MAVERICK LIFE

In conversation with Redi Tlhabi

By Joy Watson 24 March 2021

Redi Tlhabi (Image courtesy of Redi Tlhabi)

‘I remember sitting at an event at the Open Book Festival, listening to Redi Tlhabi, and thinking, ‘This woman is a soothsayer,’ says Joy Watson. Here she talks to the journalist, author, producer and presenter about life during lockdown.

There’s no questioning it – Tlhabi is an incisive thinker. One who has a special ability to gaze into the murky crystal ball of our layered socio-economic context, the intricacies of our popular culture, and, with razor-sharp skill, succinctly frame ideas that help us make sense of the world. This was why I wanted to talk to her about life in lockdown, hoping that she could help navigate the pandemic tightrope of our contracted lives.  

On the Sunday before lockdown started, Tlhabi and her family were at a friend’s house for a birthday lunch. It was beautiful and sunny, the children were swimming, and the day held in its cusp the warmness of that which most soothes — laughter, sunshine, family, and friendship. Tlhabi did not realise that it was to be her last social gathering for a while. “I look back on that Sunday as something to work towards again,” she says, “Something we have parked temporarily, not something that is lost. We park it so that those practices of fellowship and being amongst loved ones will be lived again.”

This mechanism of temporarily suspending something that grounds us is a way of living with hope, holding the vision that we will return to the things that bring solace. The things that are not quite within reach at the moment, but which loom ahead on the horizon. And while this hope is imperative to being able to get up each day and propel ourselves forward, it is compounded by the many losses we see all around us.

“Little did we know on that Sunday that there would be so much loss,” she says. “I marvel all the time at the number of people we have lost. There was a time when every day there was a death announcement.”  

Loss has been a recurring theme through the pandemic – the loss of loved ones, livelihoods, the things we did, the things we took for granted. Tlhabi reminds us that “on the side of this darkness, we will be there again.”

Her first loss was in April last year, when the poltergeist of the pandemic was just beginning to reach out and touch us. Her husband’s cousin, Somi Vilakazi, who was relatively young, and had no comorbidities, succumbed to Covid. He was the first patient to die from Covid at Charlotte Maxeke hospital. Redi and her husband were unable to go to his funeral. These were the early days when people were still trying to figure out how to bury the dead.

“It was so heartbreaking,” she says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, the enforcement of the rules was much stricter. As a result, my friend’s send-off felt more like discarding someone rather than celebrating a life. We could not adhere to the ritual of bringing the body home the night before, so the compromise was that he would be driven past his house. But, the death certificate could only be printed on the morning of the funeral and the body could not be released without it, so even that couldn’t happen.

“By the time it was released, there was no time to go via his house. People were told to gather at the cemetery without the body. The documents were released and people just went home. There wasn’t an observing of anything and it made me sad because he was the kind of person who liked to mark passage. He was always up and down, supporting others when they faced a bereavement.”

One of the positive things about being in a period of sustained grief is that, slowly, we have developed new rites of passage, new ways of marking social rituals. “I have subsequently learnt that the new ways of mourning the dead can be just as moving. Somehow, after the bewilderment of the early days when it was so unfamiliar, so clumsy and cold, we have found ways of doing this. We’ve learnt to bring our hearts to Zoom meetings, memorials and funerals. We are able to engage with a virtual world that was initially scary and shocking. We’ve learnt to find ways to celebrate the relationships that were birthed, worked on, and crafted before Covid, because they are too precious to throw away. Human endeavour is such a fascinating thing.”

We’re still learning though, trying to find ways of dealing with the sense of restriction, of living our lives within the borders of a matchbox. “I miss a sense of movement, of being busy,” says Tlhabi.

The good news is that Tlhabi has had time to think about her next book, which will explore the concept of toxic masculinity and how it manifests across different spaces and times – how we experience it when we’re little, in our teens, then in adulthood. Her plan is to write the personal into the political and she will share insights from her own experiences as well as those of others.

“I am busy but it’s a funny kind of busy because I’m stuck in the same place – all my Zoom meetings happen here. It can be overwhelming. My kids are small and need me to help with their online learning. But I’m still working. The intensity of the work hasn’t fallen away but the execution has left me unsatisfied. I don’t have that thrill of being in a studio – of being in a different environment. I don’t have the thrill of people gazing. Life has become this one-dimensional encounter with my computer screen and it feels unsatisfying.”

Lockdown has been powerful in learning about the power of human connection – of reaching out and touching someone, chatting with a friend over a cup of coffee, sitting in a packed cinema on a Friday night. Tlhabi sums this up acutely, “I miss the adrenalin that comes from being in a room with people where we are feeding off each other’s ideas. Without that adrenalin, I found that I can’t pursue things with the same energy and commitment. I don’t remember consciously doing it. But I have.”

The severing of the normal web of ties that bind us to others has affected our ability to pursue all sorts of goals. The pandemic sailed in on a wind of pressure and in order to deal with it, we’ve had to take away the extraneous stresses and strains associated with achieving things. “There were so many things that were on my agenda,’ she notes.

“I felt a sense of paralysis when it came to my work. It felt as if the only purpose of 2020 was to get through without Covid in the family. Everything else was put on the backburner. It felt to me that I had to wait for Covid to pass, then I’ll start writing that book, that essay. And actually, it’s ok, I’m not going to beat myself up about it.”

While lockdown has meant that we have had to withdraw within ourselves, Tlhabi reminds us that we cannot allow it to take our eye off the ball of life. We have to continue to live, hope, and take care of ourselves. “I have friends who are specialist doctors who have told me that they have seen a drop in the numbers of people coming in for their routine check-ups,” she adds.

“The thing is — people continue to succumb to other illnesses that are just as difficult to manage. So you have to go for your regular check-ups, the blood tests and screenings must continue because we could be sitting here with undiagnosed things while we are so busy running away from Covid.”

All we can do is ride the wave of our current times while caring for ourselves and each other as much as possible. “I try not to over-think things. I don’t try to find the wisdom, the fortitude, and the right words. Sometimes it feels far more reasonable to yield to time. These unspeakable tragedies – my response is to let time take care of it. I don’t try to solve my trauma – it’s an unnatural and futile exercise – like trying to solve your happiness and joy. When you are joyful and happy, you immerse yourself in it – that is the moment. So I adopt the same strategy when it’s pain and trauma rather than exhaust myself trying to fix it.” 

The good news is that Tlhabi has had time to think about her next book, which will explore the concept of toxic masculinity and how it manifests across different spaces and times – how we experience it when we’re little, in our teens, then in adulthood. Her plan is to write the personal into the political and she will share insights from her own experiences as well as those of others.

While our accumulative losses over the course of the past year have left deeply etched scars, there are some gains. “I’ve gained so much,” she explains. “It’s such a funny thing to be in that position where two things can be true at the same time. That we can have both lost and gained. As a family, we gained time. My husband was home during the lockdown and Covid allowed us to slow down. We did puzzles with the kids. We sat in the winter’s sun.

“We were able to do things that seemed unthinkable to do on a weekday. We’d find that it was a Monday afternoon and we were sitting in bed, reading. That sense of waking up with nothing to do but spend time with your family, reading that book you always wanted to read – sometimes that’s purposeful enough.” And that’s all we can do – find the things that softly and tenderly soothe our ravaged psyches. DM/ ML

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