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Cape Town is at best a complicated place in our previous normality, complications that are wrenched open during a pandemic. The political questions that ensued were less about masks and individual autonomy than about the ways to endure and cultivate care in increasingly meagre times.

We’re in the long slog now. It’s early September. In January of 2020, I had scheduled out my year – my first in a postdoc at Deakin University. I planned to come to Melbourne, get situated within my department and meet others in our research group, before returning to Cape Town to get started on fieldwork. By September, I was supposed to be coming back to Melbourne with early fieldnotes and ideas. I’m clearly still in Cape Town, having made it back after an anxious last-minute flight as the Australian borders closed behind me. I have no sense of when I’ll return.

Cape Town is at best a complicated place in our previous normality, complications that are wrenched open during a pandemic. The political questions that ensued were less about masks and individual autonomy than about the ways to endure and cultivate care in increasingly meagre times.

South Africa had one of the strictest early lockdowns in the world. In late March, the government announced a state of emergency and implemented a strict lockdown that prohibited all non-essential movement and only allowed the mobility of essential workers, such as healthcare staff. For five weeks, my partner and I were only allowed outside of our flat to visit the grocery store, in what became a special treat during the week rather than a chore. We took to climbing the six flights of stairs in our apartment building several times a week to not lose all semblance of fitness. In the ways that terror and triviality can propagate everyday discussions in South Africa, folks complained about the ban on alcohol and tobacco (the latter which triggered a viral house track) as well as the brutal militarization of COVID enforcement by police (by June, police had arrested 230,000 and killed 11 black men during lockdown). We grumbled that we couldn’t go for even a walk outside, yet also knew that folks were struggling to navigate the sudden and dramatic loss of income and deepening food scarcity. Mansions in Camps Bay, the summer homes of the world’s elite, sat empty, and still today; while the city planned to ‘de-densify’ Dunoon, one of the city’s fastest growing informal settlements.

As our COVID infections now diminish, and we take stock of what we hope will be our only ‘wave’, it seems at least in terms of COVID South Africa was spared the worst of what was feared. With a large population of those immune-suppressed from HIV, many of those living or recovered from tuberculosis, and housing situations where many (and many generations) live densely, the pandemic response was swift and definitive. Much of the infrastructure built up during the height of the HIV pandemic came into force. For one, community health workers were deployed as contact tracers. Adjusting the public to behavioral changes, such as prohibiting gatherings, restricting the number of people in a given market, and constant mask use in public, to address a widespread infectious disease seemed to fall to largely receptive ears. However, after several weeks, lockdown levels slowly eased and numbers went up. During this time, I lost a colleague, Tembi Qondela, a public health activist and educator. Nurses and cashiers were also increasingly infected, as they suddenly became ‘front-line’ workers in the ‘war’ on COVID. Shifting to the war-time rhetoric, that were fighting the disease, eases a public to expect a certain level of death. The precarity of their work and the invocation of a sacrificial politics (that some may die to care for the public at large) comes from a lengthy political economy of ‘disposable others’, said Kharnita Mohamed. Yet as the weeks went by, there was a growing sense that South Africa, by the limited measurements of infected and dead, had averted the worst that befell many titans of the Global North. As the weather warms and the numbers dwindle, we tenuously welcome what seems to be a reprieve, albeit potentially temporarily.

What has and will continue to hurt, however, is the economy, but more so the dramatic disparity and unequal support for life and living. Unemployment, especially among the youth, has been a growing problem of the last few years, a situation only heightened in the present. Formal efforts at amelioration during lockdown have had results that we are sadly familiar with: while state plans were on paper laudable (extended and additional social grants, initialdiscussions on basic income grant, food parcels), follow through has been dismal, with reports of corruption and mismanagement. This could be characterized by what Akhil Gupta (2012), writing in India, describes as the slow, ineffective bureaucracy for the poor that induces structural violences at the hands of the state. In the gulf of state support in South Africa, Community Action Networks profligated on Facebook and Whatsapp, a mushrooming of community-led initiatives to simply take care of the economically vulnerable and precarious. In my local CAN, members organized food parcels and sanitary packets, filled with soap and hand sanitizer, for some of the homeless population in the city, a group that also relied on the tourism sector. Others set up soup kitchens, attempting to fill in where school lunches once provided daily meals. As Fiona Ross has written, South Africa does not come to this pandemic as a tabula rasa. As in the worst years of the HIV pandemic, community and kin care step in to make life possible if not palatable in the direst of times.

But where to now? How to manage the possibility of new waves with the growing needs – for food, housing, healthcare, jobs, security? The realization that our pre-COVID life merely normalized the radiating inequality and unjust situation in South Africa has led to more radical responses in the works. Some, such as the creators of The New Normal, an interactive social media game, have used this seemingly impossible present to ask for new imaginative futures. Players were asked to engage their own imaginations with given scenarios week after week, in attempts to quake the borders of given thought. In a postcolonial context where many marginalised, queer, black and coloured[1] folks haven’t been part of building the present, imagining different futures may be the most critical political work. Part activists exercise, part dream-world and thought experiment, projects such as The New Normal are increasingly necessary in rethinking what living with COVID in South Africa could mean in the long term.


Endnotes

[1] ‘Coloured’ is no doubted a contested racial category in South Africa, though adopted by many in complicated politics of reclamation. See Zimitri Erasmus’ monograph (2017) and the edited volume she curated, Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town (2002), or the Youtube series, Coloured Mentality.

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AUTHOR

Tessa Moll is is a medical anthropologist, with a focus on feminist and postcolonial science and technology studies. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Deakin University and a friend of IPCS.

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