.
Yet soldiers and police have murdered workers simply for being in the street. There have even been several instances of people sitting in their yard and being ordered inside their house. This has been accompanied by soldiers and police going inside the house and raiding alcohol from fridges claiming it was illegally bought.
Chillingly, some of those who have provided legitimate answers as to why they were in the street (showing the groceries that they have just bought, for example), have been violently attacked by soldiers or police.
In Cape Town the authorities bussed hundreds of homeless people into an open stadium. They were told it was to get tested. Once they were there they were not allowed to leave. Food was not provided for nearly a week. In the process a young woman was raped.
When those jailed in the stadium protested, the media was forced away from the stadium whilst police went in. The authorities later claimed it was to restore ‘calm’. In reality, with no cameras present, people were brutalised.
Large investors get favoured
It is, however, not the case for the wealthy. Wine producers were allowed to export wine for a week. The giant South African Breweries remained open. Factories where processes could not be interrupted were allowed to remain open.
Just under three weeks into the lockdown, and with the infection rates spreading, the government allowed the mines to open. Mines in South Africa are notorious for their lack of health and safety. In mines the temperature can exceed 35 degrees Celsius (South African mines are amongst the deepest and hottest in the world).
With workers concentrated in the mines, this produces a dangerous environment for the rapid spread of any airborne infections. Many miners suffer from health problems such as tuberculosis and other lung diseases. The mines are a perfect disaster waiting to happen.
The South African government is following the example of the Trump government in wanting to end the lockdown. Profits are more important than workers lives.
On 16 April, three weeks into the lockdown, the government announced that it would end in phases. The argument for ending it was that the curve has been flattened sufficiently but the real reason was that the economy was taking a battering. Ratings agencies placed South Africa’s investment grade into junk status followed by an immediate crash of the South African Rand.
Yet the vital thing to understand is that the flu season in the southern hemisphere is nowhere near its peak. Winter season is only just starting. Experts predict that the Covid-19 infection rate will only peak between August and October – in 4 to 6 months from now. Allowing workers back to work is a recipe for widening the pandemic.
The simple solution would be to provide food to workers. South Africa can afford it. Annually food producers dump 10 million metric tons of food each year and South African bosses have fantastic wealth. In the days after the lockdown four of the biggest billionaires made a R4.5bn (about £200m) loan available. This shows the wealth that they sit on.
A wealth tax would easily sort out the problem of feeding workers and the poor, though the government and rich are not interested in workers lives. Profits drive this world and the poor die.
Ashley Fataar is a political activist in Cape Town and he writes for websites and newspapers around the world.
Featured Photograph: Dayo Paul, ‘Protest Looms in Lagos, Abuja over Covid-19 lockdown’ Newswatch Nigeria (1 April, 2020).