I returned to South Africa in December 2019, after a decade away which included a US PhD. My partner and I had planned to move into our home on 31 March 2020, but one of the strictest national lockdowns was announced of all the global roll-outs, and we were stranded.
I have high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome and our temporary studio apartment was not an option. The thought of being “caged” as I experienced it, in a tiny flat from which one could barely see the sky had me holding my head and rocking in a corner in panic like a scene out of Rainman. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I might need to be institutionalised for my condition (and not for the first time, I reflected that were I born elsewhere in South Africa’s economic landscape, I probably would have been).
By chance, the next day we met our “new” neighbour in the complex we were moving into. When she heard what had happened, with no questions asked and having known us for only a few minutes, she offered us the keys to her home. As she was living alone, she had decided to spend the lockdown with relatives. Within a few days, my mind put itself back together, my hands stopped bleeding from stress and I was able to return to my research.
Our neighbour’s offer did not come from a desire for recognition, or praise. It was simply an example of what is locally – albeit in sometimes clichéd and tired ways – referred to as ubuntu: A belief in one another that is quietly holding South Africa together while we go through this process of dismantling and reconfiguration. “I am because you are”, is a lesson that many South Africans are internalising in completely new ways during the lockdown, and is what the Archive of Kindness that I have begun to compile aims to record.
Why an Archive of Kindness?
Lockdown has shown South Africa both the best and the worst of who we are as a country. When it ends, we have to hope that it is the best that will prevail. It should not be surprising that in the violent, unequal state that was South Africa before Covid-19, violence and inequality are now prevalent within reactions. There is a great deal to critique, to criticise, to mobilise against and it is good that this is happening.
And yet there are also other sides to the experience. People are now in contact who in normal circumstances would never know of the other’s existence. Urgently formed Community Action Networks (CAN) are linking not only neighbours, but neighbourhoods in ways that bridge the divides of apartheid urban planning.
People are asking for help and in many cases they are receiving it through personal cash transfers organised via social media. If you were hungry in South Africa three weeks ago, that was your problem and yours alone, but suddenly there are any number of Facebook groups to appeal for help on, and any number of people cooking food. Sitting at home, we are connected as a nation in different ways.
This connection is changing us. Once you have seen, you cannot un-see, and across South Africa, people are seeing one another with fresh perspectives. The archive is being made so that we do not forget that such change is possible, and that the same way the 2010 World Cup taught us that Cape Town’s trains can run on time, lockdown might teach us that no person in this country should sleep with an empty belly, nor feel alone.
Both strangers and friends are writing to me. An older man told me about the “flowerbombing” of a residential home in Paarl – what else to do with the flowers from postponed weddings, but give joy to the elderly? 11-year-old Siphenkosi from Muizenberg shared that he is loving lockdown because it gives time to be, undistracted, with his mom – no school or work to take them from each other, and the neighbour’s dog who comes over to play. For Siphenkosi, this time may prove one of the happiest in his memory.
Across South Africa, people are offering up whatever they can. Take Amienabie – a widow in Mitchell’s Plain with two children, who didn’t have anything to give but her time. She sent her number into the world asking women who needed emotional support to contact her. And they have. And it has helped. Or Verona, a dietician from East London who is offering free consults on how to manage nutrition in this time.
Every CAN and every street committee, every NGO and religious organisation, and person sitting at home suddenly has a cause: To get through lockdown, to “save” South Africa. Be it through cooking, tutoring, or making masks, for the first time since the struggle to end apartheid, the country is largely united and we know we cannot do it alone.
But none of us can do it alone at the best of times either. We must not un-see.
We must not un-see.
When lockdown lifts, we all know that life cannot return to how it was before, but the question is, what lessons will we take from it and how will these translate into policy and action? Will care for the homeless continue once those who can go back to jobs and gyms? How will we square ubuntu with business relief packages that are exponentially more xenophobic than the tax system? How do we respond to the psychological impact of this all? Will we maintain the collective outrage that has resounded from the suburbs in response to videos of military violence in the townships when we go back to playing our roles in an economy that is built on the back of this very violence and inequality?
The Archive of Kindness is, story by story, recording the emerging blueprint of a connected, compassionate country. In capturing the best of what South Africans can offer each other, it asks us to transcend our darker sides.
None of us is entirely powerless, and as this archive makes visible, it will be the little actions of humanity that define both our experience now, and our reactions to what lies ahead. I invite readers to share their contributions. They might be grains of rice in the bowl of national nourishment, but without each one, we would all be hungry. Please send a message/voice note to 062 328 1184 or email [email protected] DM
Dr Jess Auerbach is a post-doctoral researcher at Stellenbosch University. She holds degrees from UCT, Oxford and Stanford, and is the author of From Water to Wine: Becoming Middle Class in Angola.
"It's always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don't make changes. Don't risk disapproval. Don't upset your syndics. It's always easiest to let yourself be governed." ~ Ursula Le Guin