South Africa faces poverty and repression amid Covid 19 pandemic


A LEADING South African activist has called for a global strategic response to the Covid 19 pandemic, in a bid to address inequalities and to combat the growing climate crisis.

Zelda Holtzman was an ANC activist during the Apartheid era in South Africa, later helping to reform policing and combat political corruption.

Now in her role as a prominent activist responding to Covid 19, she said the pandemic has exposed deep inequalities, calling for activists around the globe to work together for a fairer future.

SCI hosted an online discussion, see above, where Zelda met activists working in communities in Northern Ireland, which is itself a society dealing with historic inequalities and the legacy of conflict.

“Before Covid presented itself in South Africa, we had already been dealing with a contagion of all sorts, of inequality, of high unemployment, in fact the figure probably now stands at close to 7.1 million people unemployed in South Africa,” she told the SCI event.

Her society also faced “deep fragmentation within broad progressive and left circles and also a government which has been reeling under the brunt of corruption for the past nine years, which left many of the state institutions hollowed out.”

Change-makers in South Africa, as happened around the world, organised in an effort to support communities in the face of the pandemic.

This initially created new connections between groups previously focused on separate issues.

Connecting online opened up new modes of collaboration, but in time these exposed underlying problems, including middle class activists having greater access to technology. This worked against a united front.

“In rural areas, in working class communities, the communities are largely organising to survive,” she said.

“When we were having our Zoom meetings in the virtual space, working class activists in working class areas were dealing with issues of survival, getting food parcels, running soup kitchens and also accessing healthcare.

“So we saw a gap emerging between grassroots activists and middle class activists operating in the virtual space.”

Grassroots activism was further undermined by a government response that prioritised the needs of business and which introduced a “militaristic lockdown” on the poorest communities.


Zelda pointed to what she described as the “irrational response of government”, banning cigarettes and alcohol, infantilising communities - setting the tone for repressive measures.

A network of activist groups created  a coalition to respond to Covid 19. It had more than 20 working groups, including training on opposing repressive government tactics. Since then “there have been at least 11 people killed by different security forces”.

The violence was “inexplicable”, yet had not sparked the type of reaction which Black Lives Matter has spearheaded against police violence in the United States.

“I think part of that has to do with the fact that … it is still `our own on our own’: a black soldier killing a black person, a black soldier raping a black woman, a black police officer killing a black person.

“So the racial dynamic that sharpened the focus in the past - because that dynamic isn’t present in the extra-judicial killings - we don’t see that response in the same way that one would have expected.”

She believed that unresolved issues from the past, in tandem with the continuing difficulties in establishing effective post-Apartheid government, was influencing public reaction.


Coalition building was required to force change, but she noted that South Africa is still trying to find a coherent direction in the post-Apartheid era. Opinion diverges between those seeking a range of futures including an eco-social state, a focus on feminist issues, or a focus on the redistribution of resources.

There is still a “schizophrenic relationship with government” in the post-Apartheid state, which can be limiting.

She spoke about the challenges faced in post-conflict societies, but also about the importance of coalition building, of direct action to campaign for change and of the need to plan for the future. International connections emerging from the pandemic have to be built upon.

“Strategically I think we need to think how we build on these platforms, particularly as we connect on Covid 19, if we think about it as a precursor to climate shocks. What resources and capacities exist in the international solidarity communities and networking communities to respond in ways that would be just, towards those most affected?

“That should drive us towards a more strategic approach on an international level.

“Black Lives Matter, these progressive, content rich entities, taking us beyond the narrow survivalist response lends itself to greater intersectional, international network communities to what now should be emerging as  global demand.

“None of the governments we have seen, holding the flag for business rescue, are anything that would lead us towards a more just society.”