South Africa's response to Covid-19 and the ghosts of apartheid

Does anyone remember Mr. T from The A-Team? For those too young to remember, The A-Team was a US action-adventure television series that ran from 1983 to 1987. It was one of the rare popular shows at the time with a black protagonist – Mr. T (originally Lawrence Tureaud) played Sergeant B.A. Baracus.

Kids all over South Africa loved his iconic mohawk, but for black kids especially, the strength and coolness of his character provided an aspirational horizon in a country that did not recognise their humanity – this was at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

During apartheid, TV content was tightly regulated by the state, with only one channel for the news, sports, and the rare American show. Those were the days when we watched television with the radio switched on, tuned either to English or Afrikaans. If the television news was broadcast in Afrikaans, you could turn the volume down to silent, while tuning to the radio, which would provide an English translation.

Television came to South Africa in 1976, later than in other countries. Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd warned against the dangers of television sets saying that “they are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical”.

Little did Verwoerd know just how “dangerous” television would become for black children eager to watch The A-Team at the height of the state of emergency in 1986 – but not for the reasons he imagined.

Allegedly implemented to stem “black-on-black” violence (which was in fact state-orchestrated), the pernicious regulations empowered the apartheid police and army to use any kind of force deemed necessary to punish people who disobeyed curfew orders.

Curfews were intended to disrupt community life and prevent civic action, and to maintain “black”, “coloured”, “Indian” and “white” group areas separated – these were the four constructed racial categories that underpinned the apartheid racist state.

In a nutshell, curfews were imposed as a racist strategy to stabilise state power in the midst of rising political activism. Irrespective of the summer heat, people in black townships were forced to swelter in the confines of airless tin shacks or better ventilated brick houses. The consequences of breaking emergency regulations included arrest, detention, and torture.

Memories of apartheid

Flash forward to 1996. Zwelethemba, the township in the Western Cape province where I conducted fieldwork on children’s labour in the wine industry.

The best time for me to find people at home for visitations was in the late afternoon and coincided with the screening time of Days of Our Lives, a US soap opera centred around the loves and lives of two mostly white families. What puzzled me – apart from the desire to seeing the character Marlena Evans through her spiritual affliction – was the ubiquity of television sets in shacks and built houses alike, some powered up by a maze of cables hooked up illegally to electrical sources.

But the memories of apartheid were still vivid. During my fieldwork, I met young people who recalled being electrocuted, beaten, and held in detention for no other reason than wanting to meet their friends and to watch television. They were arrested for having sneaked out of their homes in the evenings to watch their favourite programme, The A-Team. In 1986, women led an ambitious campaign under the slogan “One Household, One Television”, to keep children safe from the unspeakable abuses of the authorities.

The young people I talked to in the 1990s are now in their forties and fifties. Some of them might be justifiably worried about the return of 75,000 military troops to enforce the Covid-19 curfew mandated by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The curfew was announced on 29th April this year as South Africa moved from full lockdown, also classified as “level 5”, to a slightly less strict regime (level 4). Any movement without a permit is banned between 8pm and 5am.

The context and the aims are entirely different from the terrible days of the racist state of emergency under apartheid. As the now iconic curves of Covid-19 cases and deaths across the world show, countries that did not intervene early have paid – and continue to pay – a high price with significant loss of lives.

Yet, the presence of the military in the streets of the most dispossessed neighbourhoods of a country still marred by extreme race, class and gender inequalities, is not something that can be taken in without some critical reflection, and a moderate dose of scepticism.

Journalists have expressed concern that individuals trained to fight in wars are being asked to oversee a public health crisis. The new regulations are especially hard for people in economically deprived contexts who are often dependent on leaving home to collect water from communal taps, or use outdoor communal toilets.

That the lockdown has had a positive impact on public health is corroborated by the fact that South Africa managed to flatten the curve of positive cases within a few days, something unseen in most parts of the world affected by the virus.

Despite the success, there have been several reports of police and army violence on ordinary citizens, and that is cause for concern and something that should be addressed at the state level, also to ensure that distrust in state institutions that lingers on as another legacy of apartheid does not reach a level where the public health goals of containment measures might be jeopardised.

From TV screens to computer screens

There is yet another line of comparison that leads me to think back to the tv sets under the apartheid state of emergency. As people’s homes became the main sites of relaxation and leisure during curfew, having a TV also performed an important function in keeping people connected to the outside world, and providing something to do in the limited available living space.

Now we are faced with the pressing need for a different kind of screen. For middle class households, having a laptop or a desktop with a good internet connection to work or study is a given. But not so for many South African university students whom I teach as a lecturer of anthropology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). University campuses are now closed, teaching has moved online and students need to study from their homes.

Given the uneven reach of the fourth industrial revolution across rural and underdeveloped areas of the country, it is simply not a given that all our students have access to a laptop, electricity, wi-fi, or mobile data (which is expensive in South Africa) at home.

Indeed, based on a survey that UCT conducted, it was estimated that around 30% of our students lacked the infrastructure to go online. In a move that resembles educational triage, universities have tried to ameliorate the situation with the roll out of laptops and zero rated access to online learning sites, but the fact remains that a stable wi-fi connection is key. Similar to the convivial relations that led young people to share televisions prior to the “one television, one household” campaign in the 1980s, students have been finding creative ways to connect, against the odds, and, sometimes, even at the expense of social distancing.

The challenge now is that reaching hotspots with internet connectivity – if in fact there are any at all – requires movement, and often at night, after chores are completed, and family members have gone to bed. Emails from students in distress report that their online work must happen in between the bustle of domestic life. They are tired and many are hungry as well.  

As the Black Academic Caucus (BAC), a UCT staff association, has argued since the start of online learning initiatives in South Africa:

Black students, who come from underserved and impoverished neighbourhoods – which have also witnessed the most brutal enforcement of lockdown regulations by security services (army and police) – have to confront the “violences” of poverty. These often include inadequate access to food and electricity, gender-based violence, substance abuse and lack of space in which to study. Uneven access to online technologies is but one aspect of an array of inequalities, whether data is zero-rated, or students are given laptops and data.

The conditions under which young people fled from the security forces to access television in the 1980s are very different from the circumstances that are giving shape to global and national responses to Covid-19. South Africa has been acknowledged globally for its progressive and sensible response to the virus, and for the most part, citizens have accommodated – however uncomfortably – to major restrictions put in place to prevent a catastrophic outbreak.

However, what we know from history is that it will not be enough to fast track the roll out of mobile connectivity in an attempt to furnish all households with laptops, tablets, cellphones and stable wi-fi connections, for in places where televisions remain connected to illegal electrical sources, hunger and systemic disadvantage prevail amidst the deepening inequalities exacerbated by the lockdown – the long queues for food parcels are just one dire sign of that.

In the 1970s, American poet Gil Scott-Heron famously declaimed that “the revolution will not be televised”. But while TV screens might be less prominent in today’s lives than laptops and smartphones, one thing is for sure: the stay-at-home orders of the ongoing lockdown still push us to spend an unprecedented amount of time glued to our screens.

It is too early to know if a revolution is even behind the corner, and to what extent a post-lockdown future might look like the pre-pandemic past. My strong hope is that there will still be life beyond the screen, and it will be a better one for all those who are hit hardest by the compounded effect of the virus and its containment measures.

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be televised
… The revolution will be live

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971)

Susan Levine is Associate Professor and Head of Anthropology at The University of Cape Town. Her research in medical anthropology and the health humanities focuses on child health, HIV/AIDS, and the place of the arts in health care settings.

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

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