The COVID-19 Diaries: Dear White People

Okay, I get it, I do. I have two dogs and Husband and I often go for a run on the road to blow off steam or to remind ourselves of how unfit we are, so I get that not being able to leave your home to do those things is frustrating. It’s frustrating to be told what you can and cannot do. It is frustrating to have your freedom of movement revoked by the government. I’m definitely not saying that this is a ‘walk in the park’-okay sorry, stupid analogy. It’s hard, yes. But come on, get a hold of yourself. I mean seriously now, get a grip. And if you want to complain, put things into perspective first, not only because this is a small sacrifice to make for all South Africans, but also it would be wise to remember the very crappy things your forefathers did to people of colour in this country. Trust me, those restrictions were far more heinous than you having to deal with your dog digging up your garden. Hand to heart, the black government is not out to get you. Also, I think that if you took a moment to channel that energy spent complaining into something more fruitful, say reading up on our country’s history, you’d come out the other side of this a better South African.

In case you don’t remember, life was cruel and unjust for people of colour during the dark days of apartheid. It may be day two of the lockdown, but it’s also a week after we celebrated an important day in our history, Human Rights Day. Just the fact that we have a public holiday to celebrate our human rights should be telling in itself, we weren’t always a country that respected human rights. In fact, scratch that, the gross violation of human rights and the right to dignity can’t be labelled under the gentle tones of disrespect. The system of apartheid was far more purposeful and merciless than disrespect. I wondered on the 21st of March whether others saw the irony in facing the day by trying to restrict their movement. Was it not in Sharpeville that protesters fought, shed blood and died, to fight against the Pass Laws set in place to restrict their movement as black people?  But it is callous of me to compare the restrictions we faced both prior to, and during the lockdown, to that faced by people of colour during the apartheid. These restrictions are far too gentle and just, the severity of them pale in comparison.

Of course the apartheid regime did more than restrict movement, this was a regime that constructed clever and cunning ways to dehumanise people of colour- forced removals, making it illegal for families to live together or own land, the raids, the insanity of Bantu education, torture and perhaps the kind release of death if you were unlucky to be imprisoned. I wonder if luck had a face then, and if it was white. There are volumes written about those atrocities, so I won’t belabour the point. Let’s just focus on one particular element of the apartheid’s cruelty, the Pass Laws. Not only did people of colour have to carry around these passbooks, the Dompas (a name fit for people who are ignorant, no better than an animal and less predictable at best), they’d also have to keep it up to date, and were always at the mercy of their Baas who could at any point refuse to update the pass. Imagine that, just on a whim, maybe because you didn’t like the look of one of your workers, you could simply deny him the right to live, basically. Could the black man take you to the police or go to court? Of course not, there was another noose around his neck in the form of a law that prevented him from doing so. On the off chance that he could get an audience with the police, his Baas would probably be commended for setting a good example. Hundreds of thousands of black people were imprisoned yearly when caught without a pass or when their pass was not up to date, many of whom where never seen again. Families were destroyed, men lost their ability to provide for their families- without a pass, it was impossible to work. Children would go hungry, many would starve, their bodies weakened and primed for death when an illness set in. Life in a one room shack was hard, but you could still live through hard. Life without a pass was impossible. A piece of paper worth so many lives, a piece of paper with the power to destroy.

Maybe you’re reading this and wondering what difference it makes now, so many years later. Maybe you don’t like the guilt I’m laying at your feet. Maybe you know people of colour who never experienced these horrors. I would say to you then that those you know are the lucky few, you know the ones who are like you, like me. We are the haves. What of those who fall into the majority of our country, what of those for whom liberation has not brought real freedom? What of those who cannot get work, not because of a law but because of the unconscious bias that propagates the white competence myth? What of those who due to the structural legacies of our passed are still confined, are still restricted?  I can tell you this much, they’re not complaining about not being able to walk their dogs. And maybe, just maybe you should get to know some of them before you do.

The COVID-19 Diaries: Day One of The Lockdown

I have always prided myself on being calm under pressure and being fairly level-headed when facing ambiguity, but if the Corona Virus has taught me anything, it’s that I am not half as “good” as I thought I was. I faced the thought of working remotely somewhat smugly, which did nothing apart from send a message to the gods of humility to take me down a notch, and believe you me, they did. I’d start off the day feeling absolutely pumped, ready for the challenges of remote working and social distancing (picture Rocky at the bottom of those steps with Eye of the Tiger in the background) and then Wham!, out of nowhere, my network connection drops. Still energized and beguiled by hope, I’d reset my router, make a cup of tea and pray to the indifferent gods of connectivity. From there it’s slippery slope to fighting with a call center agent who not only fails to solve my problem, but worsens it by remotely disconnecting me for five hours, and to me seeking solace in the Danish cookies I promised myself I’d stop eating. And if the gods didn’t think I was adequately broken that day, they saw fit to bring me a day that followed where my water was cut off. Each time I opened a tap, the only thing it seemed to release was my grip on my sanity (yes it was a loose hold to start with). So yeah, I’m a mess. Its like I’ve completely forgotten how to exist in the grey, in the middle, that all that is left is for me to exist in the extremes. I’m either brimming with positivity and helping others navigate this turbulent time, or I’m upset because I don’t have enough Easter eggs to see me through the apocalypse. I want to say that I’m falling apart but it’s not that, it’s more that I’m keeping myself together rather inconsistently.

Take today for instance. I wouldn’t say that I woke up ready to take on the world today, but I did wake up to a feeling of hope and gratitude. I was grateful to have the luxury of space, food and company that I loved (most of the time). There was a distinct stillness in the air that seemed to suggest that everything would be okay, we’d all be okay as we started this 21 day lockdown. Fundamentally, I believe that we, as South Africans, will emerge- we must emerge-stronger from this and I am grateful for our president and for his show of exemplary leadership when he addressed us earlier this week. Hearing the words, “Nkosi sikelel iAfrika” reminded me of the strength and beauty of our country and our people, and I knew that we find our way. I know that still. But reading about the first reported deaths related to COVID19 in our country left me cold. I don’t think I’ve ever understood that expression before today. For a few minutes all I wanted to do was cry, it did not matter that I was about to go into a meeting, it didn’t matter that the meeting was actually something important to me. I wanted to take that moment and feel the pain and sadness that those deaths evoked. I wanted to find a release for the mixed bag of emotions flowing through me daily. But I did not. I willed away the unwanted, unshed tears, I forced the thoughts of two lives cut short and I put on a happy face. And maybe this is part of the problem, maybe this is why I can only hold myself together inconsistently. Maybe it’s because all I’m doing is pretending.

Here’s what I know. I know that I am scared. I am scared that my grandmother won’t see her 90th birthday later this year. I am scared that people I love and care about will lose their jobs. I am scared that amidst all of this I am not around my family. I am scared because there are so many relationships that I had hoped time would mend one day, but that I’m coming to realize that may never happen. I am scared that I won’t be enough when people count on me. I am scared about the way we treat each other; I am scared that our divisions will play themselves out in technicolor, tearing us further apart. I fear my vulnerability, my fragility. I am scared and I guess, a lot of us are. I hope that if nothing else brings us together, it is our fear and the acknowledgement that we are all scared. Whether it’s your own hunger or that of your family’s fueling your fear, or whether it’s the restrictions on your movement, or whether you’re concerned about that nagging sore throat that won’t go away, we are in this together. Whether we hate or love each other, or if we find ourselves somewhere in-between, we are in this together. Maybe over and above all my fears, I am scared that we may miss this opportunity to truly connect and see our shared humanity. Perhaps, this fear, like most things that are difficult to bear, is beautiful lesson. A lesson in fragility, vulnerability and a lesson in the shared human experience.