Maverick Citizen


White ribbons on a Johannesburg church fence capture the picture of SA’s rising Covid-19 deaths

White ribbons on a Johannesburg church fence capture the picture of SA’s rising Covid-19 deaths
Leonard Makuyo ties white ribbons on the gates of St James Presbyterian Church in Bedfordview, Johannesburg. Thus far they have tied 23,661 ribbons around the church fence in memory of those who died of Covid-19 in South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

As the number of South Africans who died from Covid-19 increases, so does the number of white ribbons on a church fence in Johannesburg.

On Oxford Road in Bedford Gardens, Johannesburg, the dead continue to claim the green palisade fence that rings the St James Presbyterian Church, where a white satin ribbon flutters for each South African killed by Covid-19.

On Thursday, December 17, that number stood at 23,827 after 166 new ribbons were added that morning to the fence.

For caretakers Silva Cossa and Leonard Makuyo it has become a morning ritual that began in the early days of the pandemic.

On July 23, they had to tie 572 ribbons, when South Africa recorded its worst tally of deaths over a 24-hour period. The numbers are growing again as the second wave of the pandemic ravages the country.  

“We are running out of space on the front section, but fortunately we have room in the inside and the back so we may have to move there soon,” says the church’s reverend, Gavin Lock.

When Daily Maverick first visited the church, there was still a lot of space for ribbons on the fence facing Oxford Road.

On that day, July 8, Cossa tied 192 ribbons, a daily record back then.

South Africa had yet to reach the peak of the first wave and the congregation had yet to experience their first Covid-19 death. That changed about a week later.

“It was one of our elders and he was quite frail,” recalls Lock. “He was actually recovering but he just gave up. He had lost all his family, he was on his own. He just didn’t have the fight.”

Since then, Lock has had to officiate over multiple funerals every week. Not all of them are deaths caused by Covid, but many are the results of stress, that are a knock-on from the pandemic.

The church has also had a number of suicides over the last couple of months.

“That is why I so love weddings,” says Lock.

The pandemic has changed how funeral services are conducted at St James – the services are now live-streamed on the church’s Facebook page.

When Ian McRae was buried in July after contracting Covid-19, a special display honouring his life was set up on the altar. A framed photograph of the ex-Eskom CEO was illuminated by a collection of lamps and lights donated by the church elders. It was symbolic of McRae’s life work.

“Thank you to those elders who contributed lamps to reflect the light that Ian brought out in so many others,” Lock wrote on the church’s Facebook page.    

McRae’s family were unable to attend the service, because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, but they were able to watch the live stream from the UK.

The idea of the visual displays came from Domenique Burslem-Rotheroe, a member of the congregation.

“It has almost become an extension of the ribbon tying in which we attempt to make visible to the families, who hadn’t seen their loved ones before they died, some representation of their lives,” explains Lock.

On Thursday, 17 December 2020, the number of Covid-19 deaths stood at 23,827 after 166 new ribbons were added to the fence. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Other services have been live-streamed as well, like a recent christening where the altar was covered in teddy bears.

Just north of the church, on the other side of Sylvia Pass in Orange Grove, the Greek Old Age Home is preparing for a Christmas like they have never had before.

In mid-June Covid-19 swept through the old age home, killing nine residents. Scores of others fell ill, even though the home had from the early days of the pandemic introduced strict protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.  

Now those measures are even stricter, as the home prepares for Christmas.  

“If they want to take their parents home for Christmas, we have an isolation area consisting of four rooms. So, when they come back they will go into isolation under our supervision,” explains Daniela Chrysostomou, the chairwoman of the Greek Ladies Benevolent Society, that runs the home.

For caretakers Silva Cossa and Leonard Makuyo, it has become a morning ritual to tie ribbons on the fence, a ritual which began in the early days of the pandemic. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

So far, only a few residents have indicated that they will be leaving the home for Christmas. The rest are staying, out of fear of catching Covid-19.

During the first wave, residents were kept under strict quarantine. But since the initial outbreak, none have been infected by the virus.

“Unfortunately, it is going to be a different Christmas this year. But I will still be there on Christmas Day, to bring those who don’t have family some joy,” says Chrysostomou.

Across Johannesburg others will also be experiencing a different kind of Christmas. In Alexandra, the Kusekhaya Café on 3rd Avenue, has been hard-hit by the pandemic.

When Daily Maverick first visited the café, the virus was just beginning to make inroads into the township.

Alex’s residents weren’t taking the illness seriously and there was a rumour that the virus only infected white people.

But it is different now.

“Now they understand, because some people have passed away. They have started to realise that this thing is real,” says Mandla Ngcobo, the owner of  Kusekhaya Café.

That realisation has meant that patrons are now staying away from the café, for fear of catching the virus.

To survive, Ngcobo has had to innovate. Recently he opened a tuck shop.  

There will also be a different kind of Christmas at the St James Presbyterian Church.

There will be no midnight service. The service will finish early, because of the curfew. Social distancing rules mean that space will be limited and congregants will have to book.

And through the festive season outside the church along that palisade fence, Cossa and Makuyo will continue their ritual as long as the virus continues to kill.

“For us, there is something sacred in continuing to do this,” says Lock. “And for those who have lost loved ones to Covid it continues to be incredibly meaningful. For them, it is recognition for the deceased.” DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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