Sheltering the victims of South Africa’s ‘second pandemic’

“It was really challenging as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these GBV victims, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abuser at the police station. – Brown Lekekela, Green Door shelter

“Stepping into the shelter is like eating a box of mixed chocolates. You step in and you don’t know what chocolate is going to pop up today. While we are still practising the covid-19 protocols, it could be anything from a mother giving birth or going into labour, to electricity that has run out, to a resident having to go to hospital and for us needing to arrange transport for her.”  

This is what a typical day full of surprises looks like in the shoes of St Anne’s Homes mother bird Joy Lange. Lange’s nest lies peacefully within the industrial hub of Woodstock, Cape Town, where women and children fleeing from violence are offered a second chance at life.  


Haven for GBV victim, St Anne’s Homes, in Woodstock, Cape Town may have a grey exterior but boasts multicoloured walls on the inside. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

Cape Town born and bred, Lange is executive director of gender-based violence (GBV) shelter, St Anne’s Homes; an executive member of the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM); and the woman holding GBV victims hands and keeping a roof over their heads through their rehabilitation.  

St Anne’s Homes mother bird, Joy Lange, standing at in front of her nest. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

While South Africa has been fighting the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a second pandemic raging through the land ferociously for years. This pandemic is the killing of women and children by South African men. This is a pandemic that does not necessarily require more beds in a hospital, but more beds in GBV shelters to aid and rehabilitate our nation’s vulnerable women and children.  

Rehabilitating a traumatised woman coming from violence involves various forms of counselling to aid emotional healing and confidence building. Along with counselling services, GBV shelters often provide childcare, women empowerment programmes, skill development, and essential needs such as meals, healthcare, and toiletries. The aim of GBV shelters is to rehabilitate a GBV survivor to a point where they can get a job and become self-reliant.

GBV survivor and St Anne’s Homes resident, Roxanne Nel, holding the product of her newly acquired skill – sewing. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

Gender-based violence is broadly defined by GBV and USAid researcher, Shelah Bloom, as “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between genders, within the context of a specific society.”  

Covid-19 exacerbated GBV 

This second pandemic was not brought on by covid-19, but rather heightened exponentially because of it. Between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, prior to the covid-19 outbreak in South Africa, crime statistics reported that a total of 2 695 women were murdered in South Africa during the 12-month period. This equates to a woman being murdered every three hours within South Africa. 

Non-profit organisation and lifeline for GBV victimsTEARS Foundation, operates as a database and a web/mobi site that provides crisis intervention, advocacy and counselling for those affected by GBV. TEARS intervention specialist and GBV survivor, Monica Moagi, notes how she and her organisation were working around the clock to accommodate the increased need of their GBV services since the start of the national lockdown 

“It was just overwhelming. The minute there was lockdown, that was when you really got to know your partner and understand their anger, and that is where the rise of GBV occurred. That is when we saw the demand for our services and the use of our hotline rise by 100%,” says Moagi.  

Similarly, the World Health Organisation notes in a research paper published on March 26, 2020, that while the covid-19 pandemic does not suddenly create the issue of GBV, it can exacerbate the risk of violence for women. 

The challenge is, now there is an added stress of getting tested for covid-19, which GBV victims are not emotionally prepared to go through.”

Stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, and decreased access to services all can exacerbate the risk of violence for women,” says the paper. “Other services, such as hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, legal aid and protection services may also be scaled back, further reducing access to the few sources of help that women in abusive relationships might have.” 

Getting into a shelter 

With increased pressure from the anti-GBV movement to put measures in place to aid victims, the government scrambled to try implement GBV services (such as sheltering) during the South African lockdown. GBV victims were, however, turning instead to established, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for help.  

According to Moagi, this is due to the lack of facilities that government shelters provided GBV victims. To be housed at a governmentimplemented shelter, a GBV victim was required to have a coronavirus test before being allowed in.  

“There was no system in place in government shelters where they could house and isolate people while being tested, and then later move them to the shelter once they had tested negative for covid-19,” Moagi said. “The challenge is, now there is an added stress of getting tested for covid-19, which GBV victims are not emotionally prepared to go through.”  

“The first payment these shelters received from the government only came last month [September], when it was due in April. Ultimately, they went five months without a government subsidy that makes up the majority of their funding.”

In the interim, GBV victims had to isolate themselves until their covid-19 test came back negative. The sad reality is that this could often mean the victims would have to go home and stay with their abusers 

NGO shelters thankfully used a different approach to ensure that the necessary covid-19 measures were met. GBV victims were either isolated within the shelter itself for a period of 14 days (provided the shelter had enough space), or a staged approach was used that involved the collaboration of various NGO shelters working together.  

Covid-19 informative posters decorate the walls of St Anne’s Homes to ensure that the residents and staff remain safe in these uncertain times. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

This staged approach is what 17 shelters in Western Cape worked tirelessly to execute to continue providing GBV support for women and children during the pandemic  

Four of these 17 shelters were small, which acted as stage-one shelters. The GBV victim would go into one of those four shelters for twoweeks of quarantine,” Lange explained. “Thereafter they would go to one of the other 13 shelters, which acted as stage-two shelters where they would stay for a minimum of threemonths.”  

Good Samaritan Brown Lekekela single-handedly runs stage-one shelter Green Door, with the hope that he acts as a vector for change in South Africa’s second pandemicGreen Door temporarily houses GBV victims located in the heart of one of Johannesburg’s ruthless and poverty ridden townshipsDiepsloot. Green Door houses women for up to fivedays to begin the covid-19 quarantine process in a safe space, while Lekekela arranges an alternative shelter for the women to stay in on a long-term basis.  

Having a mere six beds in three-bedroom house, and an endless number of GBV victims seeking helpcovid-19 forced Lekekela to cut his already small capacity by half.  

A bed in a GBV shelter became highly sort-after in the midst of the global pandemic. Photo: Emma O’Connor

“As the covid-19 numbers were rising, so was the number of women needing help,” Lekekela said. “It was really challenging, as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these women, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abusers at the police station.”  

Getting to a shelter 

The coronavirus pandemic has not only created numerous hurdles for GBV victims getting safely into a GBV shelter but has also increased the difficulty of victims leaving their abusers to physically get to a shelter. Level five of the national lockdown stipulated that South Africans must remain in their homes unless performing essential services. This meant that coming up with an excuse to leave the presence of your abuser would have been even more difficult for a GBV victim under the umbrella of a pandemic 

The inability of abuse victims to safely get to a shelter could have been seen among the quiet corridors of GBV shelters in Eastern Cape. Shelter manager at Masimanyane Women’s Shelter in East London, and Eastern Cape NSM representative Chrislynn Moonieyan noticed that her shelter was not as busy during the national lockdown period as she had initially anticipated it would be. 

“We know that violence against women was continuing in the country during lockdown, but we weren’t seeing a reflection of this in our shelters,” said a concerned Moonieyan.  

During the first week of the national lockdown, from March 27 to March 31, police ministry spokesperson Brigadier Peters told Africa Check that “the police received 2 300 complaints in relation to GBV. The question is, how do these complaint numbers fare in relation to previous years? According to Peters, an average of 1 673 GBV complaints were made per week in 2019. Therefore, these numbers suggest that not only was GBV continuing throughout the national lockdown, but its frequency also increased.    

Children coming from a past of violence are given a second chance at life and an education in St Anne’s Homes. Photo: Emma O’Connor.

Having to reassess the lockdown situation, Moonieyan tells Wits Vuvuzela that from her experience “the lockdown regulations acted as a barrier to women trying to receive GBV services, and “people were also just too fearful of the virus to seek GBV services.  

The sentiment is echoed in a brief published by UN Women that explores the impact covid-19 has had on the provision of essential services for women experiencing violence during the pandemic. According to UN Women, GBV victims “may have more difficulties in promptly reporting violence and obtaining essential police and justice services, either physically, or through helplines, as they live 24/7 with their abusers and have no privacy to make such phone calls.  

With little privacy away from one’s abuser, the importance of planning one’s escape plan becomes a lifeordeath situation for GBV victims amid a global pandemic. Working side by side with victims at St Anne’s Homes, Lange emphasises the need for a victim escape plan, by relaying the story of a brave woman whose husband locked her up in their home during the national lockdown.  

Working closely with her residents, Lange recalls various success stories of her past residents who she still keeps in touch with10-years later. Photo: Emma O’Connor

One of the women who came in during lockdown had planned her exit by writing down the details of the people who had previously assisted her in building an abuse case against her husband, on a 5x5cm piece of paper that she hid under her breastThe woman landed up getting quite sick and needed to go to the clinic. After her husband briefly left her alone in the clinic queue while he got his cigarettes, the woman just ran and never looked back, Lange told Wits Vuvuzela. From the smile on Lange’s face, it is evident she is proud of the powerful women she crosses paths with daily. 

Running a shelter in the time of covid-19 

Keeping the doors of an NGO shelter open during the covid-19 pandemic, however, comes at a massive cost for a shelter. Relying largely on private and corporate donations to bolster the costs involved with running a GBV shelter and providing rehabilitation services means getting funding is a struggle at the best of times. With the added financial and economic blow that covid-19 dealt to South Africans, this task became even harder for NGO shelters.  

Fortunately we have a three-year funding contract with a company,” Moonieyan tells Wits Vuvuzela with a sense of relief. “What we needed to do was renegotiate with our donor to redirect our funds. We had to ensure there was enough PPE (personal protection equipment) for the staff and our clients; enough vitamins and immune boosters; and enough food to provide good nutrition,’’ says MoonieyanAll our costs were suddenly going up because everyone was staying at home all day, which also increased the maintenance needed within the shelter.Moonieyan says she igrateful that her shelter was able to continue providing such an essential service.

Providing three meals per day with the adequate amount of nutrition ensures the residents of a GBV shelter remain healthy, however this is not small task. Photo: Emma O’Connor

With some shelters receiving a government subsidy for their GBV services, Moonieyan notes that these shelters were left worse off, even with the government’s support. “Working with other shelters, I know that those who were involved with government funding were really badly off,” Moonieyan recalls. “The first payment these shelters received from the government only came last month [September], when it was due in April. Ultimately, they went five months without a government subsidy that makes up the majority of their funding.”  

The coronavirus pandemic has proved to provide more challenges to South African society every day. The lockdown that was supposed to aid in keeping the nation’s people safe from contracting the virus created the ultimate paradox for GBV victims by imposing a toxic environment of victims being locked up with the peril of their abusers.  

Not only had GBV increased during the pandemic, but covid-19 also created various barriers to GBV victims getting into shelters, to shelters, and the ability of the shelters to adequately provide their services. Despite all these barriers, NGO shelters and phenomenal individuals at St Anne’s Homes, Green Door and Masimanyane Women’s Shelter worked tirelessly to continue the fight against GBV by caring for and sheltering the survivors of South Africa’s second pandemic.  


Teachers, the unsung heroes of the pandemic

Primary school teachers at government schools in Benoni and Actonville, Gauteng, have gone beyond the call of duty to ensure the class of 2020 have been protected, educated and well-nourished despite the threats of the covid-19 pandemic.

Arbor student

As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins

Arriving at the silver gates of Arbor Primary School in Benoni, Gauteng, it is not difficult to understand from where the school derives its name and crest: Strong and sturdy oak, elm and ash trees line the perimeter of the lush grounds. 

Like the nurturing trees, Arbor’s teachers also stand tall and strong as they welcome their arriving learners as if they are precious seeds of a future rooted in the grounds of the school.  

The pupils, of grades one to seven, with vividly coloured masks covering their noses, mouths and cheeks, sit metres apart from each other, each in perfectly demarcated circle. They giggle as they gaze, squinting, at the sun overhead, oblivious to the dangers now lurking in our viral new world. 

Actonville Primary School, however, seems a stark contrast to the apparent serenity of Arbor. Here, teacher and covid-19 co-ordinator Zuhra Balle stands at the school’s gates on a crisp Monday morning, taking each students temperature and asking important questions: “Have you been coughing lately, Allaina? Feeling out of breath today, Tshepo? Had any headaches, Martin? Keep two metres apart, you two! 

The next learner in line for the temperature gun poses a profound question Balle says she will never forget: “Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?” 

The mental and emotional wellbeing of students

Balle tells Wits Vuvuzela that this startling question made her and other teachers worry that students might be suffering symptoms of depression, due to the effects of the covid-19 lockdown. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has advised parents all over the country to watch for warning signs of depression in their children, as South Africa has the eighth highest rate of suicide in the world. 

An article in health publication Spotlight, published in April this yearserved to underline this warning by noting, “Rather than bouncing back’, children instead incorporate trauma into their growth and future lives. 

“Ma’am, you always ask us all these questions, but why don’t you ever ask us if we sleep at night?”

Balle voices her own concern. “Some of these children lost parents, some lost homes and some were abused, so we as teachers had to do something,” she says. We are now in the process of counselling over 200 children and we have a psychologist coming on board full time.”

Seeing her students experiencing stress and anxiety left Balle in need of emotional support too: “I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

The headmistress of Actonville Primary School, Venessa Moodley, reveals that she almost lost her life to covid-19 and therefore understands the severity of the pandemic better than most.  

Anticipating the impact lockdown would have on her pupils, Moodley created a ‘covid survey’ which was distributed to every student. The survey asked questions regarding pupils experiences of illness, anxiety, trauma, violence and poverty 

“This really allowed us to see what was happening to our students beyond the school walls, and to take action by providing aid in any way we could,” says Moodley. 

primary school students

Actonville Primary school students posing in a colourful hallway wearing equally colourful masks. Photo: Niall Higgins

Counselling and care

With these new insights, teachers at Actonville Primary incorporated counselling into the everyday school programmeGrade seven English and creative arts teacher, Rani Chetty, took this course of action to heart 

I was encouraged to really get to know the kids. Every morning, our teachers will start class with a prayer and then open up the class for a discussion on how they are coping and feeling, just so they know we are a family,” says Chetty. 

“I myself broke at one point, I had to give it up because I needed counselling myself.”

Emotional and physical stress are not exclusive to lowerincome schools in Actonville. Just to the north, Arbor Primary has taken steps to address the trauma experienced by its learners due to the covid-19 pandemic 

The principal of Arbor, Patrick Arentson, swiftly decided to enlist religious leaders and mental health professionals to aid his pupils 

“We continue to bring in a ministeby the name of Basil Panayi to de-brief the children and staff, as well as a psychologist who works through the students’ emotions and feelings regarding the lockdown,” he said.

Arbor teacher and pupil

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, teachers watched over pupils to ensure that they not only received a quality education, but also had access to nutritious food and emotional support. Photo: Niall Higgins.  

Despite accounts of learners being frightened of having their temperatures taken, Arbor Primary’s head girl13-year-old Shadae Figueira-Parratt, says teachers do everything they can to comfort their pupils 

“My one friend has panic attacks sometimes and we call our teachers, who really help a lot when you’re not doing okay,’’ she says with a smile. ‘’One of my friends talks to her teacher about everything she goes through. 

For many teachers and pupilsthe transition to online learning during the lockdown invoked acute anxiety and stress. Schools such as Arbor Primary knew that quick action was essential to preserve the academic year. 

Online learning and overcoming data struggles

As a result, the school established WhatsApp groups and created Google Classroom programmes to relay vital information to its students. Through these platforms, the teachers worked tirelessly to put together course content from scratch. 

Arbor’s deputy headmistress, Wendy Lewis, says educators never stopped working and were incredibly innovative’’ in the face of lockdown restrictions. “We would use our WhatsApp group and online classrooms to create pre-recorded videos of us re-enacting lessons, in order for students to feel as close to being taught in real life as possible,” she says.  

Online learning is not an option for everyone though, since digital divide statistics in South Africa are high. According to broadband company Cable, the cost of data in South Africa is prohibitive, at an average cost of R106.20 for 1GB. 

Additionally, an article in Daily Maverick in July this year stated, “The adverse effects of the [digital] divide are likely to remain a factor in education for the foreseeable future. 

Keeping these statistics in mind, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) did not provide any public primary school with data stipends to accommodate online learning practices during the lockdown.  

This was disappointing for Arbor Primary grade four English teacher and head of department Colleen Liebenberg, who says teaching has now become an expense out of her own pocket. 

“Many students and staff battled with access to data as well as affording it. This meant students would struggle to access video lessons and teachers would sacrifice income to provide classes, because we had to buy data ourselves in order to upload our lessons online,” says Liebenberg. 

Arbor students

Arbor Primary students attending class in the school hall. Photo: Niall Higgins.

The creation of “lockdown packs”

Actonville Primary was hit hard by similar data and financial implications. Despite it being a proud and dedicated school, many of its students cannoafford internet access or smart devices, due to poverty and socio-economic challenges. The school’s 1 356 students battle to even afford the school fee of R1 100 a year.  

Despite these disadvantages, Actonville educators rose to the occasion wholeheartedly and began to create customised workbooks for their learners. 

Actonville teachers became the authors of their own ‘lockdown packs’ and created entirely unique models of learning so that students could continue working from home,” says Moodley. Our teachers filled the gap by doing whatever was necessary. 

In the absence of data stipends, one might assume the DBE would have provided lockdown packs to public schools. According to the Teacher Guidelines for Implementing the Revised Annual Teaching Plans (ATPs) statementhowever, the DBE provided subject guidelines and recommended’ class work, but no physical reading material. 

Poppy Benny, subject adviser at the DBE in Ekhuruleni North, says, We developed resources per subject, which were then shared with teachers online to assist with creating their own learning programmes. 

Arbor’s Lewis says, however, producing these workbooks was necessary but not cheap or easy: “Prepping work for lockdown learners has been a huge sacrifice of time and effort, and printing out and delivering course packs at our own expense has been essential to continuing students’ education.  

Actonville student

During the lockdown, many lower-income students from Actonville Primary and beyond were not taught through online classes due to no access to data or internet devices and therefore, relied on customised learning packs created and distributed by teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Changes to the academic year

On top of limited access to class time, months of formal schooling were losdue to the lockdownIn response, government schools applied ‘curriculum trimming’ as part of their recovery plan by cutting the academic syllabus down to core learning material. 

Subsequently, primary schools will set and moderate their own examination papers this year. Exam marks have, however, been reduced in most cases and class assessment marking will be increased. This does not negate the fact that many students still did not have any schooling at all during the lockdown, and therefore have less training under their belts. 

The pressure on teachers to perform and be trustworthy is huge now, more than ever, especially in disadvantaged areas with little to no class time, says Memory Panayi, head of the language department at Arbor Primary. 

Varying class schedules also led to difficulties in creating and implementing teaching plans. Some children came in on a bi-weekly basis, whereas some stayed home. This meant  teachers had to teach both formally at school and by distance for online students.  

“We essentially had two jobs,” says Arbor’s Liebenberg. “We had to constantly restructure the programme, redo each class prep multiple times and then teach the same class over again because, as time got reduced to complete the syllabus, we had to adapt.” 

Increased poverty and hungry children

What is more, the academic pitfalls are not the only obstacle. As I stroll through the corridors of Actonville Primary, made colourful with posters, to investigate the unique challenges of ‘covid learning’’, an intriguing area catches my eye. It makes me wonder whether academics are, after all, teachers’ only concern.  

The small area contains buckets and patches of fertile soil in sunny locations. These are home to a rich variety of carrots, onions, potatoes and other vegetables.  

Noticing my curiosity, a grade seven teacher and co-ordinator of Actonville Primary’s feeding scheme, Ellen Buthelezi, speaks with a heavy heart. There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach. During lockdown, there were literally queues of students lining up outside school looking for a decent meal, she says. 

Her comment implies there are many children from impoverished families, and for them coming to school means getting something to eat. 

Buthelezi senses my sudden gloom and speaks reassuringly. “We currently feed more than 400 students daily and maintain these food gardens to keep our children well-nourished, she says. 

According to a Stats SA report posted in July, more than 62.1%, or six out of 10 South African children between birth and age 17 lack the funds for daily meals. 

The DBE normally contributes to food security through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) by providing meals to more than nine million learners a year. During the lockdown, howeverthis service came to a halt, leaving many students hungry. 

Actonville Food Garden

Grade seven pupils from Actonville Primary tending to one the school’s food gardens. Photo: Niall Higgins.

Food packs and nutrition schemes

Arbor’s Panayi recalls that during the lockdown, teachers were worried about what was happening to kids at home who did not have food“Wwent and delivered groceries to families personally during lockdown,’’ she saysWhat started as a temporary feeding scheme became a permanent initiative that now feeds more than 40 families. 

When the students finally began returning to school, teachers quickly picked up that they were arriving without lunches. “We then decided to begin an adoptachild scheme by assigning teachers to select and feed students in need,” says Arentson. “Suddenly our teachers began ‘adopting’ more and more children, and they supplied lunches every single day.” 

AActonville Primary too, learners experienced the difference and joy one extra meal could bring to their everyday lives“In the covid lockdown it’s a struggling time,’’ says grade seven pupil Enock Mateke. ‘There wasn’t enough to eat for everyone at school, but now we get nice food packages that we take home, so noone is hungry.

There is no way you can teach a child with an empty stomach.

With justified pride, Actonville deputy head girl Micayla Pillay says, Us grade sevens grew the food garden all by ourselves. We need energy to study, and the fruit we get every day helps a lot!” 

Each school meal adds up to one more child whose future looks a little brighter. 

As the school day comes to a close in Gauteng, precious young seedlingare returned to their guardians by caring ‘gardeners who toil long after their stipulated working hours, tired but unbroken.  

One cannot help but wonder: does the nation know that its teachers are true unsung heroes of the covid-19 pandemic?

Hear the voices of this story in the podcast episode below:

FEATURED IMAGE: As an Arbor Primary student raises a victory sign during class, pupils around South Africa celebrate their own victories of receiving an education despite the threat of covid-19, thanks to the endless dedication of primary school teachers. Photo: Niall Higgins 


Fight or flight for foreign nationals

The closure of borders and implementation of lockdown regulations to combat covid-19 in South Africa have had consequences for the wellbeing of foreign nationals, many of whom wrestled with the separation of their families and uncertainty over their migration status.


During level 2 -5 lockdown, Home Affairs offices across South Africa only operated for limited services, making it difficult for foreign nationals to apply for the necessary documentation to remain in the country. Photo: Zinhle Belle


A suitcase packed for England seven months previously obstructs the walkway as it occupies two thirds of the entrance to the Umeala household.  

Its owner, Chioma Umeala (23), has no intention of unpacking her baggage. Her family do not question when she will remove it, despite it causing mild chest congestion, as it packs dust.  

What you can still smell when you approach it, is the cologne of her father, who had helped her carry the bag down the stairs.  

A father’s final send-off, disrupted by the travel ban 

Unlike other students, Umeala’s decision to suspend her academic year abroad was not influenced by the outbreak of covid-19, but induced by her father’s deteriorating health.  

Samuel ‘Sonny’ Umeala (61), a Nigerianborn architect who had lived in South Africa for more than 25 years, lost his battle with an illness on Father’s Day, June 21, in his home in Johannesburg during levelthree lockdown.

Like many, the spread of covid-19 had scared Baba Umeala. Thus, his avoidance of a hospital to evade contracting the virus proved as deadly, as he did not receive due treatment for the illness he was fighting.  

The father’s day present anticipated for Baba Umeala has been placed next to a portrait of his family as a tribute to him after his death on June 21. Photo: Zinhle Belle.

For his last Father’s Day, his four girls and last-born son created collages and cards to honour him. Tragedy apprehended their family in the early hours of Sunday morning, however, as condolence messages poured in for the loss of their father. 

The reality the Umealas now faced included the logistical weight of planning a funeral under lockdown, which could accommodate their transnational identity.  

A home usually filled with the posture of a father guiding his family, transitioned overnight into a battlefield where two nationalities would butt heads for the legitimacy of funeral practices.  

In Nigerian culture, a person is meant to be buried in the land where they originated. As a result, his family in Nigeria expected his body to be sent home, for them to carry out the related customs.  

Chioma Umeala explains that burial in Nigeria can take up to six months to plan, as it is described as “the biggest event of a person’s life. 

Putting pressure on their father’s funeral was the policy of procedures for burial under lockdown, which stated that a mortuary may not keep a body for longer than 10 days from the date of death.  

Another hurdle they faced during levelthree lockdown was the travel ban, which had only been relaxed for the mild commencement of interprovincial travel for business purposes. 

Funeral arrangements were impossible to deploy not only due to the limited travel methods, but also by the inflated price of flights caused by the pandemic’s meltdown of the economy.  

This meant Baba Umeala’s Nigerian family were not able to come to South Africa to bury their relative.  

The family were burdened not only with the emotional trauma of this significant loss, but also the moral considerations of the possible customary consequences for not carrying out certain traditions accordingly. Umeala said, “With my father, knowing his culture, he knew that Nigeria is where he would have ended up.”  

The situation resulted imajor conflict and anger between the two sides of the family as the borders seemed to become a physical barrier that solidified their detachment.   

“This was the hardest part of burying my father, as we knew we had an obligation to send him back, but as a family who grew up in South Africa, we could only carry out the customs we were familiar with, that would give us the best closure,” said Umeala.   

Three months after his death, the ban has now been lifted, which has triggered disagreement and resentment as his Nigerian family seek the same closure afforded his immediate family.  

Similar circumstances followed for foreign nationals who saw themselves experiencing family displacement caused by the travel ban. 

The separation of families across borders

Alouise Matekenya (51) sits in an empty office, still set with work-from-home regulations. He positions himself at his desk, eyes glued to a calendar indicating the arrival of October, which to him can only represent the seventh month of the lockdown. What occupies his mind is when he will be reunited with his wife and children, who he has not seen since December 2019.  

Many foreign nationals like him, with employment in South Africa, faced insecurity of their mobility as movement across borders was restricted. Regulations such as the travel ban were initiated from March 18, in preparation for the lockdown strategy known as the National State of Disaster Management Act.  

Separated by only a border, the wife of AlouiseMaMatekenya, remained in Zimbabwe, where she ran their business. The two parents used their phones to regularly negotiate their parenting plan, as she took guard of their twin boys, who attend school in Zimbabwe.  

During this period, Matekenya navigated involuntary single parenthood in South Africa as he became the primary caregiver for his three other children, who remained with him.   

It was very difficult to manage the kids on my own. They were used to their mother coming periodically to check on them as well. Making the kids stay in the house was the most difficult thing to do,’’ said Matekenya.  

Outside of the emotional and socio-economic deprivation caused by the lockdown, Matekenya expressed how the risk of poor health was a lingering thought during the pandemic.  

his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death”
Like others, Matekenya experienced the dread of contracting the disease. During this week of leveltwo lockdown, infections in South Africa had reached a stark 650 000 cases, with deaths sitting at 15 500. After witnessing the decline of a colleague’s condition, it alarmed Matekenya to know that of the 495 deaths recorded that week, one was that of his colleague.  

From this point onwards, Matekenya said, his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death. 

Without direct access to his wife for support, a petrified Matekenya described himself as “the most vulnerable member of the family this side, as he entered self-isolation.  

Due to the level of responsibility on his shoulders to care and provide for his family, he had to put on a brave face for his children, while attempting to suppress thoughts of what would happen without his presence, or inability to stand in good health.  

To him, his three children in South Africa, all under the age of 12bore the risk of vulnerability, if left alone in an environment where separation for health and safety were the government’s first priority. 

Throughout the global lockdown, countries have offered repatriation flights to people who wish to return to their country. To some people, this gesture served as an outlet to reunite families. However, such flights to South Africa were exclusive to citizens and those with residency, thus limiting the ability of those with working or tourist visas to return to the country.  

The implementation of the travel ban on March 18, as one of the first lockdown policies in South Africa restricted non-citizen and residential travel into and out of the country as a means to control the spread of covid-19. Photo: Zinhle Belle.


During the scramble of countries closing their borders to manage the spread of the novel virus, many expatriates had to make the decision of remaining in the area they were in or returning home.

In South Africa, decisions for migrants to remain were factored on “considering South Africa as their home, others felt the covid-19 pandemic was global and could be contracted anywhere, while some indicated that they feared they’d be unable to re-enter South Africa,” according to the Social impact of COVID-19” research conducted by Stats SA on July 27.   

Speaking to the Cape Argus newspaper, the dean of social science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Vivian Besem Ojong said, “The primary response [by the government] is to usually focus on its citizens, and when the borders closed governments mainly put focus on their own residents.”   

The ramifications of lockdown policies, aimed at guarding the wellbeing of citizens, create a window of vulnerability for foreign nationals as they are not identified as beneficiaries of that protection. Consequently, they must submit to policies that do not safeguard their welfare.  

Yet in instances where one returned home, like MaMatekenya, the only option was to sit steadily in Zimbabwe for months, without clarity on when she would be reunited with her family. What was initially estimated as a 21-day lockdown in South Africa has extended past seven months, with no clear end point.  

“Like any other person, she felt cut off from the physical family union for a very long time. Naturally, her freedom of movement to see family was prohibited,” said Matekenya.  

With the financial instability caused by the pandemic, Matekenya said the earliest arrangement for his wife to visit, with the reopening of borders, has been made for November 2020 – a year after their separation.   

Not only did lockdown policy affect movement, but it also had an impact on the renewal of visas and residency applications, which foreign nationals rely on to maintain legitimacy in South Africa.  

The limited services offered by home affairs caused uncertainty for foreign nationals

Connor Sim (24), a Scottish citizen working as a private wealth banker in Cape Town, returned to Scotland in February 2020, due to a change of employment in South Africa that required a visa renewal.  

In his statement on “Measures to combat the covid-19 epidemic” on March 15, President Ramaphosa announced a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries, effective from March 18. On that list was the United Kingdom.  

As a result, Sim was prevented from returning to South Africa. Such measures by the government did not make exceptions for foreign nationals who had affairs in the country.  

When the lockdown came into operation on March 23, the Department of Home Affairs announced it would be offering limited essential services, restricted to the issuing of “temporary IDs, birth and death certificates.  

This caused distress for foreign nationals who remained in the country past the expiry date of their permits or visas, as they risk being labelled as “undesirable people.   

Section 30(1)(h) of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002, as amended by Act 13 of 2011, states the consequences of overstaying in South Africa as deportation and ban for a period of five years or more.  

Permit holders whose documents expired no earlier than February 2020 were granted validity until an amended date, which has been extended to January 31, 2021. 


Foreign Nationals with visas that expired during the South African lockdown are permitted to remain in the country until January 31, 2021, under the ‘extension of visa’ measures issued by the Department of Home Affairs. Photo: Zinhle Belle.

This grace afforded them bears the emotional stigma carried by undocumented foreign nationals as they often face discrimination from citizens and intimidation by the police. 

“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals”
“South Africa’s Immigration and Refugee Act is inclusive and progressive but there is no political will to ensure that there is the equal implementation of the law,” said Sharon EkambaramHead of Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, Johannesburg. 

“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals,” said Ekambaram.  

With the closure of embassies, foreign nationals had limited avenues to enquire about the terms of their stay or requests for aid from South Africa. 

Sim described the preliminary period of lockdown as “walking through the unknown. As he fought to withhold adjusting to the possibility of relocating back to Scotland. This deliberation was caused by the growing uncertainty of when he would return to South Africa.  

Speaking on the lack of resources for foreign nationals to remain informed, Ekambaram said, “there was no effort for the government to share these messages on a community level.   

A clueless Sim, desperate for information on when travel would open, grew tired of typing variations of the same question, on his laptop, one of the few possessions, which he had not left in South Africa.  

His rigorous efforts were not met with the same urgency as President Ramaphosa would only give South Africa updates every three to four weeks. 

“Around June, July [three months into lockdown], the thoughts started creeping in, I struggled to visualise my future in South Africa and felt like I had little possibility of returning to South Africa,” said Sim. 

The upliftment of the international travel ban, in October, under lockdown level one permitted Sim to return to South Africa to resume his employment.  

However, the future of many other migrants in the country remains ambiguous as they camp outside an open Home Affairs department waiting for their visas to be processed. 

Although the initiation of lockdown level one has facilitated a form of normality with the relaxation of policies, for many foreign nationals a constant negotiation of their agency was the fight they endured for remaining in a foreign country during the lockdown.   

FEATURED IMAGE: The Alexandra Home Affairs office remains crowded since its resumption of full services at the beginning of level one lockdown on October 1, as people have been inquiring about the status of their documents. Photo: Zinhle Belle.