South Africa: Update on Day 1 of 21 Day Lockdown (27 March 2020)

This morning South Africa woke to the sad news of the country’s first two deaths due to Covid-19 as we entered the first day of a 21 day lockdown (later in the day the death toll was reduced to 1 after one deceased’s body tested negative). Some called last night “apocalypse eve”; others thought that today was going to be “a brave new world”. Whichever perspective you had taken, looking out from our windows and front gardens, and, mostly, onto the screens of our devices this morning, this was a strange and challenging world.

We saw, amplified, the divisions of the world’s most unequal nation. For those with money and jobs, well-stocked pantries and freezers, the day may have been occasion to gratefulness for the South African government’s decisive action. They could slow down or even enjoy a day off with their family. People from the wealthy suburbs posted beautiful pictures of a deserted promenade along the Atlantic Seaboard. At the same time videos circulated from the streets of some of South Africa’s large townships that showed crowds out and about, shopping, queuing, socialising. A few facemasks were in sight but hardly any apparent efforts of distancing. Angry voices fumed, “What the fuck is happening in some of the ghettoes?” and “the community clearly has no sense of urgency or seriousness”. Mind you, those were the frustrations of seasoned activists and community organisers! Some were calling for the police and the army to go into non-compliant neighbourhoods and enforce the lockdown. Others cautioned though that people in the townships may not have had much of a choice and that, “you can’t really blame them because yesterday they had to make some money while their bosses were doing shopping at Makro”. If you survive hand to mouth and with inadequate access to water the protocols of social distancing and hygiene are hard to follow.

Politically, the past fortnight has been a challenging roller-coaster ride. Following President Ramaphosa’s well-considered speeches, there was a growing sense of “we’re in this together”, and even hardcore critics of the government’s neoliberal policies were calling for a truce, offering co-operation and support. But on Wednesday night the Minister of Police shocked with a bone-chilling address that suggested an authoritarian and militaristic lockdown. Tanks rolling into the townships? The army touting big guns at the poor? Thankfully, thus far there has been little evidence of violence by enforcement forces, although in response to journalists’ questions about police using excessive force, Minister Cele threatened, “wait until you see more force.”.

On the other hand, civic South Africa has risen marvellously to the challenges over the past week. Activists and communities have been mobilising and organising for support of the most vulnerable in this crisis. In Cape Town, a city notorious for its racial and class divides, dozens of community action networks have been organised in local neighbourhoods and have connected poor and middle-class areas across the city. Political demands were put forward, for instance, by the shack dwellers association Abahlali baseMjondolo and a broad coalition of civic organisations, workers and faith-based associations and community structures. Most of the mobilising and organising of social solidarity has been thoroughly practical though. Tons of soap and hand sanitiser have been distributed, inexpensive kits for following hygiene protocols with limited water access been developed. Soup kitchens were organised for vulnerable children when the schools, and with them their free-lunch programmes closed last week. Even today the WhatsApp group of my neighbourhood’s CAN has been buzzing with a hands-on discussion of how best to support street people in the area.

These are strange and challenging times. Hugely unsettling. And yet, as we are moving into the unknown, HOPE has also been raising its head, very cautiously but here and there. Hope that this global crisis may become a clarion call to end the twin crises of ecological suicide and social injustice. That we may come out of this, and imagine new futures.