Our various ways of relating to lockdown in SA depend on our distinct living conditions

Our various ways of relating to lockdown in SA depend on our distinct living conditions
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

We are at a phase of the development of Covid-19 where we need to cultivate even greater civic and social responsibility than has been evident thus far. This may be difficult for many of us but we need to do what is required to keep ourselves and others safe. But government needs to move swiftly to relieve the hardships of the vulnerable. 

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

I have previously referred to the lockdown entailing very different experiences, despite the regulations being the same. These experiences are differentiated because of the distinct living conditions of those in the wealthier or middle-class suburbs, compared with that of the working or unemployed poor in townships and informal settlements or those who are homeless.

Agreed with lockdown

I agreed with the imposition of the lockdown though I have been critical about how its fallout was handled. (For example). I did believe that it was correct to impose restrictions in order to limit infection and also give the health system time to develop a capacity to deal with the onslaught of infections that was anticipated to break out later, and that is starting to be with us now, in Gauteng where I live and the Eastern Cape, following the already high rate of infection in the Western Cape. 

I have abided by the regulations and I do not see any virtue in defying or evading them when it is possible to comply. Nor do I believe it is right to pick and choose what regulations to abide by. I do miss some social engagements in which I participated prior to Covid-19 but believe in being part of those who try to keep others safe by limiting social engagements. If I expect others to respect my space, health and safety it is important that I, too, do not cut corners. 

Opening up

It has recently been announced that a range of economic and social activities will be reopened, with protocols in place to limit infection. The lockdown has resulted in large scale unemployment, loss of earnings and the collapse of many businesses, mainly small ones, and the incurring of substantial losses on the part of bigger ones.

Starvation and danger of long-term illnesses deriving from malnutrition needed to be addressed. The loss of schooling, which also included what was for many the only meal of the day, needed and still needs to be addressed, but with proper safety measures in place.

I agree with opening up because a balance has to be struck between jobs and businesses, ensuring social and economic survival and the consequences of opening up. Despite steps being taken to secure workers and those at schools and other newly opened places against exposure to the virus, there has been a significant rise in infections. This cannot mean they must all be shut down again. Epidemiologists and other scholars are clear that the country cannot be under lockdown permanently and steps need to be taken to develop the type of individual and social responsibility that defends us against infection. (See: article here).

The health specialists appear to treat the virus as inevitably increasing in intensity and believing that there will be 40,000 or a similar number of deaths. Each person can do what they can to keep themselves and others safe, though some, even living in areas where it is relatively easy to comply, do not appear to abide by these protocols for safety.

I do not wish to advise where others should go when some facilities that bear an element of risk are opened. I also recognise that the levels of vulnerability vary. Also, temperamentally I may be more cautious than others and I take responsibility for my caution. 

Whatever the relaxation of regulations may be, lockdown is not over.

I do not see lockdown or at least the duty to exercise extreme care as over, and it is partly because I fear the virus that I do not intend doing some things and going to some places that may now be open to me. Prior to the state of disaster, I used to eat lunch out, almost every day. There are a range of reasons why I always regarded lunch as important – with a friend/comrade or on my own. I treated lunch as a space to get food that I liked but sometimes to clear my mind, to read a draft of an article or to socialise or bounce ideas with colleagues. That was part of my routine and eating out for lunch was one of the ways that I got by, moving out of the confinement of my home.

Now I do not think I will go back to that for as long as the virus is around or for the foreseeable future. Even with strict protocols I fear that the conditions of social interaction may lead me to contract the virus. I am in the category that is seen as vulnerable because of my age – nearly 75 – and because I have an autoimmune illness, fibromyalgia. I am however in very good shape insofar as I do a lot of strenuous fitness exercises and follow other practices for well-being, eat carefully and so on. It may be that the vulnerability is partly set off by these efforts to foster personal “wellness”. 

But one does not know and even though I agree with reopening restaurants, it has an inherent danger which I will not risk for myself. The danger is part and parcel of relaxation when the virus is still virulent, but needing to be opened with a view to the sustenance of employed and other people through the recovery of the economy. Until South Africa is a more equal society, some who go to work, travel in badly ventilated taxis live in conditions that make them more likely to interact with those who bear the virus than those of us who can more easily keep safe.

Until South Africa is a more equal society, some who go to work are forced to travel in badly ventilated taxis and live in conditions that make them more likely to interact with those who bear the virus than those of us who can more easily keep safe.

They cannot help inadvertently bringing it to work and into contact with customers or colleagues. That is in the nature of Covid-19 in an unequal society.

But that is not to say that the direction of likely infection is necessarily from township to work. It can also be in the opposite direction. How the virus spreads within communities is not always known. It is also likely that some customers who have been negligent or socially irresponsible may infect workers at restaurants or other places of work that they visit. 


I understand that the lockdown has demonstrated a relationship between the availability of alcohol and filling up emergency wards with casualties that were alcohol-related. In discussion with Judge Dennis Davis, Professor Glenda Gray, president and CEO of the Medical Research Council spoke of perhaps rationing purchases of alcohol.

This is not a viable suggestion. What I understand to be the trade-off is that government has to resuscitate jobs and businesses including in alcohol-related industries. If it does not do this more people will be without jobs or income. To ration wine drinkers to one bottle a week or beer drinkers to 2-3 cans a week cuts down the viability of a range of alcohol-related industries – even if it reduces the number of beds used by those who have been in alcohol-related incidents. That cannot be assessed purely through a focus on alcohol because the consequence of cutting back on the industry may also have an indirect effect on vulnerability to illness of those unemployed or only partially earning.

So, what you may win in terms of hospital bed availability you lose in terms of collapse of economic activity and increase the vulnerability to non-Covid conditions, including hunger.

My own experience of lockdown

I have held back from writing about how I have myself experienced the lockdown. Given that I live in a middle-class suburb I have not wanted to burden readers with what may seem like narcissistic reflections of how this experience resonates with an earlier period of confinement (when I was a prisoner serving a sentence, in state of emergency detention and house arrest). I have been hesitant because the conditions some experience in Diepsloot, parts of Khayelitsha, and other places are far worse than that of house arrest or most prisons I experienced. Apart from some police cells the conditions in prisons were generally far superior to that of a shack dweller or that of the homeless.

Still it has been psychologically hard. It has meant, in some ways, a reliving of earlier periods of confinement. But I have not wanted to voice this in the sense of foregrounding what I now experience because there are very many people who find it hard to comply with regulations because, unlike me, they do not have proper homes, water, sanitation, space for recreation and healthcare.

Nevertheless, I am putting down these thoughts because mine is one of a number of experiences of lockdown that form part of the whole. Before I wrote about my prison experiences I was also reluctant to do that because my time “inside” was far less than that of people like Nelson Mandela. but I was told by a psychologist that the fact that one was not murdered does not invalidate the pain of being assaulted. It has real meaning and consequently we should not devalue our own experiences, although we measure the extent of hardship and acknowledge that difference. 

One of the reasons I believe it is important to understand how I experience this is that I am in the vulnerable group who are urged to stay at home as far as possible and as I indicated, I am unlikely to visit restaurants when these are opened. This is not without psychological effects that may be useful to share with others who are experiencing this.

I have found the lockdown hard and like others, who do research or write, I have heard, also had problems in being productive as a scholar or commentator on contemporary politics. In most of my prison experiences I was able to write. (In my second period, where 18 out of 27 months were in solitary confinement, I was ultimately not able to do much intellectual work and survived mainly through a residual will to resist and physical exercises. See my prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s Prison, 2 edition, Jacana Media, 2017).

Isolation is isolation even though it has different contexts, meaning that its effects can be similar now to that of house arrest or detention.

Difficult interactions

There are some difficult interactions that result from the opening up of the lockdown. We have decided to hold back on the return of our domestic worker though we still pay her. We have had our gardener/handy person return. He works almost entirely outside the house, and we have strict protocols in place for washing surfaces touched and similar points of potential danger.

It is rather embarrassing to impose this and continually check because we have in our minds that the gardener and domestic worker are more likely to be bearers of Covid-19 than us, by virtue of travelling in taxis with poor ventilation, among other factors. 

I sometimes feel that it may come across as if we believe they are unclean, and have assured them that it is not so. One needs to be very careful that one is not stigmatising those who come from underprivileged environments, especially bearing in mind that the early introduction of the virus into South Africa may have come mainly from those who had travelled to Italy and other European countries. We are continually thinking about and reviewing how we relate to this question.


I have decided to stay at home as much as possible, partly because I want to stay safe but partly because of the absence of places to go to, outside of the house. Until now, with the opening of restaurants imminent, it has really been possible to visit shops and not much else. 

I have not felt so trapped as I do now for some time. There are people doing building repairs at our house and it is very hard to work because of the noise. The repairs could not be postponed insofar as the roofing was badly damaged and damp had also set in in various parts of the house. Prior to the coronavirus danger, if there had been such a level of noise, I would have found a way of leaving the house. 

Now I cannot just go out and sit in a coffee bar. And even when these are open I am loath to take the risk. This sensory overload is again a reliving of previous experiences. Most of my state of emergency detention in 1986-88 was in Diepkloof prison and there was continual bombardment of Radio Highveld played at a high volume.

Government’s responsibility and ours

We are at a phase of the development of the virus where we need to cultivate an even greater sense of civic and social responsibility, as far as possible.

But we are entitled to expect that government does everything that is possible to minimise the dangers, whether in more efficiently and less restrictively distributing grants and food, ensuring provision of water, regulating transport, opening of schools and the provision of facilities that will enable the school environment to be one which does not itself entail dangers. It is scandalous that young children are still dying in pit toilets. It tells us something about skewed resources and the absence of will. It is important that this be remedied, not only because it is needed by the vulnerable but it is in the interest of government itself, that may be squandering the goodwill that greeted its efforts at the onset of lockdown. DM

Raymond Suttner is a professor affiliated to the University of Johannesburg and Unisa, and a senior research associate at the Centre for Change. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.




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