Through a Gendered Lens: South Africa’s Covid Pandemic


South Africa, like the rest of the world, emerged from the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic battered and bruised on many fronts. In the last twelve months, the country faced civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in July, voted in the delayed local government elections in November, watched as the National Assembly complex was razed by fire in January and read the first reports from the Zondo Commission’s judicial inquiry into state capture that once again highlighted the chokehold of corruption on the country. We are now bracing for the next wave of Covid infections even as we are still reeling from April’s devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal and waiting for the delayed release of the final Zondo report.

Across the world, Covid fatigue has set in as countries forge ahead with going back to life before the pandemic. On 4 April 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lifting of South Africa’s national state of disaster along with most of the Covid restrictions, signalling another shift in our new normal. However, countless people in South Africa will be unable to shift back to life-before-Covid. The unemployment figures released by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) attest to the catastrophic effect of Covid on the livelihoods of South Africans. 

Globally, women have suffered the worst effects of the Covid pandemic, and women in South Africa more so. Women consistently make up over 50% of eligible and registered voters and typically turn up to vote in higher numbers than men. Yet, state policies are mostly gender-blind and weak with regard to considering and prioritising the unique contexts and needs of women. Women in South Africa had to face the Covid pandemic head-on with entrenched systems of patriarchy and inequality, worsening their existing vulnerabilities to a range of socio-economic conditions.


Before the pandemic, unemployment figures in South Africa were already high. StatsSA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) covers the labour activities of people aged 15 years and older. In the first quarter of 2020 (before Covid), the QLFS unemployment figure was at 30.1%. At this point, unemployment was already climbing steadily year on year. Although the latest QLFS report, for the fourth quarter of 2021, pegs unemployment at 35.5%, a World Bank report on Covid and jobs in South Africa found that the country had entered the pandemic with already high levels of unemployment and weak job creation. The report confirmed what many of us already knew – that the rise in job losses due to Covid affected the lower-income groups disproportionately, deepening the already wide inequalities. The report also points out the structural weaknesses in the job market that result in higher unemployment rates among young people and women. It therefore comes as no surprise that StatsSA found that Black African women were the most vulnerable, with an unemployment rate of 36.5% in 2020. In the fourth quarter of 2021, the situation has gotten much worse, with Black African women still the most vulnerable, but now with an unemployment rate of 42.4%.

Women in general, but specifically Black women, bore the brunt of job losses during the Covid pandemic. The National Income Dynamics Study–Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS–CRAM) was a nationwide household survey conducted over five waves of the pandemic from May 2020 to July 2021. It collected data on, among others, income and employment, household welfare and behaviour related to Covid-19. The NIDS-CRAM research found that women were not only much more likely to lose their jobs during the lockdown, but they also endured a slower recovery than men when the economy started to open up. By March 2021, the recovery for women was still 8% below pre-pandemic employment levels.

These findings are unfortunately not surprising, considering the deeply rooted economic inequalities faced by women in South Africa. The Womxn and Democracy Initiative developed an intersectional feminist analytical framework to measure government performance for the 2019 national and 2021 local government elections. This framework identified higher unemployment for women, a gendered wage gap, higher levels of women in the informal economy, lower rates of women in the formal economy, fewer women in ownership, control and seniority in companies and a lack of economic reforms to address the barriers and exclusion that women face. Government plans to address unemployment have largely been gender-blind and focused on the formal economy, with weak or no clear plans to improve women’s economic access.

Unpaid Care Work

Globally, women spend between three and ten times more time than men on unpaid care work like cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the sick and the elderly, and voluntary community work. These responsibilities disproportionately fall to women because of gender inequality and gender norms that have labelled them as women’s work. Often the valuable contributions that care work contributes to the wellness of individuals, families and communities are overlooked and undervalued. The responsibilities women carry for this work also limit their ability to seek and take up more formal and remunerated employment. In what has been called the “double burden” of work for women, many women are responsible for unpaid care work in addition to their paid work. The South African government, like many other governments across the world, fails to acknowledge unpaid care work and does not view it as an important part of economic activities. This contributes to economic gender inequality and limits the economic empowerment of women.

With the closures and partial openings of schools and centres for early childhood development during Covid lockdowns, it is clear that women’s responsibilities for unpaid care work increased specifically for, but not limited to, childcare. This increase was disproportionate to men’s, according to the NIDS–CRAM study. The high number of women-headed households in South Africa resulted in women being far more likely to live with children. Where men were present, they spent less time on childcare, regardless of their marital or employment status. 

The extent of these unpaid care inequalities was brought to the fore in research conducted among women in academia based at South African universities on the impact of the Covid pandemic on their careers. Not only did women academics have to absorb the additional unpaid care burdens in their households, they also supported students who struggled to adjust to online learning, resulting in increased work hours that were unacknowledged by their institutions. Despite this increased and unpaid care work, both in their homes and in the workplace, higher-learning institutions continued to demand pre-Covid outputs. The women interviewed for this research reported that male academic productivity was unaffected by Covid and continued to flourish.

Social Security Grants

Disproportionate social and economic hardships were endured by women before and during Covid and are set to persist. Social grants are one way for governments to provide a safety net for people who are most vulnerable to the effects of poverty, unemployment and national disasters like the Covid pandemic. Over 18 million people in South Africa receive monthly social grants, mainly in the form of child support grants (CSGs), old age pension grants, foster care grants and disability grants. These have all been criticised for being below the food poverty line and, despite annual increases, they have decreased in value in real terms due to the rising cost of living, specifically the sharp increase in food and electricity costs.

In 2022, the CSG increased from R460 to R480. This is still well below the food poverty line, which is calculated by StatsSA and based on the cost of the minimum energy intake requirements for one person. It is currently set at R624 for an individual per month. However, in March 2022, the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s household affordability index pegged the average cost of a basic nutritious diet for a child at R787.99 per month.

During Covid, the government first introduced the Unemployment Insurance Fund–Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (UIF–TERS) and the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (Covid-19 SRD). The NIDS–CRAM research found that women have not benefited from either grant at the same rate as men, despite being worse affected in terms of job losses. The Wave 5 findings, launched in July 2021, found that women only made up 35–39% of the beneficiaries of these two grants. Fewer women were able to access the UIF–TERS grant due to the fact that they were far more likely to be employed in the informal sector.

Initially, the Covid-19 SRD grant’s eligibility requirements excluded caregivers who received the child support grant. This exclusion penalised women for being primary caregivers of children and implied that the CSG was sufficient to benefit both caregiver and child. Later, the government did introduce a top-up for caregivers receiving the CSG in the form of the Caregivers Allowance. This was in place from May to October 2020. When the Covid-19 SRD grant was reintroduced in August 2021, it included CSG recipients.

As with many other social justice and human rights issues, the Covid pandemic deepened the existing deficits in South Africa, particularly for Black women. An unsettling report on research conducted by the Black Sash (launched in February 2022) vividly describes the situation for women and the children they care for, with women shielding children from hunger by going without food for themselves. The NIDS-CRAM study found that women were more likely than men to shield children from hunger. Despite receiving the CSG, caregivers were forced to make very difficult choices between feeding their children or educating them. During the Covid lockdowns and the closures of schools, children no longer had access to school feeding programmes. Many poor communities established soup kitchens to feed the desperately hungry.

The Covid-19 SRD grant, despite only being R350, provided much support to the desperately poor. However, the stop-start nature of the grant created uncertainty for the most vulnerable, with civil society and the public fighting hard for its reintroduction and continuation. The president announced its reintroduction from July 2021 to March 2022 and then extended it for another twelve months in his February 2022 State of the Nation Address (SONA).

With the lifting of the national state of disaster in April 2022, the Department of Social Development (DSD) had to re-issue the regulations governing the Covid-19 SRD grant. In a surprising move, the DSD required that current recipients must reapply and lowered the income threshold from under R640 per month to under R350 per month. The new regulations will exclude hundreds of thousands of people and civil society has labelled them as “hugely regressive”.

With government employment strategies not yielding the desired results to protect people from job losses, the Covid pandemic has once again highlighted the potential of a universal basic income grant (UBIG) to create a wider safety net. The South African government instead opted for the temporary (although extended) Covid-19 SRD grant, citing fiscal constraints and an already large social-grant budget as the main reasons for not implementing a UBIG.

Fiscal Austerity Policy

A discussion paper by Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era on social protection through fiscal policy in South Africa in the context of Covid sums up the crucial failures in the government’s approach. Revealing its assumption that jobs and social protection are competing interests and that grants create so-called dependency, the paper recommends that government acknowledge social spending as its constitutional obligation, including the need for adequate social protection even when people have jobs.

The South African Bill of Rights clearly states that the state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights enshrined in the Constitution and that the government has a constitutional responsibility to serve the people of South Africa. Yet, over the past years, the Treasury continued with its fiscal policy that focuses on reducing government debt by cutting social spending. This austerity approach has seen budget cuts that affect critical services like health, education and access to justice, despite a 25% increase in tax collection for the 2020/2021 financial year. Budget cuts in social spending have and will continue to have a dire effect on women.

Feminist intersectional analyses of the government’s social and fiscal policies have shown that filling the gap left by such regressive austerity measures falls on the shoulders of women – women who already get the short end of the stick when it comes to access to jobs and who carry the burden of unpaid care work.

Gender-Based Violence

It has been widely documented and reported that South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women for a country not at war. The #TotalShutdown movement brought the country to a standstill in 2018, demanding that the government respond decisively to gender-based violence (GBV). After decades of struggle, this finally resulted in the development of a National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (NSPGBVF) to guide a government-wide coordinated response to GBV. However, analyses of the president’s SONA and the minister of finance’s Budget speech in 2022 reveal the persistence of the government’s weak commitment to ending GBV and gender inequality.

It was in this context of entrenched violence against women and weak and uncoordinated response and support from government that Covid and the lockdown regulations hit South Africa. As with many other issues, they made an already difficult context so much worse for women. Women experiencing GBV were isolated from support or services, economically weakened and forced into lockdown with abusers. Increased violence against women as a result of the effects of Covid was reported across the world. This became known as the “shadow pandemic”.


Over the past two years, the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc on people already vulnerable due to poverty and unemployment. Social networks of support and informal systems of supplementing income were severely disrupted by the pandemic and the various restrictions. The social security grants introduced by the government, although plagued by gaps in policy and implementation difficulties, provided financial support to the most vulnerable.

People’s inability to earn a living, coupled with an insufficient social safety net and inadequate services, paints a very bleak picture for poor people in South Africa, and specifically for women. The government does have tools like the NSPGBVF and gender-responsive budgeting at its fingertips. If implemented, these could begin to make significant changes in the systemic and intersectional challenges faced by women. Sadly, it seems the government lacks the political will to do so. The government will need to make some fundamental shifts in its approach to fiscal policy and social security and to implement gender-responsive planning, policy and budgeting to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in South Africa.