South Africa's lockdown policies exacerbated hunger crisis

Last March, The South African government implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. Hence, the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) made the recommendation to ban the sale of alcohol, while an earlier ban on the sale of tobacco products – ruled to be unconstitutional – could not lawfully be reintroduced.

COVID-19 came at a time when the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), was about to implement a series of policies aimed at Radical Economic Transformation (RET). These policies broadly aim to nationalise land ownership, healthcare, and transfer ownership of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) to the state.

The government facilitated South Africa's catastrophic economic downturn by enforcing harsh and unnecessary lockdown regulations – which inextricably expedite RET. As a result, South Africa's economy is on the brink of failure, exacerbating the hunger crisis which plagues poor communities.

According to the expanded definition, unemployment has risen to 42% – which accounts for individuals who were stuck at home due to the lockdown. Worryingly, 6.5 million people suffered from hunger in 2019, - increasing because of persisting joblessness in 2020. The severity of the jobs crisis has undeniably worsened the levels of child poverty across the country.

Continually high levels of socioeconomic disparities in South Africa heighten the child poverty issue. Alarmingly, 62.1% of children aged 0-17 are classified as multidimensionally poor, meaning that a child is classified as poor if s/he is deprived in at least three dimensions of the South African Multiple Overlapping Deprivation Analysis (MODA). Seven dimensions are used in the MODA) – such as housing, protection, and education/child development.

Transformation and development have rightfully occurred over the past 26 years. However, slow development has hampered any meaningful attempt to create prosperity in society. More importantly, children in poorer communities have borne the social and economic cost of slow development.

The long term damage of child poverty on South Africa cannot be understated. Early childhood development is hindered and has permanent consequences into adult life. Severe acute malnutrition affects 27% of young children in the country, which leads to lower cognitive development and long term health issues. South Africa will remain disproportionately unequal if hunger persists.

Admittedly, the ANC recognizes the urgent need to provide for struggling families. As a result, R500 billion was allocated toward COVID-19 relief measures, of which welfare recipients are entitled to a grant of R350 per month. This grant offers little financial support for those who are jobless resulting from the strict lockdown. But the government should be removing barriers to employment, not just looking at placing more people on the state's creaking finances.

When the prohibition on alcohol and cigarettes was announced, it became clear that the government was pursuing its ideological interests instead of implementing policies to curb COVID-19. The ban on the sale of cigarettes created a surge of illicit trade during level 5 to 3 of the lockdown. This resulted in the government losing an estimated R4 billion in excise taxes because the cigarette market is lucrative in South Africa.

The wine industry lost over 21,000 jobs because of the ban on alcohol and the industry has reportedly lost R7.5 billion. This was a self-inflicted economic disaster by the government, not the pandemic.

The government's priority strangely became centred around efforts to curb the illicit trade of alcohol and cigarettes while flexing its political muscle over citizens. Consequently, tax revenue - which could have aided the failing healthcare system and provide social relief to vulnerable communities - was lost to the illicit market.

However, conjecture rather than science took precedence and the social practices of citizens was scrutinized to cover for a decade-long inept regime. Certainly healthcare systems are imperative to life itself, but the consistent crumbling infrastructure of South Africa was a product of the ANC and not the people.

Despite consistently poor economic performance over the last decade, the government insist on implementing policies that created the economic sinkhole. Policies which increase government intervention into the private sector and decrease the ease of doing business in the country have disastrous implications for poor communities. The minimum wage, for example, leads to higher levels of unemployment which has significant implications for child poverty rates.

The economy is crumbling because the ANC has refused to create a market friendly environment, one which Nelson Mandela successfully created that saw the middle class increase exponentially and unemployment fall rapidly.

The government is bent on using the pandemic to implement RET and anti-market policies by effectively removing private property rights, nationalising healthcare, and pursuing a dangerous path to state supremacy. Changing South Africa's economy to test such policies would destroy human progress in a nation once held as the beacon of hope for Africa.

This article was first published on City Press on 7 January 2021

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