Testimonies from Umlazi

Credit: Thabo Mbeje

Tommy Pia

South African townships under lockdown.

During this period of lockdown, I’ve found myself much less absorbed in my usual social scene. Lectures have ground to a halt and, unable to head to the pub with my course mates, I’ve made use of the free time to get back in touch with friends who gradually slipped out of my life when I entered university. Before enrolling in higher education, I spent around two years volunteering in South Africa with a group of talented young people from Umlazi township. We all live very different and busy lives now, but continue to message back and forth a few times a month, and when news of the 21-day lockdown in South Africa broke, I naturally got in touch to find out how they and their families were holding up. The stories I heard contrasted starkly with our situation here in the UK and highlighted a number of unique and difficult issues that the South African government will face during their efforts to tackle Covid-19.

I met most of my South African friends through voluntary work in and around Durban. Many assisted the charity I worked for, helping foreign volunteers navigate life in South Africa; I formed a particularly close bond with the young men and women from Umlazi who helped me create and teach a range of inspiring programmes at local high schools. The fourth largest township in South Africa – situated to the south west of Durban – Umlazi houses near half a million people. Squeezed into the backseat of a khumbi (affordable and reliable minibus taxis) between two volunteers – Lindo and Mxo – I remember the relative quiet before a “Welcome to Umlazi” sign made of painted rocks and placed on the side of a hill emerged in the distance.

I was quickly afforded a tour, with my guides pointing to the university, hospital, newly built government flats (with a waiting list the length of several generations), and the Megacity supermarket. Most of the houses overlooking the main roads were sturdy, brick buildings, fenced in with a roll of barbed wire stretched around the perimeter. However, if you looked beyond them, the rolling red-tinged hills swarmed with glinting tin roofs indicated the presence of quickly built “informal settlements”, which account for approximately a third of the total residences in Umlazi. 

Mxo and Lindo, at the time I met them, had just graduated from high school and lived in the aforementioned settlements. Lindo lived with his mother and two sisters, whilst Mxo lived by himself. Both were unable to find employment, and neither could progress into further education due to financial hurdles; instead they spent most of their time volunteering or with their choir group – Township Voices. They’d both previously visited Scotland with this choir group – as part of a sponsored trip to perform at the Edinburgh Festival – and made for excellent translators. As our lessons at the local high schools progressed, they became more involved, up to the point where it felt as if there were three staff members in the room, rather than just a sweaty and incomprehensible Scottish one. 

We saw each other almost every day of the week and I was welcomed into their homes and more generally their lives in such a way that I quickly felt at ease in the community and had no qualms about spending the night with them in Umlazi – heading out for a drink and a dance in one of the local shebeens. When I called Lindo to check how he and his family are holding up under lockdown, I jokingly asked him what’s happened to the shebeens. They are closed, he tells me, but only due to escalating police and military presence. Indeed, many South African politicians and journalists had expressed concerns that the lockdown would not be observed in the townships due to a lack of order.

Whilst supermarkets remain open, Lindo points to the risk of police brutality, with viral videos of “beatings” rapidly spreading across social media. A combination of fear and confusion has kept people away from basic essentials, as they struggle to get to grips or understand what they are being asked to do. Here, the double standards in police enforcement are all too apparent, with white South Africans continuing to walk their dogs or hosting braais (barbeques) in their street. “It is like there is one set of rules for us and one set of rules for them,” Lindo remarks.

It is important to acknowledge the difficult local conditions in townships, particularly issues concerning proximity and communality which are not as prevalent among the upper middle classes. Mxo is attempting to self-isolate with his girlfriend but this is far harder when you factor in how expensive electrical items such as televisions or sound systems are shared between neighbours; it’s common to visit a friend if you want to watch a film, or another to borrow a speaker. This means relying heavily on mobile phones where data remains both costly, slow, and limited.

There are more pressing concerns – namely running out of food – with the government only agreeing to pay registered employees half their regular wages. This has left the majority of young people in Umlazi, already struggling to find employment, reliant on older members of their community who have jobs or can collect grants. Lindo’s mother is the only member of his family who is a registered employee, while Mxo essentially supports himself via “piece jobs” e.g. finding work in the community by assisting at building sites or driving goods around for local businesses. 

Both agree that tensions are high, with riots likely to follow as people begin to starve having been left stranded by the government who has afforded them no aid. This sentiment is reflected in an open letter addressed to the government, which has been trending on Twitter, from the South African poet Ntsiki Mazwai. In it, Mazwai claims that the current situation feels like the beginnings of the next Marikana (the 1976 miners’ strike that ended in a massacre conducted by the apartheid police force). Her message accuses the government of attempting to find “white solutions to African problems” and allowing white businessmen to continue running their stores and profit from the panic buying. She concludes by saying she isn’t afraid of Covid-19, but is afraid of what will happen when hundreds of thousands of South Africans starve.

I ask the friend who has sent me this tweet if he can relate to these concerns. Thabo works as a freelance photographer/film-maker. He is one of a growing number of success stories emerging from Umlazi. We first met when I was looking for a photographer to take some high quality stills of our volunteer work for the charity’s website and he was recommended to me by one of his old teachers. Thabo’s work was fantastic, but I was drawn to his willingness to volunteer as we worked together on numerous projects, on and off, when he wasn’t busy. He also took me to my first South African football match – Pirates vs Amazulu at the Moses Mabhida stadium – and we ended up exchanging our own football kits – Hibs for Orlando Pirates.

Thabo certainly holds controversial political opinions – he supports the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who are led by Julius Malema, a fan of revolutionary-red boiler suits and stoking racial tensions – and advocate for land reform along the lines of the redistributive policies that Mugabe enacted in Zimbabwe. Thabo says he too predicts a violent response to the lockdown. He also believes that black South Africans have to bear the brunt of the new authoritarian-style rules, while whites can essentially flout them without fear of reprisal. He appreciates that Covid-19 poses a major threat to South Africa, especially in the townships, but also suggests that since a smaller proportion of their population is over 60 – approx. 7.2% compared to 22% in the UK – it should result in fewer deaths. Hunger, Thabo stresses, is very real and can kill you regardless of your age and, when you’re living in the township, there is a sense that it is impossible to sanitise effectively, so what is the point in locking down? Where he may take the virus seriously, others aren’t.  

I bring up the time when we were volunteering at the clinic together and the nurses gave us and the other volunteers a presentation on cancer and the “hidden dangers” inherent in a bad diet. Following the presentation we had a group discussion and one of the nurses lamented the fact that the community remains distrustful of “western medicine”. At the time, Thabo noted that many placed too much faith in muti (magic potions) and sangomas (witch doctors). He’d also said that he thought it was simply in their nature to be wary of science – “Why do you think there are no South African astronauts?” (There are in fact two – Mike Melvill and Mark Shuttleworth).  

I ask if he thinks that a vaccine for the virus, when it becomes available, will be embraced by South Africa. Not by everyone, he replies. Some people he knows believe that vaccines actually make you weaker and are only invented to line Big Pharma’s pockets. These are essentially the same arguments that former president Thabo Mbeki espoused when he denied that retrovirals were essential to help fight the spread of HIV/Aids in South Africa.  But Thabo is more than willing to take the vaccine when it becomes available. His parting words are to keep an eye on the news; the current situation cannot and will not last for long: if South Africa is to effectively beat this virus it must truly stand united and make sure everybody is following the same set of guidelines, regardless of race or wealth. 

Over the next few days stories and videos of police brutality continued to emerge and be shared on Twitter. South Africa is estimated to be two to three weeks behind the UK on the curve and there was yet to be an officially recorded death in Umlazi until Tuesday (31/01) – a woman aged 46. I talk to Nqow later that day. Throughout the call I can hear the chatter of her family in the background; they are listening to the news on the radio and every so often the angry mumble will erupt into an exclamation of exasperation. We first met on a weed-filled plot at the back of a local primary school – the aim was to convert this small strip into a vegetable garden to help lower the costs of the soup kitchen which provided meals to pupils who couldn’t afford to bring their own.

Nqow was the only woman on our team that day, but she out-dug most of the men and would quickly rebuke anyone who looked like they were starting to flag. We would go on to work on a variety of gardening, painting and construction projects together and as recently as January, she became one of the few young people I volunteered with who progressed into tertiary education – beginning a degree at UNISA. 

Much like the others, her primary concern during lockdown is being able to access food and hygiene products for her and her child. The khumbi network has been significantly curtailed for the next three weeks – only running for a few hours in the morning and evening, and she recently found herself stranded at the supermarket for most of the day, after missing the last khumbi travelling back to her section. She says this has put her off attempting to go back there, so she must try and find supplies in the smaller local shops which have stayed open. Lockdown, in her opinion, is fairly useless – people have been scared out of going to the shops and are resorting to borrowing from their neighbours instead – nobody is really isolating. 

She predicts the clinics, which are already under-resourced, will also struggle with isolation. They are already turning people away in an attempt to prepare for the anticipated explosion in cases that are likely to happen over the next few weeks. Her friend, who’s pregnant and was due for a check-up, has been told to stay at home and only try to arrange an appointment if she starts to feel seriously unwell.  Our call ends and she sends me a voice note a few minutes later reacting to the announcement of the most recent leaps in the number of confirmed cases – it’s spreading quickly and it feels like the government is under-prepared and out of their depth. 

I’m reminded of a couple of articles I recently read with starkly contrasting headlines – ‘WHO tells Africa to wake up to virus threat’ and ‘Africa won’t beat corona virus on its own’. In light of what I’ve heard, I think it’s immensely important that whilst the global North tackles the crisis at home, it doesn’t forget its duty to the rest of the world, particularly where governments remain constrained by the restraints of their domestic economy. South Africa’s credit rating teetered on the brink of failure before Covid-19 started to spread, and the virus did not need much to tip them over at the start of March, with the stock market quickly plummeting. 

Claims that the virus doesn’t spread as effectively in hot climates or that the relatively young population in South Africa will ensure high levels of immunity, fails to take into account the high rate of youth unemployment – just under 50% nation-wide, substantially higher in the townships – which means that most families are dependent on the older, higher-risk generation. Additionally, poverty is one of the primary risk factors for a host of respiratory conditions and weakened immune systems, so youth will not guarantee immunity. Overall, my friends remain upbeat but worried. This may rapidly change as the situation evolves; to paraphrase Mxo: we are used to struggling, but this week has been tough. Can you imagine how it will be in three?


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