Recognising the Spirit of Ubuntu in Khayelitsha Community Response to the Covid-19 pandemic

by Megan Anderson

In the second-largest peri-urban settlement in South Africa, Khayelitsha, the coronavirus has proliferated with recorded cases over 6,500. The township has become one of the worst affected areas by the disease, recording the second-highest number of cases in the Cape Town District with transmission rates continuing to grow. The pervasiveness of the disease in this context can largely be attributed to the complexities of recovering state services after apartheid.

Khayelitsha township was borne out of apartheid, as suggested in its isiXhosa translation it means “new home” and was built to relocate the Black population living in Cape Town during 1983. The township has an array of housing structures with many residing in informal settlements where challenges of overcrowding conflate to make social distancing, self-isolation and, thus the containment of the disease, near impossible. The precarity of living conditions within the district is enabling COVID-19 to spread like wildfire through the settlements. Already, the township contains the highest burden of tuberculosis infections across South Africa, further exacerbated by co-infections with HIV/AIDs. The high prevalence of diseases found here owes itself to the poor quality and access to health services available to the Black population – a relic of apartheid. 

Khayelitsha finds itself in a situation of extreme scarcity with economic resources and opportunities disappearing, all in the midst of a paramount unemployment crisis. Thus, it comes as no surprise that 54% of the residents living here are unemployed. People within the informal economy are increasingly responding to the challenges posed within the community by volunteering their time and efforts. The result is a complex informal economy of care responding to the health needs of the community. Notions of reciprocity have been troubled through apartheid processes of social disconnection and economic marginalisation. Nonetheless, it is often the people finding themselves in the middle of these difficulties who tend to extend a helping hand with neighbours and community networks, rather than the state, resolving problems caused by apartheid, such as poverty and poor health conditions.

Ubuntu calls upon you

Faced with the calamity of the pandemic and the socioeconomic and political realities in the township, people are increasingly shaping their future by providing their own support systems where the state has failed. The pervasiveness of challenges facing the township has led to residents pooling what little they have, to form a collectivist solidarity, based around survivalist mutual aid. 

Labelled as an umbrella initiative, Cape Town Together has sought to connect over 150 community action networks (CANs) since the beginning of the pandemic. The greatest success in this initiative would be the efficacy of the Khayelitsha Site-B CAN’s response in managing the disease. Utilising platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp groups to connect remote and dispersed people to healthcare provisions and supplement their basic resources where there are gaps. The CAN soup kitchen operating within the township caters for more than 150 children and enables over 600 members to access food parcels containing the appropriate nutrients to improve health levels. The emphasis on food provisions derives from the negating fact, that food scarcity and the increasing costs of food, inhibit many people’s ability to obtain at least one daily meal. Improving access to this most foundational resource produces a dual effect: ensuring food acquisition as well as support to treatment for health-related issues such as HIV/AIDs.

The vast volume of volunteers has enabled the scheme to be successful, as many were already working in the communities prior. Khanyisa Vedala, the inspirational leader of the CAN in Khayelitsha, has reported how previously existing architectures of CANs extend help beyond established networks to diffuse further assistance to expand networks. The Khayelitsha site has since partnered community-led projects in tandem with CANs in affluent areas such as the Constantia CAN. This can overcome the economic constraints that threaten the sustainability of such programs; extending the breadth of assistance to meet the needs of more than 600 community members. Networks represent a valuable coping mechanism to resolve state inadequacies towards poverty relief. Largely attributed to the fact volunteers are also members of a resource-constrained community and thus have superior insight into the problems facing the community, which is valuable knowledge in poverty alleviation. Affected communities are increasingly navigating themselves through poverty by responding to their own issues and social needs. The horizontal turn harnesses the fruitfulness of CANs, inciting the element of reciprocity assembled on trustworthy and mutually beneficial relationships. This can help return the trust in society stolen by apartheid, as citizens engage themselves in positive and productive relations with one another to pave ways for social transformation.

What Ubuntu? I am because we are

The presence of CANs and their response to health-related challenges is described by the spirit of Africanness: Ubuntu represents an essentialised cultural notion of African identities providing genuine altruistic humanitarian assistance. This notion is reliant on a communal sense of African humanity which crafts reciprocal relationships of care and respect within the community. Captured in its translation, “I am because we are”, ubuntu propagates the notion of community welfare over individualism through the awareness that improving communal capabilities it will return benefits to the individual.

Ubuntu indicates the importance of close family and community bonds which provide the basis for the responsiveness to the demands of the community. Many volunteers frame their motivations as a “passion for caring that stems out of a ‘cultural’ inclination”. Ubuntu discourse assumes Africans have the natural capacity to care which impose social responsibilities onto the community to resolve arising problems.  Unemployed locals are increasingly becoming agents of development as they seek out volunteer positions to assist the community. Many volunteers lament that in the face of such entrenched poverty, and contributing complexities of city life, the ability to aid and assist is seriously hindered and yet the spirit still runs “in their veins” that demands action.

Some have critiqued the volume of horizontal volunteerism for merely acting as a basic survival strategy. The type of care provided is inextricably shaped by resource constraints in the community, as those volunteering face the same scarcities as the population they support. Poverty comes to dictate the quality of assistance capable by the community, and within Khayelitsha, this has meant many people do not have much left to give, not even a cool drink. This threatens the sustainability of relying on horizontal efficacy in this context. Nonetheless, the shared sense of ubuntu prevails, illustrating no matter how little the material resources, the abundance of human resources in the community proves more potent to poverty relief. 

Megan Anderson completed her BA in International Development in 2021, with a specialism in International Education and Development. She is now supporting the government’s covid catch up within schools, working as an Academic Mentor in Newhaven. Megan aspires to pursue a career in education policy to enable schooling to act as a great equaliser within society.

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