South Africa: Country of everyday miracles
In 2021, I wrote a book that documents everyday kindness during the pandemic to remind ourselves that the solutions to our challenges are already largely here. South Africa, for all its challenges, is also a country of everyday miracles.
When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, I had just returned to South Africa after being away for 10 years. It was good to be home in the face of such an unprecedented crisis.
As the rugs were pulled from under all our feet, I started to document the ways in which ordinary South Africans were rising to the challenge of the moment and supporting one another. Suddenly, all around the country, community kitchens started making thousands of meals, individuals sewed masks at lightning speed and distributed them for free; people helping one another whether they were friends or strangers.
Looking back on those early days, we must not forget both the stillness and reflection that the first three weeks enabled and also the frenzied activities of survival all around us.
The “Archive of Kindness” began to grow, and soon I had hundreds of stories. A new job taken up in the middle of the pandemic allowed me to bring university students on board, and the students were tasked with documenting the “micro-kindnesses” that have held the country together: school fees paid, houses cleaned, children taught at home, prayers spoken, meals upon meals upon meals served.
The ways in which people came together during the pandemic highlighted the everyday miracles of living in South Africa. These are as much a part of our heritage as our violent history and painful inequality. Again and again, we, South Africans, find the best in ourselves and share it openly with one another.
Working on the project changed my students’ perspectives of South Africa. One reported he no longer planned to emigrate on graduation. Another said she’d come to understand her hometown in a way she hadn’t before. Several said it gave them hope and helped them ride the waves of uncertainty and anxiety that have affected us perhaps as much as Covid-19 itself.
The stories became a book, beautifully illustrated by Jethro Longwe, who graduated from the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town at the end of 2020. The book is Jethro’s first major project, and he said working on it changed him, too: he knew South Africa’s good side, but hadn’t focused on it as an artist, as a student, as a young person looking forward into his career.
Archive of Kindness: Stories of everyday heroism during the South African Lockdown shares 50 stories from a collection of almost 2,000. The stories published were chosen by people who had played some role in the pandemic response and who know the country well. Each tiny insight opens a significant story of hope, humanity and care.
Take, for example, a man in a high-density part of Cape Town who realised that everyone around him needed to stay in contact with their families. He didn’t have extra money, but he took the password off his WiFi so that everyone who needed to could use his signal to stay in touch.
Then, there’s a woman on the Garden Route who played her saxophone on her rooftop every evening, asking all the neighbours to send in their requests. A child in Gauteng who made cards for all the patients in her local hospital because they couldn’t receive visitors. Nurses who donated blood after their shifts. Waste pickers in Johannesburg who crafted a lamp for an individual to thank her for gifts of food.
Individuals who opened part of their homes to people needing to isolate with Covid-19, who welcomed strangers, who looked after other people’s children or cooked and cooked and cooked so that hunger didn’t kill before the virus.
This is what we are capable of as a nation.
In the period of our greatest need, South Africans rose up to the multitude of challenges, and we must not forget this. The responses that arguably mattered most did not happen at the level of grand policy, but at the level of eye-to-eye vision, compassion and care – not in boardrooms, but in living rooms, kitchens and streets. This is where we live, and this is where the everyday miracles of a post-apartheid country are most visible. Some of our reality is brutal, but much of it is also very kind.
As we adjusted to the new normal and found ways to live with Covid-19, some of the urgency of the early days of the pandemic has now worn off. Many things have gone back to the way they were, but much has also changed, particularly at the level of civil society.
Take the Muizenberg Kitchen as a good example. This project emerged from a Community Action Network initiative to provide food to residents of the greater Muizenberg area. It now exists as a community kitchen that serves incredible meals three times a week, largely grown in a community garden. The kitchen has permanently employed several of its most vulnerable volunteers, and has contributed to the Community Action Network cookbook, which is a remarkable resource in and of itself.
Paging through and reading Archive of Kindness is a great – and timeless –way to remind ourselves that while the challenges we face can feel overwhelming, the will and ability to respond are already here. Magnified a million times by everyday people, the blueprint for 2022 is very clear: build on connection, amplify those whose actions are changing lived realities, act collectively and for the greater good.
We have faced more challenging moments as a country in the past, and we will do so again. Each of us has the power to change our own realities – the book simply gives examples of those who already have. DM/ ML
Jess Auerbach is Associate Professor of Anthropology at North West University – she can be contacted at [email protected]. Archive of Kindness: Stories of everyday heroism during the South African Lockdown can be ordered from BK Publishing: [email protected]