Land, rurality and data systems during Covid-19: Co-ordinating a continental response

Constance Mogale

Covid-19 has heightened the vulnerability of the powerless, who are now exposed to the whims of governments who have at their disposal absolute power as a result of the state of emergency and ‘the undemocratic nature of disasters’.

Covid-19 has shifted the goalposts for conventional activism and organising, where conscious and deliberate coordination has never been so crucial for the survival of humanity. Webinars, which aren’t a recent phenomenon, have acquired a whole new relevance. In our continued response to the pandemic, The Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD) hosted our second webinar, Towards a Strategic Response: Applying a Rural Lens to Integrated Geo-Spatial Information during COVID-19, featuring a discussion between Siyabu Manona, Nancy Kachingwe and Esther Obaikol.

The three generously shared their work as it relates to information and data systems; the importance of geospatial information systems in mitigating African governments’ responses to the pandemic and; how this can help in the fight to elevate people’s lives and livelihoods, as well as to assist in governments’ attempts to trace and track citizens who might have contracted the virus or possibly came into contact with anyone who tested positive for Covid-19.

The discussion highlighted what was needed to continue to build a strong rural movement that is founded on the principles of undermining and, ultimately, eradicating the othering of our communities which are languishing on the periphery of society.

Additionally, it was important to map out the practicality and possibilities of a broader intercontinental solidarity effort towards our collective survival in the face of a crisis. The conversation further highlighted the insatiable appetite for a response that mainstreams peripheral communities and fosters a culture of organising in both localised as well as regional ways.

Manona’s intervention: The single truth, land and the people

Early in January 2020, the ARD held a strategic plenary meeting with community structures that we have partnered with. At the heart of the session was to think about devising strategies to amplify voices from below and ending the othering of people in South Africa’s former bantustans as opposed to people in cities, and peri-urban and developed areas.

This was intended, primarily, as a way of continuing our advocacy work to support people in terms of security of tenure, promoting just land governance, as well as building a solid rural movement in the current context of Covid-19 that has had a profound impact and inevitable global ramifications.

The ARD resolved to commission a strategy document authored by Siyabu Manona, a PhD candidate in Geography (at Rhodes University) and Director for Land and Tenure Reform Policy and Implementation at the Phuhlisani non-profit organisation, which seeks to “develop practical alternatives to failed policies and practices based on co-learning and action for change”.

Manona, an exceptional tenure specialist with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the civil society sector, presented an insightful research paper which would, in the main, “locate the disaster within a broader international context, for the purposes of developing a strategic response”.

Manona’s main interest was around the ways in which our information systems must account for the encounter between what he described as a link between “land and people” in the African context, and all the implications that this encounter has in South Africa and on the continent in general.

He was keenly interested in data, its centrality and indispensability in advancing any response to a crisis such as the one we are facing. In other words, a lack of data (whether it is unavailable at all or it is inaccessible), limits our understanding or knowledge of any phenomena. Manona argued that accessibility to and of data is the key ingredient to ensuring accountability and transparency in governance; to understand what has been done, what needs to be done, and who has done what, it is important that we build an infrastructure of data. This is even more urgent as we deal with Covid-19.

…the South African government cannot adequately resolve the question of tracing and tracking without the “correct recording of and sorting of the address system”, which Manona argues does not exist.


According to Manona, even though this crisis poses an insurmountable existential concern, it still doesn’t suspend the great many other crises which are pathogenic (bacteria and virus-driven) as well as climate-driven, including HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, cyclones and other disasters. Even though these are all health hazards, it seems as if governments would rather pretend as if Covid-19 has suspended all disasters.

Manona maintains that this could not be further from the truth, and warns that governments’ over-investment into this pandemic could leave the rural poor even more vulnerable to the rest of the diseases and climate disasters which they are constantly confronted with. “While dealing with Covid-19, TB, HIV, poverty, land tenure security, neo-colonial extraction of African resources, have not been suspended. They are there. Government might be making a mistake by throwing all our resources into Covid-19,” he says, “without reserves for unexpected disasters.”

Furthermore, Covid-19, states Manona, has heightened the vulnerability of the powerless, who are now exposed to the whims of governments who have at their disposal absolute power as a result of the state of emergency legal measures and the “undemocratic nature of disasters”. He said data would capacitate us to engineer mechanisms that would better solidify and make practical the two important concepts highlighted above; accountability and transparency.

But Manona argues that this is also an opportunity to go back and mine sensible ideas that could help in health, education and social services, and which have been discarded to the margins by governments. Ideas need to be polished and implemented in ways that respond to the regional as well as local settings.

Manona argued that as undemocratic as disasters can be, the prevailing legal provisions can still be appropriated for progressive means such as sourcing existing address information and the tracking and tracing of Covid-19 carriers and potential carriers. In an article by Alison Gillwald et al, the authors make the case for tracking as justifiable during this crisis, but people’s basic rights should not be compromised and data must never be abused.

The appointment of former Constitutional Court Justice, Kate O’Regan, as the Covid-19 Judge, the authors argue, “indicates that the country is taking seriously the concerns about risks that monitoring can pose for human rights”. But concerns still persist, and in echoing Manona’s sentiment, we must ensure that “measures are transparent and accountable”. But Manona goes further to argue that the governments are “leapfrogging”; the South African government cannot adequately resolve the question of tracing and tracking without the “correct recording of and sorting of the address system”, which he argues does not exist.


Continental solidarity and rethinking borders

Covid-19 has exposed once more the absurdity of borders and how they continue to be a stumbling block in our efforts to forge cross-regional solidarity, and engender a culture of solidarity beyond borders.

Esther Obaikol, a lawyer, land governance expert and founding Director of LANDnet in Uganda, an advocacy network that offers “capacity development, research and organisational management and development to the public, private sectors and to civil society organisations”, says we must take advantage of geo-spatial data, when available, to foster preparedness for disasters and viruses alike, because “data is very critical in averting and responding to disasters”.

Data is important for the immediate distribution of food and other basic necessities. And Obaikol’s concern is that, essentially, data capturing and storage infrastructure is comparatively weaker in Africa, consequently engendering a further dependence on the West. She further argues that this failed data system also means that some people are excluded from data; immigrants, the homeless, women and children, the marginalised and the general vulnerable populace.

In Uganda, she adds, the land services are found wanting. “We need to open a new tab around data availability for purposes of public health and wellbeing,” says Obaikol.

“We must be able to link census data with land data that allows the collection of data, and you’ll have a response mechanism.” She suggested that we can have data systems that are cross-borders, where we are able to work together from different parts of the continent, to ensure an integrated and coordinated response to Covid-19, in ways that will allow us to have an “idea where the need exists and to what extent”.

Media reports indicate that rural community members in Limpopo are struggling to obtain proof of address because of the fee charged by respective traditional leaders in order to apply for the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant. 

Moreover, Nancy Kachingwe, independent advisor on gender, advocacy and public policy based in Zimbabwe, questioned the problematic phrasing and dominant framing of the Covid-19 narrative package for primarily middle-class folks, a tendency that is being questioned within the civil society circles, albeit prominently.

This happens, according to Kachingwe, in spite of the fact that “more than half of populations live in rural areas”, and she attributes this to a lack of proper planning and institutional preparedness of governments to deal with the pandemic.

Kachingwe highlighted what she calls a “shrinkage” in public spending in developing countries, and specifically Africa. This disinvestment in people has had a grave impact on public health where a rapid, uncontrollable outbreak of Covid-19 in Africa would completely overwhelm public health and lead to an unimaginable catastrophe.

Kachingwe adds that, in response to this post-colonial malaise, we must begin to demand more data be made available by authorities so as to know which communities need what and where. She also notes an alarming fact which should be fought; the commodification of data and sale to the highest bidder because, she mentions, “data has become the new gold”. This phenomenon is scary and, as she corroborates the other speakers, data has profound implications for public policy.

Media reports indicate that rural community members in Limpopo are struggling to obtain proof of address because of the fee charged by respective traditional leaders in order to apply for the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant.

In part, the Provincial House of Traditional Leaders concedes that there is no policy on fees or levies charged for proof of address – one wonders why this problem has persisted for so many years. With this in mind, it is in the interest of everyone, and more so the rural poor, that we establish a reliable system or infrastructure of data and geospatial information that is democratic, open, protected from the elongated fangs of corporates and government collaborators.

This must, as tragic as it is, be used to reflect on shortcomings in relation to data and instituting systems that would allow us access to secured data, and how best can we use our resources post Covid-19 to build these infrastructures of data capture and storage that would allow for the creation of better networks of organising, resisting and forging solidarity among the rural poor of the global south.

The Alliance for Rural Democracy is a collective of civil society organisations and community groupings championing rural democracy and restorative land justice. For more on the alliance and its work, follow them here:

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