/ 30 April 2020

Rural retreat: Allowing people to return home during lockdown could turn a tide

Municipalities are faced with enormous socioeconomic problems
The UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment says conservation doesn’t mean ‘pristine wilderness’, free from human inhabitants. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


In terms of Wednesday’s  government gazette on the management of COVID-19, individuals and families were given a “one chance” opportunity to go home. This measure was designed primarily to allow international travellers to return to South Africa. 

In this article, I consider the implications of applying this measure nationally to allow people in high-risk, highly compressed urban shack and township communities to return to their rural homes under managed conditions. I set the discussion against the observation that translocality and circular migration in Africa have often served as a strategy of resilience in tough times.

With the lockdown set to ease from Stage 5 to Stage 4, the government’s response to the spread of Covid-19 remains dominated by biomedical and economic discourse which leans heavily on perceived best practices in the Global North.

The narrative and response in South Africa have, accordingly, been shaped by virologists, doctors  and medical experts. A language of lockdown and physical distancing, of masks and ventilators, of welfare packages and poverty relief, has dominated.

But South Africa has its own particular set of sociospatial and translocal conditions which are unlike those in Europe and the United States and which appear to have largely been ignored in the official response so far.

In particular, the country’s overcrowded informal settlements and shack areas, where people have the least capacity to distance socially and where access to adequate healthcare is highly restricted, are at great risk. The rural areas, to which many African urban residents have an intimate connection, offer a potential alternative source of livelihoods and a space to weather the viral storm.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has acknowledged that the outbreaks of the epidemic will be concentrated in the cities, and yet it has become clear that compliance with lockdown is very low in the informal settlements and townships.

People are just too socially compressed and too poor for the recommended public health measures to be practicable. People are out on the streets and clustering around free wi-fi spots, and in other public places, trying to communicate with friends and relatives, while thinking of the next meal.

Recently, the crisis of making ends meet has mounted, with hunger now stalking the townships. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has shown that 66% of households in these areas are just not making it through lockdown, with 30% already in a dire state.

There have been increasing incidents of looting and social unrest.

To buy time, the state has now offered poor people relief in the form of cash handouts, adding to the grants of pensioners and welfare recipients, while also allowing the unemployed to register for a nominal stipend for six months. The total state package of R500-billion, which is meant to last six months, also provides additional funding for township policing and to plug gaps in the healthcare system.

But instead of buying time with a one-size fits all programme of lockdown, perhaps existing patterns of circular migration and doubled-rootedness within South African society could be leveraged to produce a more effective sociospatial strategy than that envisaged by the current lockdown approach.

Under the present regime many South Africans are effectively trapped in overcrowded, poorly serviced settlements — modern hyper-ghettos — when they might be better served if they were allowed, under supervised conditions, to travel to rural homes temporarily without forfeiting their access to urban rights and accommodation. The choice should rest with individuals and households, who could apply locally to have their cases considered. 

This is not to disagree with the proposition that movement is dangerous, as Ramaphosa has emphasised; but to point out that the threat is only posed when infected people move. Accordingly, the state should only consider allowing uninfected residents to migrate in this way.

At the same time, there should be no punitive consequences, such as losing a rented room, if such individuals opt to stay away from the city for several months. The state could even fund such individuals to return to their rural homes, where they can benefit from fresh air, social support and space, while the cities bear the brunt of the disease.

There are lots of suburban-style houses in the homelands that stand empty most of the year in rural South Africa, which, like white holiday homes at the coast, could provide decent accommodation that is safer than urban shacks, enabling residents to stay out of harm’s way.

The welfare system is also fully operational in these rural and peri-urban areas, so grants could be directed accordingly. Such a scheme would also allow poor people to escape usurious shack rentals in town, which can be more than R1 000 a month, and to spend time with their families, rebuilding social connections and planting fields where they can for food security.

If South Africa could safely encourage 20% of its poorest, most vulnerable population out of backyards and shack areas to return temporarily to the rural areas, that would make a massive contribution in redistributing the population from high-risk to low-risk areas.

One problem, of course, is that healthcare facilities are inadequate in many rural and outlying areas. This does mean that if people become ill in the rural areas they will probably want to return to the city. But if they are healthy when they leave, they might stand a better chance of survival in the rural villages, while also contributing to small gardening and homestead-farming activities.

It would be ironic if the history of apartheid and enforced migrant labour, which has helped to create a persistent “double-rootedness”, proved to be a meaningful factor in saving South Africa from the worst effects of the disease.

In this context, it is important to note that translocality and circular migration are widespread phenomena in Africa and have often served as a strategy of resilience in tough times.

In the 1980s, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lending agencies implemented structural adjustment programmes across Africa, governments had to cut spending on urban development, housing and healthcare. The imposition of austerity and Africa-wide debt collection pushed economies on the continent into severe poverty and shock.

A widely documented response to this was the retreat of migrant, urbanising poor, and even parts of the middle class, to the rural areas. This exodus reactivated farming and produced stretched household-livelihood strategies for survival that straddled town and countryside. In this way, new migration dynamics brought occupational change into rural areas as well as bringing agriculture back into the cities.

As Covid-19 takes hold in Africa generally it is likely that these networks will be reactivated again. The urban economies will contract as the social compression of informal settlements, markets and streets becomes increasingly undesirable, although difficult to avoid if people are to earn money.

Once again, Africans will rely on their social infrastructures to address a crisis of external origin — particularly since their states broadly lack the capacity to provide the required support.

In line with this dynamic, populations will likely seek to move around, communicating with their kinship networks and stretching their households to access resources across space. And when they die, their families will want to transport them home to avoid the “cultural shame” of an urban burial.

This phenomenon, as we have already seen at Port St Johns, will produce public health dangers, if the deaths are caused by Covid-19 and those travelling with the dead are mobile carriers. Traditional beer and food will be consumed in customary ways in close quarters at the funerals amid communal mourning, which may facilitate the spread of the disease in places without health infrastructure.

Managing movement and the commemoration of death seem to be key areas for intervention by the government. In this regard, the “one chance” home visit provision in the gazette might be selectively activated to facilitate a necessary transfer of high-risk families and individuals from urban to rural areas.

The reality of Covid-19 is that, without doubt, many people living in shacks will die, both in South Africa and elsewhere. But many of these deaths could be avoided were we to think ahead.

Professor Leslie Bank is research director in the Inclusive Economic Development Unit at the HSRC  and the co-author of a new volume on South African migration dynamics entitled Migrant Labour After Apartheid: The Inside Story (HSRC Press, 2020)