Some Challenges for South Africa, 2020

Church of England Newspaper July 31

Is the Republic of South Africa at a breaking point? Major challenges include a continuation of violent crime, social unrest, economic vulnerability, and health concerns amidst the highest reported incidents of the Covid-19 epidemic in Africa—all this being managed by a government that many claim is riddled with systemic corruption and incompetence.

News24 recently reported a study by the South African Medical Research Council that concludes that 17,000 more deaths should be attributed to Covid-19 than what has been reported. The finding is based on observing that the death rate has climbed to 59?ove the expected death rate in the country. Of the official tally of 408,502 infections (23 July, 2020) in the country—fifth highest in the world—about 6,000 deaths have occurred. The country also reports a high percentage of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and the additional deaths may be from the virus or related to the pandemic. In 2019, one ranking of healthy countries identified South Africa as the unhealthiest in the world.

Also, according to City Press, the coronavirus has added a new crisis onto an old crisis in the medical care system of the Eastern Cape Province. Among the long list of critical problems facing the system is the need for ambulances. MP Evelyn Wilson (Democratic Alliance) says that there is one ambulance per 21,000 km in the Eastern Cape Province. Amid reports of persons waiting for hours or of ambulances never arriving, the department has entered a contract to purchase scooters instead.

Staffing, from cleaners to nurses to doctors to administrators, is also part of the crisis. In early July, 75 doctors and nurses were deployed to Port Elizabeth to help with the staffing shortages. In mid-July, the BBC’s Africa correspondent, Andrew Harding, exposed the personnel shortages, mismanagement, corruption, strikes orchestrated by the unions, filth, oxygen shortages, and deaths due to staffing shortages in hospitals in Port Elizabeth over the past few months. The virus has exposed the already tragic health system in the province. Volkswagen has stepped up to help in the crisis, setting up a field hospital with 1,200 beds. This only supports the view that real help can only come from outside the government’s healthcare system.

Schools closing again

After opening public schools, President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced a four-week ‘break’ due to the coronavirus. Schools are expected reopen on 24 August. The American Academy of Pediatrics ‘strongly advocates’ school reopening. They say, ‘Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits. Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.’ The Democratic Alliance party has challenged school closing in South Africa in court, saying that trade unions and political intrigue are behind the legally and scientifically baseless decision.

The township situation of crowded spaces, many sharing a small room, socializing, and so forth is not conducive to home lockdowns to stem the pandemic. South Africa will continue its national nutrition programme during school closures.


Some churches, now permitted to meet with up to 50 persons, have reopened. Others continue gathering online. In Port Elizabeth, where the Covid-19 situation is dire, churches remain closed—especially because travel to meetings by taxi is a high risk. Permits are required to travel out of the city. Most mainline churches in South Africa are not holding worship services, and thus plate giving is dropping. Many dioceses in the Anglican Church, for example, are in financial distress. The Archbishop for the denomination has instructed all clergy 60 years and older in the Diocese of Natal to retire due to financial hardship. As a result, faithful, elderly clergy will sustain massive penalties on their pensions and face the prospect of being without accommodation.

Unemployment was increasing before the virus. In the last quarter of 2019, unemployment stood at 29.1%, and rose to 31.1% in the first quarter of 2020 (7.1 million people). Official figures only report how many people are unemployed but looking for work—the problem is much worse. A year ago, the Mail & Guardian noted that unemployment rose by 8.8% since 2008, with 46% black and 9.8% white unemployment. In the North West and Eastern Cape provinces, unemployment is the worst.

Fr Dudley Greenshields reports that most churches in the Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape are providing soup to those in need in response to unemployment, but job creation will be needed long term.

With continuous energy problems, the country is unlikely to attract foreign companies. The power utility, Eskom, issues regular blackouts and has warned that its system is under severe pressure. The problem South Africa faces is that a locked down economy, which only slows the spread of the virus, may not be an option for its economically challenged population as it might be for America and northern Europe.

Private and foreign grants have been given to help the worsening of the economic crisis due to the lockdown of businesses. The government has produced a R500 billion (£23 billion) social relief and economic support package and R15 billion (£708 million) for social grant recipients. Ramaphosa also acknowledged ‘instances where funds are stolen and misused, where goods are overpriced, food parcels are diverted from needy households—where there is corruption and mismanagement of public funds.’ The Special Investigation Unit is charged with investigating corruption.


While the Africa National Congress has ruled in South Africa since 1994, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is calling for land expropriation without compensation, since people pose as legitimate authorities and illegally sell private land to the poor. The officials then arrive to tear down the shacks.

This July, riots have erupted near Cape Town in the Western Cape. A group of youth invaded some land and threw stones at trucks and the police. Violent rioters closed off roads and set buildings and a car alight. Police dispersed the crowd with rubber bullets and water from fire engines. Street rioting erupted in February, 2020 in Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal. Recent, brutal attacks in rural areas and the instruction not to investigate the crimes have left farmers and small communities fearful. The Transvaal Agricultural Union in South Africa reports that there were 194 attacks and 29 murders on farms in Jan. – June, 2019 and 141 farm attacks and 26 murders on farms in Jan. – June, 2020. There were 21,022 murders in South Africa in 2018/2019, and aggravated robbery was up in the last five years by 33%. Commercial farmers have declined from 120,000 in 1994 to about 35,000.

Such is the situation at the end of July, 2020.

Rev Dr Rollin Grams, an Anglican Priest of Trinity Church in Franschhoek, South Africa, is Professor of Biblical Theology and Mission, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Ridley Institute. His website is