On 15 March 2020, when South Africa recorded 62 cases of infection with COVID-19, the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs declared a national state of disaster. Ninety-three days later, and 82 days into the country’s lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa pronounced a second scourge:
At a time when the pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension…As a country, we find ourselves in the midst of not one, but two, devastating epidemics (Ramaphosa, 2020a).
To some extent this outcome had been anticipated, with three forms of response proposed just days before the national lockdown: a toll-free 24-hour telephonic hotline, the Gender-based Violence Command Centre (GBVCC) managed by the Department of Social Development (DSD); protection orders in terms of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act; and shelters for those needing to escape their homes (Zulu, 2020). While this system of sanctions and sanctuary was not novel, the conditions it was expected to operate under were radically new.
Writing from the perspective of shelters, this brief gives two accounts of working within such dramatically altered circumstances. The first tells how shelters adapted to the state of disaster through the harnessing and alignment of multiple processes and actors. The second is a considerably less sunny account. Focusing on the DSD, this section records habits and histories so entrenched that they were impervious to change – even in the face of disaster.