Where are the voices of working-class and rural Black women in the larger story about COVID-19 in South Africa? This is a question I ask every single day as I read the newspapers, listen to and watch the seemingly endless news reports on radio and television. Over the last few days, I have been on the phone, trading messages via WhatsApp and SMS with women from Newcastle to Somkhele to Lephalale and it strikes me how, time and again, the stories they tell of what they are facing during this pandemic are the same.
Water is one of the most burning issues. Every public service announcement about COVID-19 underscores the critical importance of handwashing and hygiene in general. But how is that possible in a context where, for millions, the taps run dry, the rivers are drying up due to drought, or have been polluted by or diverted to benefit a nearby coal mine or coal-fired power stations?
What are women in South Africa saying about water?
“We have no running water, we are really struggling in our communities, we have to walk for two kilometres to collect clean water and it’s not safe. The stream is in the middle of jungle, we are scared that we can be attacked by snakes and women are at a great risk of being harassed, we don’t have a choice but to walk that far, we are worried that we will get sick. We wish our government can hear us.” – Mama Medical Nziba, activist, Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal
“We are afraid if COVID-19 can penetrate into the area, those who are wealthy and rich will survive and will leave devastating impact on us. This is a serious violation of our human rights, no one should be denied water or life. The government is allowing mining companies to operate and access water for profit. I am asking myself if water was truly a human right why don’t we have it? If corona is killing people, I am scared that people in my community will be easily infected because staying at home is a restriction that cannot be realistically be followed.” – Yvonne Sampear, activist, Phola-Ogies, Mpumalanga
“I am sick and old, living in a shack without water is difficult for me. I don’t even have anyone who can assist me with the collection. I am only able to fill one bucket of water a day, when it is raining and cold it becomes worse for me. My body is in pains I don’t have strength sometimes I just have to do this for my survival. What makes things worse, municipalities decide who must have water and as poor people we are excluded. I am paying the price of being poor. I am feeling the impact on my heart and my sick old body.” – Gogo Emma, Phola-Ogies, Mpumalanga
“There is a silent fight between the poor and rich over this thing called water. Our desperation to have access to water is invisible to the eyes of our leaders. We have been taken for granted for many years. In Bambanani water is not accessible for water, we used to get water from the borehole that no longer works. We now must buy water for drinking or hire cars to go town to collect with the buckets. There is no sign that there will be water tanks supplied to the people like the ministry announced. We are feeling hopeless.” – Nelly Nkosi, Ermelo, Mpumalanga
The reality in South Africa (and around the region) is that many households do not have adequate access to water and energy. By and large, it is women who bear the responsibility for getting water. Our research has shown that the majority of women in communities spend up to eight hours per day fetching water for their homes. They are forced to leave their homes unprotected and putting their lives at risk. The South African government has effectively announced some interventions that need to be taken, but these interventions are blind when coming to analysing the negative consequences of the pandemic on women daily struggles. With the sudden lockdown, women find themselves isolated, alone and vulnerable, what are the options? Virtually none.
The Somkhele water crisis is just one story in an anthology of stories…
Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal is just one town where the water crisis has hit particularly hard. Over 15 years women from Somkhele have had no water in their municipality. For them the main concern is the reality of not being able to practice social distancing and stay at home as instructed. In 2016 – 2017, they conducted participatory action research to learn about how nearby Tendele Mine has impacted their access to water and presented their findings to the local government where they were promised action. Yet, still, they have none.
Read more about the Somkhele community and organising around water in The Water Crisis in a time of the COVID-19 Crisis
In 2019, about 29 women were arrested in Somkhele for organising a protest fighting for water supply. They were locked in jail for nine days for damaging municipality road and properties. Women organised themselves to escalate the matter through demonstration because engaging with local leaders did not yield any results. Immediately after their release, councillors rushed to address them and promised access to water. But they believe that it was yet another empty promise.
The Minister of Human Settlements, Water & Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu has promised to scale up the provision of water to communities. The women in Somkhele have not enjoyed any benefit from this announcement and they worry that if the virus were to reach their areas, it will find fertile ground to spread.
In Phola, Mpumalanga – a province that is home to 12 coal-fired power stations and the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution in the world – the burden of getting clean water is also placed on women. There is not enough access to water for care and sanitation. Frequent water cuts mean women are forced to get water at communal taps. In each household, women work to ensure there are 20 buckets of water for cooking, drinking, bathing, washing and other daily needs. This daily burden for women and young girls is heavy, especially when women must take care while using communal water sources, to protect their own health, “Lack of water in our rural community it’s a disadvantage, it imposes great danger our lives, and we can’t even afford to buy sanitizers.”
Coronavirus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problem in South Africa. The people living near polluted coal mines, petrochemical industries and coal fired power stations such as Vaal Triangle, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal who are already experiencing illness such as asthma, respiratory illness, and Tuberculosis—are that much more vulnerable.
Nothing for us, without us
Somkhele & Fuleni protest, launch of FPAR reportThe struggle to combat COVID – 19 cannot be won without women. Although in many cases there more men than women affected by the virus, but the fallout of social and economic disruption caused by the virus hits women particularly hard. The burden of unpaid care work is going to be doubled because women will be placed in the frontline of taking care of sick family members. Women are largely responsible for the upkeep of households and providing home-based care services in the community.
The pandemic has exposed the capitalist system which is corrupt and only benefits few individuals while failing poor communities. COVID-19 reveals the many interlocking crises at play in South Africa right now. Crises of water, healthcare and care, energy inequality, gender disparities and violence, unemployment and poverty, the impacts of climate change due to droughts as well as disaster preparedness across the country, and disinformation. Even so, it also presents an opportunity to tackle these critical issues now, building solidarity and movement led by women for transformative solutions and a different world for women and for communities.
By Caroline Ntaopane, WoMin with contributions from Lorraine Kakaza