Opinionista Bobby J Moroe 26 June 2020

Covid-19: Will life ever be normal again in my beloved Soweto?

Writing from my post as a diplomat in Abuja, Nigeria, I think back on my life growing up in Soweto – how physical human contact was the very fabric of our society. And I wonder if life at home, and everywhere, will ever be normal again.

As Covid-19 continues to rear its ugly, invisible head around the world, a heavy heart compels me to ask myself a difficult question, “Is this war the dawn of a contactless society in my hometown, Soweto?”

There is a quote which is variously attributed to Ugandan President, Yuweri Museveni, to Nigerian Professor Timothy Adebayo Fasheun, and to Ugandan analyst Kiiza Idiri Kamuntu, but which appears to be an adaptation of the writings of Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”. It metaphorically draws a parallel between Covid-19 and “war”: “In a war situation, nobody asks anyone to stay indoors. You stay indoors by choice. In fact, if you have a basement, you hide there for as long as hostilities persist. During a war, you don’t insist on your freedom. You willingly give it up in exchange for survival. During a war, you don’t complain of hunger and thirst and pray that you live to eat and drink again.”

By this metaphor, we are reminded that the extent to which we can remain safe from Covid-19 infections depends on our conduct. But this would imply that humanity must reimagine a new society in which life is characterised by contactless interaction.

I was born and partially bred in Soweto in a predominantly Tswana- and Sotho-speaking township called Moletsane. With this background, the mere imagining of a contactless society places a huge burden of pre-emptive nostalgia on me. The thought of Covid-19 as “war” makes it even worse – it gives me chills down the spine. I begin to wonder if I will survive a minute in a new society devoid of personal contact.

Although serving my country in Nigeria, I remain emotionally connected to my community in Moletsane where I sometimes spend time when I am on vacation. As a Sowetan, my definition of family and friends is not limited to my nuclear family in Pretoria, but also constitutes the entire community of Moletsane. This would include Molapo, where my pensioner mother lives; Naledi, where my aged uncle spends most of his time doing handiwork in the yard; and Tladi, a place my aunt has called home for as long as I can remember. Her house is attached to the Blue Lagoon Café, an iconic restaurant in Soweto specialising in fish and chips, or “fires” as the locals call them.  

It saddens me to imagine that when I next get an opportunity to visit home, Covid-19 will deny me an opportunity to display the often missed affection in my absence – something that my family and friends look forward to whenever I am home. This pandemic will push me, yet again, to another contactless life with them, but this time in their presence. I will still be absent in their presence, and present in their absence. It may sound philosophical, but this is the reality I will be facing when next I find an opportunity to visit my country. I am pre-empting this emotional disconnection, free of affection, with a great sense of sadness.

In Soweto, as in other townships in South Africa, neighbours and friends enjoy getting together to enjoy their favourite fermented beverages from the same bottles and glasses without fear of infection. It is in places like Soweto where the young and old share meals, often from the same dish, without worrying about anything other than making sure that they eat enough to survive until their next meal. During this period of Covid-19, very few people are sure about where their next meal is going to come from. But all thanks to our government for providing food parcels.

It is in Soweto where smokers puff and pass their cigarettes, and Cohibas if they are fortunate, hoping that the puff will sustain them until they next raise funds to buy a loose cigarette – Cohibas are a privilege to puff.  

It is here where children play in the neighbourhood, touching, holding hands and hugging each other without worrying about infections. 

It also hurts me to even think about how the elderly will sustain their connection and physical contacts with their grandchildren. Their love and adoration for the little ones is shown through physical contact. But the little ones do not observe protocol, and know nothing about the dangers of this pandemic, thus putting their grandparents at greater risk. 

I know that I will be preaching to the converted when I say that places such as churches, schools, restaurants, bars, malls, funerals, among others, will not be spared if we do not adapt. The precision about the science of this pandemic is that it casts no doubt that, for Sowetans, the days of kissing, hugging, puffing and passing are numbered – let alone the holding of hands for those who are on the intimate side of life. 

Growing up in Soweto, public displays of affection were prominent. It was not even a preserve of the older folks. The young lads also manoeuvred their way in a bid to win the hearts and minds of those to whom they felt connected. I cast no aspersions when I say my hometown of Soweto will never be the same on my next vacation.  

We have already witnessed the public outcry when government suspended the sale of fermented beverages in a bid to curb infections. The continuation of this well-meaning, yet risky culture of sharing and displays of affection can only contribute to aggravating the spread of this invisible enemy. It is therefore critical that we begin to liberate our minds, accept the reality facing us, and be innovative about how we can still enjoy ourselves with more care and responsibility.

Truly, what we are facing as humanity is nothing but “war”. Its defeat lies in our individual and collective ability to take responsibility and unite against Covid-19.  

The virus takes away all these social norms, and ushers in a new way of life which requires all of us – be it in Soweto or suburban areas – to adapt to the “new normal” of social or physical distancing. In his article in Daily Maverick of 31 May 2020, Eddy Maloka anecdotally makes reference to the popular culture that could give rise to naming children after Covid-19: “This pandemic is already remapping human behaviour. We are now wearing face masks and interacting with each other through physical distancing. Our popular culture will not be exempted. It will not be long before we hear of a child named Covid-19, or dance to a song or watch a movie inspired by this terrible experience.”

It also hurts me to even think about how the elderly will sustain their connection and physical contacts with their grandchildren. Their love and adoration for the little ones is shown through physical contact. But the little ones do not observe protocol, and know nothing about the dangers of this pandemic, thus putting their grandparents at greater risk. 

What a sad day it is when grandparents are barred by a fear of infection from hugging and kissing their grandchildren. I am reminded of one Japanese health worker who arrived home to his family, to be met by his son who usually gives him a hug when he enters the house. The father broke down, and went onto his knees in tears, overcome by the pain of not being able to give his son his customary hug. The mother had to hold their son tightly, away from his father, to ensure there was no contact between them. It was the same with his wife. This is what we must all brace ourselves for.

In Soweto, there are four-roomed houses built during the apartheid era. Many of them remain strong and solid. Unfortunately, most of these houses are occupied by extended families consisting of as many as 10 per household. The challenge of physical distancing for such large families will remain for a very long time. I dare not dwell on the agony that will face the indigent, who live in tiny shacks with families of their own.

I also can’t imagine what this will do to our young and energetic people who are actively involved in sport and other activities. My own daughter is a soccer player, and I share her frustration at not being able to attend practice sessions at the University of Pretoria. We have also seen how hard the government has worked to put the necessary protocols into place in schools in a bid to curb the spread of infection among learners and teachers. 

Parents and teachers will have to be more hands-on, and ensure that observing the necessary protocols becomes a way of life for their school-going children. Charity begins at home. Parents will have to make an effort to educate their children about the dangers of Covid-19 so that they, too, know the implications of infecting their loved ones who might be old and vulnerable.

When I grew up in Soweto, we used to meet at a local store to play games all day, especially during school holidays and weekends. This culture still exists to this day. In this converging on shops, there is no physical distancing. In fact, if anything, what made it even more exciting was the fact that we would all be glued together in a corner doing what boys our age did. While at it, we would indulge in bunny chows (otherwise known as Kota), and in most instances, all of us would share the same bunny chow as it rotated from one hand and mouth to another. All of this will have to change, because this is how the infection spreads.

In Soweto, there are four-roomed houses built during the apartheid era. Many of them remain strong and solid. Unfortunately, most of these houses are occupied by extended families consisting of as many as 10 per household. The challenge of physical distancing for such large families will remain for a very long time. I dare not dwell on the agony that will face the indigent, who live in tiny shacks with families of their own.

But all thanks to our government for making sure that the welfare of the indigent and the unemployed is taken care of through the provision of grants, temporary shelters and food parcels.

As our government continues to fight the infection rate, we have to comply with all the protocols. As President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated when announcing Level 3 on 1 June, it is all in our hands. The least we can do is play our part in flattening the curve in order to win this war.

Although none of us know what life will bring after the pandemic, scientific evidence enables us to be conscious of possible significant changes. A lot has been written about how these changes will affect us. Let us all brace ourselves for these changes. DM

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