The Bend in the Arc by C.A. Davids
In the next essay in our Queen Mary Wasafiri Global Dispatches series, novelist C.A. Davids – writing from Cape Town – tracks the slow, surreal rhythm of days spent indoors watching the world outside unravel. As small violences play out in the news, ‘justice, and the application of justice, does not feel fixed, but shifting.’ A year on, as South Africa enters another fourteen-day lockdown and the same injustices repeat themselves on-screen, Davids brings the hazy patterns of pandemic time, and of injustice, into sharp focus.
Again, as I’ve done before during the unreasonably long days, I leave the house. I need to water something outside, I say. Check the letterbox. Stretch my legs – something I’m sure I’ve never done before – and which must sound as out of time as it feels. But really, I mean to escape the elaborate boredom of confinement. House cleaning. Cooking. Home schooling.
I crack open the wide blue gate, so I can let myself onto the pavement. To stand for a minute in near-silence. The women and men who usually take some combination of trains and taxis, finally walking the last stretch uphill to clean the houses and gardens are phantoms now. So are the runners, walkers, cyclists, dog walkers, children at play who live around here.
The traffic lights continue to turn at the car-less intersection. The oak trees seem extraordinarily buoyant, noisy, as a current moves through the branches and forces a wave of autumn leaves to the ground. The trees were planted more than 150 years ago by the English, and have invoked the ire of the local council who a few years ago invited the suburb’s residents to report any alien species in our yards for felling. Alien or not, here they have stood for more than a century. Wide and tall. Golden when not emerald. Depends who’s asking, but I may or may not be harbouring an oak or two.
The trees are a comforting reminder now that we are all still part of something larger. A world beyond. But of course, that’s counterintuitive, because this enforced isolation is the result of our interconnectedness: the plane and boatloads of business and leisure travellers that crisscross the planet, carrying COVID-19 with them.
The pandemic has sealed Cape Town’s people into our homes as it’s done elsewhere: Wuhan (sometimes literally). Milan. New York. Rushing to our shores.
On 27 March 2020, we lockdown in our homes at the news of emergency laws that, like in so many other places, require us not to leave except to get essential goods and services. Despite my sense of powerlessness as a citizen, I want to sanction the government’s actions with my belief, perhaps faith, that their response is appropriate and measured. But after a decade of Jacob Zuma’s ruinous presidency – where public sector corruption grew rapidly and visibly, in so doing altering every South African’s life in myriad ways, both known and unknown — I weigh everything. So, the calculus gets tricky when it comes to the ban that has also been instituted on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, and all forms of exercise.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, our minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, is at pains to explain that the prohibition on alcohol has been ordered in an effort to keep hospitals clear of alcohol-related incidents. Each weekend, hospital emergency rooms are wall-to-wall with road accidents or other injuries sustained from some form of drink-induced mayhem. That’s what the stats say. Traumatised nurses and doctors, too, but with less neutrality. It gets worse right after payday, with wards filling up with victims of apoplectic holiday-making around Easter and the festive season.
It takes some reasoning, but fine, a ban on alcohol sales seems like a logical trade-off — a small erosion of hard-won South African freedoms, to protect us from a virus that I, like everyone else in those early days, tell myself we are equally vulnerable before.
I am having more trouble with the second sum.
‘Because when people zol (smoke a hand-rolled cigarette), they put saliva on the paper and then they share that zol,’ the minister says humourlessly one month later at a press briefing, about the outlawing of cigarettes. Never mind that she made it her mission when she was the Minister of Health decades earlier to wage a war against smoking, which she apparently detests. Fair enough: she had health warnings slapped onto cigarette boxes, and advertising – that often reaches children – banned.
Two days later, by the first of May, her words become a song by Max Hurrell, forwarded phone to phone, and played on repeat across the country.
Because when people zol
Saliva on the paper
And then they share
Laws are a lot less intimidating when said to a tinny, electronic beat. No matter, for I find myself inadvertently craving a smoke one afternoon as I stand on the pavement. It’s an almost primal urge that rushes up to the present, cleanly and forcefully, though I haven’t smoked for two decades. I put it down to some perverse psychology of the forbidden. Anyway, I am, like most, in accord with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s swift, science-based decision-making in dealing with Covid-19 and compliance feels necessary.
But the equations get ever harder to balance. No exercise at all? The lockdown is for everyone an extreme disruption to the normal functioning of life. I have a garden, trees (depends who’s asking … maybe even an oak tree or two) which makes the enforcement bearable, if not tolerable. What of the tens of millions of South Africans confined to a shack? Five, eight, ten humans-deep, in a one-roomed makeshift accommodation? In 2018, twenty-four years after democracy, only 46.3% of South African homes had access to piped water. Many informal homes still remain without electricity. This detention into a cramped space without basic sanitation and services strikes me as not only near-impossible but bordering on inhumane, however sound the decision-making, and even in response to a virus that may well represent an existential threat.
Anyone paying attention knows what this may come to mean. In a country with inordinately high incidences of gender-based violence, or its numbing acronym ‘GBV,’ women and children (a definition inclusive of LGBTQI+ people) will see the hardest days under the lockdown, especially with partners whose access to alcohol and cigarettes has been yanked away.
The army, dispatched from the start of lockdown to keep township residents in their homes and the virus out, starts to make the news. Soldiers on our streets. Some streets. Many are young, probably frightened and performing a duty for which they could not have trained in these dystopic times. Still, there are too many photographs of them harassing, and in the worst instances, beating people – black people – who have, in leaving their homes, contravened the law. There is a photo of a black couple being made to exercise in the middle of the road, their plastic parcels of food left on the pavement. I’m confused: the picture shows that they went shopping but were still stopped. Did they lie or were they not believed? Either way, an archaic public shaming is administered. A thought that’s illuminated when I see a picnic of white ladies walking undisturbed in my neighbourhood – away from the stores – decoy shopping bags ballooning over their shoulders. What it says is this: some citizens are treated as errant children while others have a share of authority and dignity over their lives. But anyone paying attention knows that compliance to mask-wearing, hand sanitising and social-distancing has nothing to do with race or age or wealth. Compliance, in fact, seems quite random.
On 10 April 2020, fourteen days into the lockdown, Collins Khosa dies after blunt force trauma to the head after a confrontation with soldiers inside his yard in Soweto. He was drinking a beer inside his yard. Drinking a beer while black. Drinking a beer while black inside his yard in Soweto.
Still, the news, enraging and dispiriting, doesn’t stop me from taking a respite on my pavement; off the property so I can feel free. I am, by old South African classifications, coloured (mixed race), and a woman, but I’m not poor. I live in a leafy suburb with oak trees planted by the English. Even if the army were in my neighbourhood, which they are not, or if the police were to drive by and see me, which I’m sure they must do, I’m confident I’d get little more than a scolding, at worst a fine.
If I’d not known it before – and I’m sure I must have – justice, and the application of justice, does not feel fixed, but shifting.
As for the chaos wrought by the pandemic, it takes weeks for the image to unpixellate. The rate of infection is high, rising rapidly and sharply skewed: the elderly, and those with pre-existing illnesses are most vulnerable. It is worse for anyone living in poverty because of a variety of factors including general well-being, access to healthcare and the availability of steady employment. Most South Africans do live in poverty because of the deep entrenchment of inequality (we have a Gini-coefficient of .63 according to the World Bank, where 1 signifies complete inequality).
Women and children are defenceless. 2,300 calls are made to a dedicated police GBV hotline in the first five days of the lockdown, between 27 and 31 March 2020, three times more than usual. When the minister of police delivers his crime statistics in late May, however, it shows that actual incidences of domestic violence are lower than the previous year. Anyone paying attention knows to ask: were the victims of GBV able to get to a police station when in danger? Or at least, out of the grips of their abusers now that their movements are more restricted than usual? If they managed all of that, could they access some form of legal service? The eventual easing of the alcohol ban is followed by a spate of rapes and GBV murders, revealing an ever-murkier and more frightening image still.
What comes next, even after the jolt of the pandemic, has an aberrational quality to it: news of large-scale graft. Money, released under emergency regulations, and allowing for the expeditious flow of funds to procure PPE and relief from the effects of Covid-19, instead enters a corruption black hole. Billions in aid that was meant for the desperate and destitute vanish into the pocket holes of a bunch of crooked government arseholes. The slow work of undoing a decade of plunder, of restoring faith, barely begun, is set back to zero.
As for alcohol and cigarettes — well, a healthy black market starts up. If you have a guy, you can get whatever you want delivered to your home. Even if you don’t have a guy, a dodgy cousin will do, because it isn’t especially hard to get the banned goods. It isn’t uncommon. An image on television of a policeman smoking, his mask made into a beard, makes the point forcefully. At least I don’t smoke any more, I must remind myself several times.
By July, it is cold and wet. Saturday. Pretty typical. Only, I’m taking notes from my brother about his will over the phone after having spent the afternoon getting an ambulance to take him to hospital. It is five months since our hard lockdown, and I know so much more now: that Greg’s rigorous program of exercise and the fastidious diet that he’s been able to afford will fortify him. That his access to private medical care will get him a bed far quicker than it will someone in a public hospital.
I say the name of the life-saving steroids – despite that I’d never heard of it before – 20 times a day, like I’m weaving a spell:
He survives. Many do not, including a close friend’s mother, a neighbour, many more. The poor, as always, carry the burden of the tragedies.
I don’t know how to make sense of any of it.
The flicker of (renewed) faith that grows ever-dimmer; not only in a government that cannot make itself accountable but in all of us. Our contract with each other, and with our chosen leaders, makes no sense. And we all know it. We always have. The pandemic is just the red ink that underscores our stark differences, that brings into relief how unjust our society feels to most of its citizens. It need not be this way. So, to reset to a time before the pandemic where some live amongst oak trees (I admit) while fellow citizens live ten to a temporary shelter on a square of sand requires a level of dissonance that’s akin to madness. It is madness.
Of course, there is hope. But hope is intertwined with change. And change will require something from us all, some more than others.
‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ – Martin Luther King, Jnr.
In 2020 we launched the Queen Mary Wasafiri Global Dispatches series, where six writers send dispatches from around the world – writing from Tasmania and South Africa, the UAE and Argentina, England and the USA – reflecting on themes of Climate, Justice, Childcare, Racism, Futures, and Isolation, all in the context of Covid-19. Read Avni Doshi on childcare, Robbie Arnott on climate change and Margarita García Robayo on racism.
C.A. Davids works as an arts and culture worker, writer and indie publisher of children’s books. Her forthcoming novel, How to be a Revolutionary, will be published in 2022 by Verso Books in the UK and the USA, and by Penguin Random House in South Africa. Her first novel, The Blacks of Cape Town, was published in 2013 and shortlisted for the Edinburgh International First Book Award.
Read C.A. Davids in conversation with Kelwyn Sole in Wasafiri 105.