This is not an accident
Lauren Paremoer | Amandla 71/72 | September 2020
Women, particularly black working class women, are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not a matter of bad luck; it is not simply accidental. It is an entirely predictable and persistent effect of society being organised and structured for the primary benefit of people who are generally not expected to fulfil routine childcare responsibilities; who are not expected to cook and cleaning; who are not expected to be kind, forgiving and understanding even when they are tired, angry, bruised and battered. Historically, these people have been men. Relatively unburdened by the double burden of housework and paid work, they have typically been the citizens and activists at the forefront of shaping the institutions that govern every aspect of our lives.
Revival of the state
A lot of writing about the pandemic has rightly focused on exposing how the public sector has been killed off by neoliberal globalisation. However, the pandemic is also demonstrating, admittedly in a very limited way, that concerted political action within and outside the state can reanimate the service-provision functions of the state. The South African public sector has been temporarily resuscitated through building field hospitals, supporting rapid and large-scale medical research, making temporary social grants available, and expanding gender-based violence (GBV) monitoring and support infrastructures.
People have been neglected and abandoned by the state and market for decades. So these modest interventions have been lifesaving. This is significant. However, the shape of these interventions risks entrenching the idea that women should, at great expense to themselves, continue to be burdened with the daily responsibility of “life-making under capitalism”.
Tithi Bhattacharya uses this term to describe the work of cooking, cleaning, childcare, birthing, and emotional support that produces the workers who are integral to the “thing-making” functions of capitalism. The capitalist system prioritises the profits generated by “thing-making”. Meanwhile, the gendered idea of women as loving and caring wives, mothers and grandmothers pushes them to do “life-making” work for free in the home.
For decades, South African women have mobilised around the idea that this gendered division of labour within the household is at the heart of their sexual, political and social domination. At the supposed moment of liberation, in 1994, the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality declared that,
“At the heart of women’s marginalisation is the patriarchal order that confines women to the domestic arena and reserves for men the arena where political power and authority reside. Conventionally, democracy and human rights have been defined and interpreted in terms of men’s experiences. Society has been organised and its institutions structured for the primary benefit of men.”
Lockdown measures have increased the amount and intensity of care work that women must do, especially where men in the household don’t do much of it. Due to social distancing regulations, women have also lost the informal support networks of family and friends outside the household. Children can no longer be sent to grandmothers and aunts when parents need to work. School closures mean women are working longer hours to take care of children and support their education. More people at home all day means more cleaning. Extra meal planning and preparation is needed to stretch the food budget further, especially when faced with the huge appetites of children and teenagers. High rates of Covid-19 cases mean more time caring for the sick and bereft, and all those worried about getting sick.
For centuries, South African women have been doing this work without recognition of how their labour contributes to economic productivity, and without significant monetary or infrastructure support from the state. The migrant labour system offers one clear example of this. For decades, the South African economy has depended on the mines. In turn, the mines have depended on women labouring under desperate conditions in the homelands to keep future workers alive. Returning mineworkers are often ill or injured due to their horrible working conditions. Women have had to keep them comfortable and healthy in the years before death. Similarly, it is the invisible labour of women living close to mines that has offered miners care and support during the months at work, when they are far removed from their kin and isolated from much of the surrounding community.
Lockdown simply assumes that state infrastructures can rely on women to subsidise the costs of keeping us all alive, at little or no extra cost to the public purse. This is sharply reflected in the fact that women receiving childcare grants only qualify for a small increase – an additional directly paid to each caregiver, regardless of the number of people they are caring for. And yet the monetary value of care work is much more than this. Oxfam has estimated that, globally, the unpaid care work of women can be valued at a minimum of $10.8 trillion annually. In South Africa, it is estimated that in 2010 the value of work done in the household was worth R749.9 billion. Women were responsible for almost 75% of this household production. Over the course of a lifetime, researchers estimate that South African women “spend 71% of their productive time on household production at every age.” This means they have less time for waged work, leisure, and education. It also means a diminished presence in public life, and less time for political work that builds their political power and voice.
De-privatisation an exception?
Why does it matter whether
life-making work is done in public or private, individualised or collectivised?
The past months have shown the necessity of having a physical space to do
life-making work and share it with others.
beyond this, a space for making political demands about who does paid and
unpaid life-making work, how this work is valued, and where it is done. Emergency
field hospitals, and quarantine centres are amongst the most striking examples
of this. They demonstrate that the state, when pressed, really does have the
capacity to reorganise its work around the principle of care. Enabling these
places to become infrastructures of the public good made a fundamental
difference in saving lives.
However, despite the success of field hospitals, this specific example of de-privatisation is still considered an exception. In mid-August, for example, the Western Cape government announced that the Hospital of Hope at the Cape Town Convention Centre would be closed, as the pandemic had peaked. Therefore, it argues, it was important not to “over-provide” care capacity when it is no longer needed. This, despite all the pain and suffering caused by ongoing and “normalised” threats to wellness in the province such as rape, domestic violence, malnutrition, and homelessness.
Public facilities not fit
It is also striking that the major field hospitals were set up in cavernous convention centres, the modern-day cathedrals of transnational capitalism, rather than community centres. Field hospitals were needed partly because of the poor state of public health facilities nation-wide. During the Covid surge there were simply not enough hospitals or clinics that could adequately care for patients needing to isolate and receive care.
Why were convention centres chosen? Perhaps because by and large community centres, especially those big enough, well maintained enough, and equipped with working kitchens and bathrooms, have deteriorated, been abandoned, or for the past few years, have simply not been built. This absence of public meeting places within communities also means the absence of places outside the household and family where routine care work can be shared amongst “strangers”. That’s a sharing that builds relationships, shares problems, organises, and builds solidarities around common problems that are no longer isolated within private households.
Buildings that are free to use and are community-managed provide the material conditions that enable voluntary action that is somewhat autonomous from the state and the private household. The Covid-19 pandemic has again shown that the household can also function as a site of labour exploitation, precarity and violence. It is not necessarily a refuge from these dynamics that women also encounter at work. Street committees, churches, schools, or (probably, given the sexual division of labour) women’s organisations require physical space to socialise the kind of reproductive labour – like childcare – that falls mainly to women. This is labour that has been increasingly privatised within the nuclear family as a result of neoliberal public administration policies that commodify and privatise public space.
This raises the question: can we think about this crisis as a way to expand the public sector in ways that are overtly life-affirming? Ways that collectivise the “life work” that women in private households are socialised to take responsibility for? Not to limit public assistance to giving grants that further compound the notion that private individuals, mostly women, should be primarily responsible for the work of caring. How are single mothers supposed to “self-isolate”, work or shop for groceries – even with an additional R50 grant – without the socialisation of reproductive labour that allows them the time and energy to do so?
The various soup kitchens and feeding schemes started by community activists during lockdown are one example of how life-work can be collectivised. However, at the moment there is no public support for these and similar efforts, such as community child care centres or public laundries. The gendered life-work that takes place in households, and the gendered safety risks faced by women and LGBTIQ+ people, are not integral to decisions about what public infrastructure to prioritise, how to design it, and where to build it.
Through their political work, the Combahee River Collective, a grassroots black feminist collective active in the USA during the 1970s, came to be convinced that,
“a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will not guarantee our liberation. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives… we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions …We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
The Covid-19 epidemic highlights just how true this insight is. Women’s supposedly “natural” inclination to care for others, together with their intense anxiety to secure the resources they need to run their households, pressure them into doing paid work in unsafe, abusive, and traumatic conditions. The words of the essential workers in these pages clearly show this. In addition, women’s reproductive labour continues to subsidise a patriarchal, racist, capitalist system that has offered them mainly low wage, precarious, and now disappearing jobs in the informal and service sectors. This is not bad luck. It is not an accident.