๐Ÿ”’ What do you do when you’re hungry? GG Alcock sounds stark warning of extended lockdown

Extending the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa is a real possibility, but also a major concern for how it will affect life in the densely populated townships. GG Alcock, who’s been closely involved in the township economy, sounds a grave warning in this interview with Alec Hogg that the lawlessness akin to township living can lead to serious social unrest, including looting. As a lot of small businesses weren’t able to generate any income over April, they won’t be able to pay their staff, what do you do when you’re hungry – when you need to live? And how do you deal with mass social resistance? Alcock suggests the government looks seriously at the Australian model where they follow very strict social distancing rules and other measures without total lockdown. – Editor

GG Alcock is with us. I suppose for you GG, lockdown is probably more difficult than the rest of us?

There’s not a lot of virtual meeting rooms on the Kasi streets. So yes.

How are you connecting with people?

WhatsApp is fairly ubiquitous in the township space, so lots of those kinds of meetings. Interviews over WhatsApp are quite interesting when you normally sit on the sidewalk, but it works and people are very connected.

GG from your perspective – you keep a very close watch on the informal economy –ย  and right there, it’s what happens NOW, at this point in time. Presumably you wouldn’t have a 4% lift on that side of the market?

No, not at all. We have to look at it differently, this time last week spazas and informal vegetable traders were being blocked from operating and luckily that’s been released, so theย spaza sector is now operating – they have to get permits obviously and the same with the vegetable traders – but I think that’s been very important because people were literally having to take taxis into shopping centres. We saw a lot of it in the media, these big queues and stuff, so the spazas are operating – apparently very quiet – generally about 50% of the normal trade and same with the vegetable sellers. But the rest of the informal economy has closed down – hair salons, food outlets, kota outlets – the entire spectrum. Looking at the taxi industry, the only industry that’s operating is the local taxis – which are the ones within the townships – very little happening in terms of them moving out of that. So literally overall the whole informal sector (outside of the spaza and hawker sector) has closed down. I think the big issue is going to be how do they reinitiate, how do they start up again at the end of all of this?

I had a fascinating interview last night with Dr. Gonzalo from the New York Institute of Technology. What they did was they had a look at the infection rates and the death rates that are in countries that didn’t have the TB vaccine – called BCG – compared to countries that did have the vaccine. It’s stark. You’re talking about hundreds of times more infections and deaths in countries that did not have the vaccine, and who are they? Netherlands, Spain, Italy, United States – the ones that are in the news – and he gave an interesting example: he said that Italy and India got Covid-19 at the same time, yet Italy’s got 15,000 deaths and India had 32. So I’m just wondering – we in South Africa have a universal BCG vaccination – are you seeing any influence of that with the people that you’re talking to or are they saying that it’s still going to hit us?

It’s quite an interesting thing because if you look at it broadly within the townships, people are saying this isn’t an issue and we’re not worried about it which could be crazy. There’s no widespread awareness, there are no people who can say I know someone who had coronavirus or has been infected or anything like that – not currently – you’re talking in a community that’s relatively close knit and well connected. So I think that it’s really hard to say. But one does worry, that you’ve done this whole lockdown thing, with a massive impact on both formal and particularly on the informal economy, so are we implementing a strategy that’s relevant to a formal developed world and not thinking through it in South Africa? One of the issues is obviously – as we all know –ย  you can’t really isolate people within an informal township space. It’s a difficult question. As a Government, you don’t want to be seen to have done nothing and then suffer the consequences, equally you don’t want to overreact or put in incorrect measures. It’s hard to say whether that should have been done. Overall the big thing for me is that the whole country should be planning towards the day after and this. What happens particularly to the informal sector and how are we prepared for it? That’s what we should be looking at now.

GG, on your side. it’s going to be an issue because if guys in the township are saying, “hang on a minute, no one’s got sick or very few people got sick and you’ve closed down our businesses for this” there could be quite a kickback.

Yeah, there’s a lot of talk around the lockdown being extended. I really can’t see how that would be possible because I think you will start getting serious social unrest, looting and so on. It’s all very well that people receive their salaries at the end of March as well as their social grants, but at the end of April, a lot of small businesses aren’t going to be able to pay their staff and the informal sector will have not generated any income over April, so what happens then and in May? So I think that there is a serious risk of people just flouting the regulations completely on a large scale. It hasn’t really happened on a massive scale yet but when it reaches a certain point when they say, I need to live. How do you deal with a mass social resistance? I know it’s hard to execute but my belief is that they seriously need to look at the Australian model which is about very strict social distancing and other things without total lockdown.

I suppose the problem is that if you’re in Cyril Ramaphosa’s shoes, what do you do? You’ve done the lockdown early on, you’ve been tight, it does appear as though that’s worked because you can see that the growth in infections is relatively low in South Africa and you’re now rolling out masses of testing to make sure that you aren’t being given false messages and so on but the public – the people – might be viewing it differently. You worried about looting. Why so?

I completely sympathise with Cyril but what do you do? The point is that you also – at the same time – have to take measures that take into account the realities of your society and your geographies on the ground. Part of it is that businesses are within communities. So closing down all forms of business – apart from the spazas and hawkers – works in a city environment where you have a CBD and a separate residential and business environment. In the township environment, you have the businesses in amongst the residential environments. So it then becomes easier for a person in a township to carry on trading and not have the same effect as having queues at a shopping mall or a restaurant. Going back to the looting thing, people in the township environment are accustomed to lawlessness or less formality in terms of rules and regulations.

What we’ll find is that – if we carry on with this and people don’t have incomes and people start running out of money to buy food – they’ll just go in and start helping themselves. You have to sympathise in some ways. This is not the right thing to do but what do you do if you’re living in Khayelitsha or Umlaziย  or wherever it might be and youโ€™ve actually now got zero money – you normally would have had a little bit of money – you can’t operate your business, you’re in a community that’s relatively tight knit, so you gather around your buddies and you go and help yourself. This will be the danger. There’ll be two dangers in my mind, the one is that people will start looting and helping themselves to whatever they may need. It is very much like service delivery protests. What are service delivery protests? The government’s not providing so we start rioting. So food delivery protests on the one hand and the other hand I think what will happen is people will just start carrying on with their daily lives and their daily businesses the way they did before. That will be another form of flouting regulations. So there could be two sides if they extend the lockdown. The one would be people helping themselves or looting – whatever you want to call it – and on the other hand they would re-initiate their businesses and carry on operating flouting, the rules.

Is there capacity for the Defence Force and the police force to actually enforce a longer lockdown?

No. If you look at the military in the Cape Flats with the gang stuff, they weren’t able to completely suppress it and if you look at the townships now – yesterday as an example – there are a lot of people out and about in the streets, in Soweto, Soshanguve and Umlazi – I’m not even mentioning the rural areas – in the rural areas it was carrying on like before. How do you stop someone who walks to the river to fetch water, from walking to the river to fetch water? We really don’t have the logistic capability. Currently the population is wanting to help and wanting to abide by the regulations, but that’s why I say there’s a certain point at which it’s not going to be feasible to maintain this. When a broader section of the population starts saying that they’re not prepared to abide by this.ย 

A lot has been said around the fact that this ushers in a whole new economic system where we work more remotely and so on, from the informal sector perspective one of the strengths (and there’s many negatives), is the fact that you’ve got a multitude of small businesses fragmented – home-based or street-based businesses – and to an extent I think that the economies are – along the lines of Uber, Airbnb – going to move to these small home-based businesses. And if there’s any hope that the informal sector is able to capitalise on this new form of street-based, home-based business with low overheads and all that goes with it. And maybe they’ll be more resilient.