Of soap and dignity in South Africa's lockdown

On the 20th of March 2020, 5 days after South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, declared a national state of disaster to enable government to take stronger action over Covid-19, I received a text message from a young woman who lives in a high-density area of Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve known her for decades, ever since she was a small child living with her family in a shack on the urban periphery. She’s now adult, married, a mother with three children and responsible for the care of her dead sister’s son.

Her community received state-subsidised houses two decades ago and she and her family live in the house that was allocated to her mother before her death. She works as a preschool carer in a prefabricated creche in the community.  Although I’ve not seen her for a long time, we stay in touch by phone and SMS.

Her latest SMS was very straightforward. It was also heart-wrenching:

Hi Fiona hope you are safe this corona virus scares me a lot and we have nothing to protect us from it only water and soap and that we don’t even have I mean soap.

In 36 words, she captured the heart of the pandemic as it affects all of us, rich and poor. Fear and the desire to protect. The need for specific ordinary household resources that, at week or month end, are in short supply. Knowledge of hygiene’s role in prevention. The networks that make survival possible. Implicit in her message was a request for help. I obliged. Later she messaged to say the community committee (the equivalent of a local civic association) had said that the clinic would be coming to each household with soap and sanitiser the following day.

We face Covid-19 with science, faith and skepticism. And a lot of history. The government acted quickly to limit travel, close ports of entry, provide educative resources, and to track and trace infected people. Its actions have been decisive and science-led – a huge relief in a country where science is not always trusted, and where the state itself has failed in the past to take scientific knowledge seriously.

We seem to have learned from our horrific mistakes early on during the height of the HIV pandemic. That South Africa is one of the world’s hotspots for tuberculosis means that we have instruments that can be repurposed to new ends.

Take for example, GeneXpert machines. South Africa has more of these than any other country in the world.  Designed for rapid TB testing, they will be repurposed to assist in extensive Covid-19 testing. 10 000 health workers will be working across the country, doing door to door and mobile testing.  

Scientists and other experts in HIV and TB are already collaborating in vaccine-testing. Thanks in dreadful part to the ravages these diseases have wrought on South Africa’s population, universities and research councils are already embedded in extensive networks of knowledge making. We have access to good quality information, and we are producing knowledge too.

We have extensive cell-phone coverage.  An estimated 80% of the population has access to a cell-phone. WhatsApp is widely used. Government quickly set up a zero-rated WhatsApp line where users can access national and international news, statistics, prevention tips and information. The WHO WhatsApp line was released a few days later.  There is no shortage of information and discussion, and real attempts are being made to ensure that high quality, accurate information is well-disseminated. It is illegal to share false news.

But when does something become false news? Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but not always. One of my friends recently sent me a video clip of a white man licking trolley handles before stacking them at the entrance to a shop frequented by mostly black customers.

The caption claimed that the man was Covid-infected. The implication was clear – whites are spreading the disease deliberately to infect black people. Sceptical, she sent me the video for fact-checking. It appears to have been clipped from a well-known comedian’s twitter account and was circulating widely.  So, a joke in bad taste. Literally.

Yet its circulation also echoes earlier uncertainties and myth making in the face of terrifying illness. I am thinking here, for example, of the widely held belief that HIV was manufactured in apartheid’s laboratories to reduce the black population. Given that the people who first tested positive for Covid-19 in South Africa were those who had the means to have travelled abroad, and given apartheid’s murderous history, the clip gains new traction in the complex race-relating of everyday South Africa. We do not come to this disease as tabula rasa.  

Alongside older institutions of care such as family, religious organisations, charities, stokvels (rotating credit associations), burial associations, etc. – all critical in everyday survival strategies – new forms of quick response have emerged.

Social media has been incredible in enabling people who do not necessarily even know one another to set up networks of assistance and care at scales ranging from the intimate to the extensive. Here Cape Town has taken a lead through Cape Town Together, a Facebook site that enables ordinary people to mobilise time, resources and networks in support of one another in tough times.

Created in anticipation of Covid-19’s effects, it now has more than 8000 members across the city, working to set up neighbourhood WhatsApp groups where information can be shared, and assistance generated. Organisers have liaised to get provisional NPO (non-profit organisation) status so that initiatives can generate donation funds that are tracked through the online ticket company Quicket. In this way, accountability and generosity meet one another.

Friendship networks are the means to social galvanisation in a time of physical distancing. One network linked food producers who were unable to sell their product to the city’s upmarket restaurants with children who would ordinarily have received food through school feeding programmes but who, in the face of school closures and national lockdown, face even more hunger.

Bear in mind that the 2013 report of the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES) found that in the week preceding its extensive sampling, ¼ of households were at risk not just of food shortages but of hunger, and ¼ of respondents had been hungry in the preceding week. That fact, in a country of such wealth and resources, tells us how unbearably damaging capitalism in both its apartheid and post-apartheid forms has been for the simplest human well-being.

In my neighbourhood, the local network was established and operational in 48 hours, all through social media. This week it will support an orphanage and old age home, which are both usually reliant on volunteer support for food. And we have been asked to consider a soap drive, to buy and distribute hygiene products.

There is of course a terrible danger: charity is demeaning. Citizen efforts to mobilise and support run the real risk of replicating older models of the deserving and undeserving poor. It is therefore all the more encouraging to see the social media networks I belong to challenging stereotypes, and doing the political work of setting one another straight when problematic assumptions are made. Sometimes the calling out happens among peers. Sometimes there are also challenges directed at those in authority, demanding more and better understandings of how social life in South Africa is actually made.

Having written powerfully about the role of informal markets in people’s everyday lives, and suggested ways that stakeholders might assist market-traders to develop means to ensure safety during the pandemic, healer and activist Yvette Abrahams reminds us:

Coronavirus is as much a mental disease as a physical one. Anxiety, panic and depression are rife. It would be sad if, at this point in the nation’s history, some form of black-loathing were to rule national policy. Please may we abandon the kneejerk assumption that just because we are Black we cannot be clean? It is misplaced in our modern democracy.
(Facebook post 1 April, with permission)

Her words are powerful. The history of colonial ideas about hygiene are well-documented. In South Africa that history remains scarring. Cape Town’s spatial geography rests on old assumptions about the relation between hygiene, disease and race. The first forced removals were undertaken in the name of hygiene and disease prevention. The city is bulwarked against connection by apartheid social engineering; the cordons sanitaires that continue to divide it into socially and economically segregated zones two decades after apartheid.  

Europe’s practice of sending its tubercular subjects to the ‘drier airs’ of the colonies spread that disease and colonial capitalism simultaneously, with devastating, and ongoing, effects.  Our assumptions about soap and water, personhood and identity are linked with old and racist histories of thought and the actions they institute.

We have an opportunity to redress this.  Anthropologist Elaine Salo and I have written of the ways that moral codes of decency underpin the efforts of the ‘poorest of the poor’ to make lives that are humane under inhuman conditions. Such ideas insist that even in the most eroded of lifeworlds, people can and should work to ensure that those who surround them are afforded recognition and dignity.

Our moral worlds abound with possibility. If those with power take note of the forms of knowledge that make everyday decencies possible in less than optimal circumstances, the South African Constitution’s call to make dignity the foundation of our relation to the state and to one another might come to bear fruit.

The relational links that characterise everyday interactions and make survival and flourishing possible might stand as new models for remaking the world in the aftermath of COVID-19. In this light, the SMS with which I opened this account becomes a call not to charity, but to solidarity.

Fiona C. Ross is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Her work has focused on questions of post-apartheid redress. She is currently working on the intersections of scientific knowledge, local policy formations and everyday life in relation to reproduction. You can check her academic profile and current work here and here.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution.

Show Comments