Hope and History in South Africa’s Pandemic

Photo by Ashraf Hendriks. GroundUp Images, licensed under CC BY ND.

April 10, 2020. Lockdown Day 15.

A few nights ago, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a further two weeks of lockdown, on top of the three we are already in. That will take us to the end of April, instead of midnight on April 16, 2020. He did so slowly, with grace and dignity. Our lockdown is tight. Some call it draconian. We may not leave home barring for food or medical attention. The police and army have been deployed. The government is following scientific advice closely. Our infection rate differs from the pattern in the north: a “unique trajectory.” The lockdown has, so far, been positive in the sense of slowing the infection. We currently have 2,200 infections and 27 deaths seven weeks after the first cases were identified.1

We know that five weeks of lockdown will mean fewer people will get sick with and die of Covid-19 than might otherwise. A wider horizon. Perhaps. But we also know it means exposure of another kind, to more of the long slow violence that South Africa has always excelled at. More hunger, more anger, more fear.

Despite the president and minister of health’s careful and committed explanations, we know that this lockdown will unleash violences of many kinds. In the first week of the shutdown, the Gender Violence hotline received 87,000 calls, and police killed more people than the virus. The homeless in Cape Town were rounded up and sent to a tented camp which many now call the Strandfontein Concentration Camp. Concentration camps have a horrific place in South African history. This weekend, despite a moratorium on evictions and a call to “stay home” and practice safe distancing, a call almost callous in its disregard for people’s actual living conditions, homes deemed illegal were razed by the state. Here too, a history of forced removal rears its head.

I call a friend in a low-income, high-density suburb on the outskirts of Cape Town. She and her family have been living in a beautifully curated tin shack for nine years while waiting for a state-provided house. It feels like she will never get there; promises but no bricks. She is too scared to go out. Scared because on the first night of the lockdown, two weeks ago, police beat someone up in the street, and scared because she doesn’t know who might have Covid-19. Safer to stay home. Today we talk about the president’s request. Two more weeks is a long time and who’d have thought being home could be so boring? True, we agree, but then, look at America: today, almost half a million people infected, more than 16,500 deaths. Mass graves. I watch their president on television and can’t imagine what it must be to be living there, with all that orange and bluster and a virus at the hearth.

My friend tells me that the community leaders have said that health workers will be coming door to door to test, but they haven’t arrived yet. South Africa is deploying 27,000 health workers to assist in testing. We are repurposing GeneXpert machines to speed test results. The fact that we have so many is a direct product of colonial Europe’s practice of sending its tubercular subjects to the colonies, spreading TB and colonial capitalism simultaneously. One result is that we all receive the BCG TB vaccination at birth. Perhaps this will come to our strange rescue. Perhaps not.

I ask whether people have begun coming to ask her for food. She is stable-salaried and we both know this is coming. No, she says, but they are coming door to door selling their household goods for food. The city is providing 100,000 food packages, and NGOs and CBOs and ordinary people are providing food, but we are in a country where a recent study (Human Sciences Research Council 2013) showed one-quarter of people are at risk of hunger, one-quarter experienced hunger in the week preceding the survey, and many households in neighborhoods like hers and like mine are food insecure.

I notice that she has begun talking about it as “the virus.” Earlier, she told me that it was important not to call it that because people confused it with that other virus, HIV, and grew even more afraid. So, things change. We have grown accustomed to a new entity in our midst. Our terms have turned. One virus is replaced by another. And yet old histories remain: the people of most concern are the estimated two and a half million youth who are not on the world’s largest antiretroviral program, and the elders who care for a generation orphaned by AIDS.

We wait. It is horrifying to know the manner of one’s future death, and yet, this is what we face. And if we do not or cannot believe it of or for our own lives, we surely know its potential for others—not only the nameless general other for whom we lockdown, socially isolate, physically distance—but the intimate vulnerable in our immediate worlds. It is, for example, likely that this is how our parents and others we love will die. And if they escape—by social isolation enacted by each of us where possible, individually, in the name of the many, or by some other twist of fate that deals a different death—we will know that we have imagined that this is how they die, and we will have to live with this knowledge. A primary taboo confronts us, more primary, perhaps, than that on incest.

I think of all the optimism about the end of capital as we know it that is doing the rounds on my Facebook pages and I wonder, “Can we emerge with a more capacious world order? In a country like South Africa, is it possible to turn the tables on history?” I am not sure there is a calculus for this, but if there is it lives in the spaces between the small kindnesses we witness every day and in the large-scale thinking that shapes our responses to the pandemic.


1. As of April 21, 2020, nine days before lockdown is scheduled to end, 121,510 people have been tested. There are 3,300 confirmed cases, with 58 deaths.


Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). 2013. The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1). Cape Town: HSRC Press.