20 May 2020

On the frontline of Coronavirus for children and families: South Africa

View across Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Clodagh Da Paixao

Streets are empty under lockdown in Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa now.

In South Africa, Hope and Homes for Children is working to support vulnerable children and families to stay together and survive one of the toughest Coronavirus lockdowns on earth. Lourenza Steytler-Foghill, who leads our ‘One Child One Family’ strategic project in Gauteng Province, explains how her dedicated team is responding to the crisis and why their work to keep children safe in families is more vital now than ever.

Nearly two months into the pandemic and the number of positive cases here increases daily. As do the number of deaths. Not nearly enough testing, not nearly enough screening. Life, death, and livelihoods measured in numbers. Numbers dictate what will happen next, what freedoms will be taken away next, which small victories will be won.

In South Africa, we are fierce protectors of human rights, as history will attest. We are loud, we fight, we shout, we dance and sing, we are persistent, we are resilient, we work hard, we play hard, we use humour to get through tough times. Life by numbers is not the South African way.

The declaration of a state of emergency and the hard lockdown that began at the end of March suspended hard-won human rights and freedoms with immediate effect. Overnight, South Africa became an autocracy with lockdown fiercely, often violently, enforced by the police and the military.

 

“The number of vulnerable people increases every hour in South Africa. Weekly food-runs to the supermarket become painful. People who were employed, and did not previously qualify for grants… beg for food and are dispersed from parking lots by armed security and police.”

 

Shortcomings in the way that vital services are delivered to communities here have become the mechanisms for greater virus spread. Government ministers scramble to provide water tanks, de-densify informal settlements, build quarantine camps, devise regulations to keep an angry nation at bay, strengthen the long-failing health system, and our economy crumbles further every day,

The number of vulnerable people increases every hour in South Africa. Weekly food-runs to the supermarket become painful. People who were employed, and did not previously qualify for grants, now have no jobs as a result of Coronavirus lockdown—no income and no access to state assistance in practical terms. They beg for food and are dispersed from parking lots by armed security and police. It is, frankly, harrowing.

This is not going to be over for a very long time.

 

“This crisis is the greatest test of Hope and Homes for Children’s mission and vision, and of our ability to effect systemic change. This is where systemic change becomes real.”

 

Our role as part of civil society in South Africa must, of necessity, be redefined. We cannot, at this time, stand by, record, and observe. We must be agile, nimble, and strong. We must be able to continue our work in the systemic reform of child protection to end the institutional care of children and, at the same time, it’s vital that we extend our work to embrace Community Assist Networks, which bring together organisations with special skills in humanitarian and emergency relief work with organisations that focus on development in a targeted, holistic way. This is the best way to help prevent the breakdown of families and avoid children flooding into orphanages now. We must hold the government to account; leverage our trust relationship with various government departments to improve on shoddy service delivery and the failure of implementation systems.

This crisis is the greatest test of Hope and Homes for Children’s mission and vision, and of our ability to effect systemic change. This is where systemic change becomes real.

With support from Allen & Overy and UBS Optimus Foundation, we have succeeded in building this Community Assist Network in Gauteng Province.

We are very grateful to all our donors who have made it possible to help meet the need for personal protective equipment for the children and professionals in the government institutions in the Province. They are also supporting the 500 families in our prevention program with food parcels, food vouchers, airtime and data vouchers, and personal protective equipment.

The need here is ever-increasing, and so is the test of our capacity for innovation.

 

“We are strengthened in our purpose and work by the evidence of ordinary people themselves in difficult circumstances who, individually and in groups, work to provide food and support to vulnerable families in their own communities.”

 

We take small but vital steps, every day, to clear the logistical blockages which prevent critical support, including emergency relief, psychosocial and therapeutic services from reaching families; families who are living with disability, families affected by chronic illness, families experiencing growing frustration and desperation that is leading to violence, abuse and breakdown.

We have had two significant ‘wins’ so far. Firstly, we are proud to have been accredited as Essential Workers during the crisis. This hard-won documentation gives us a measure of protection and mobility in the lockdown environment. Secondly, through collaboration with our partners, specifically Barney of Barjume SA, we have managed to ‘unlock’ the community-based organisations that we work through.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to Allen & Overy South Africa, who have provided us with a pro bono legal opinion that we used to leverage the ‘unlocking’ of the community-based organisations.

Most of all, we are strengthened in our purpose and work by the evidence of ordinary people themselves in difficult circumstances who, individually and in groups, work to provide food and support to vulnerable families in their own communities. This is, without doubt, the South African way!

We will do more than survive Coronavirus together; we will work to develop and build the resilient, effective support systems that will strengthen families and communities in this new reality. We will be vigilant and protect our Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

 

“We will do more than survive Coronavirus together; we will work to develop and build the resilient, effective support systems that will strengthen families and communities in this new reality.”

 

When all is said and done, what matters is to have embraced our agency in this crisis, to work with maximum effect for children and families.