A luta continua

A Freedom Day Reflection during COVID-19 Lockdown 2020

I was born in 1964, three months after Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were jailed for life.

What is now the Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital, but then was the St Joseph’s Nursing Home, run by German Catholic nursing sisters, at the foot of Devils Peak, Cape Town, sounded like a strict place to be, from my mother’s telling of it. The fact that the nurses hurried her out of the loo, where I was nearly born, gave my existence an almost unseemly start, perhaps that’s why I was constantly found guilty of behaviour ‘unbecoming of a lady’ by the nuns who educated me. I was too loud. But not loud enough when it mattered.

The historic tragedy of the Rivonia Treason Trial that year though was unlikely to have been marked in my white, middle-class family, where my father was more conceivably focused on reading in the newspaper about the Springboks’ victories against touring French and Welsh rugby teams, or his own cricket matches at the club, while my mother was almost certainly consumed with caring for a toddler and a new baby. Johannesburg and race politics of the time were not even on their radar, both seemingly thousands of miles away. That’s one of the shocking realities of South African apartheid-era history: white people in the main, were not affected by the brutality and racial injustices being perpetrated in the country and life went on as ‘normal.’

I first heard about District Six when my father, a formidably fierce man, yelled at some pesky children taking delight in walking atop his newly constructed boundary wall in middle-class Pinelands, ‘What do you think this is?! District Six?!’ he roared out the window at them. I had no idea what District Six was but it seemed to be, from his attitude, a place where children got away with doing fun things. He of course had bought into the propaganda which saw the colourful, cosmopolitan area on the slopes of Table Mountain as a slum, resulting in the horrifying social and economic disaster of forced removals of black and coloured people in 1968. (Not that as an English-speaking United Party supporter, he would ever have seen himself as pro-government, an irony still playing out still in the English-Afrikaans divide in older, white South Africans.)

District Six’s fate was sealed in October 1964, a week after I was born when the Minister of Community ‘Development’ (one PW Botha!) set up a committee to re-plan and ‘develop’ District 6 and surrounding Salt River and Woodstock. The plan fell under CORDA, an acronym for the Orwellian Committee for the Rehabilitation of Depressed Areas, a plan which left communities decimated and precipitated ongoing poverty and crime although its stated intention was to eradicate crime ‘caused by inter-racial mixing.’

30 years later, however, on 27 April 1994, pregnant with my own second child, I stood in one of thousands of snaking queues in our nation’s first democratic election. Even though at the advanced stage of my pregnancy, I could have voted days before, I wanted to celebrate that special day and make sure my small son and unborn daughter would be there as part of the moment when we stood on the head of the snake of apartheid.

The people I queued with are dead now, the old man in front of me, almost certainly from old age, but my companion for the day, Kefilwe Ratsweu, passed away in 1999 from AIDS-related illnesses, following her rape in a field by a mindless, opportunistic thug, one mild Sunday afternoon.

She had five short years of ‘freedom.’

She, like so many women in our country, had lived a brutalized life of poverty and spent much of her divorced life away from her children. She recalled for me once how when she first moved to Johannesburg to find work, police vans would routinely pick up young women supposedly on pass law[1] offences and remembered the absolute terror she felt in being considered one of the ‘young, attractive ones’ who were offered an impossible ‘way out’ of their arrest. Many women saw the option of being gang-raped by policemen as a better option than imprisonment and loss of income for their families.

The abuse she suffered at the hands of authorities didn’t end there though. She married a taxi driver, who, when he drank, assaulted her repeatedly. Eventually, when he began to inflict his violence on her five children, she took them one dark night and fled home to her mother, who raised them in the country, while she worked in the city. And yet if I remember one thing about her, it was her capacity to throw her head back and laugh.

I visited her the day before she died in the Johannesburg General Hospital, stepping gingerly over used syringes on the lift floor of a state hospitial groaning in its need for public funds, not wanting to acknowledge that she was dying. We held hands, hers always so elegantly long and soft, despite her years of physical labour, like her once rotund body was even thinner from the ravages of her disease. And we wept quietly together. I wept for the system that made her vulnerable; I wept for the children she was leaving behind; and that I couldn’t save her. Mostly I wept because I had been part of that system, simply by being white. No amount of university protest or liberal thinking and teaching prevented me from saving her.

And hers is just one story.

The AIDS pandemic has caused so much human suffering in South Africa. Just as PW Botha’s men razed District Six to the ground, so HIV and AIDS bulldozed through townships and families, orphaning countless children in the process. And today we face a new, more threatening disease.

At its height, nearly 3 million people died in South Africa, but so many deaths were recorded as TB–or-other-related that the figure is probably far more. Nearly 250 000 new cases of HIV infection are recorded annually, with over 70 000 deaths still in this brave new world of post-apartheid South Africa.

Today is Freedom Day, being celebrated in Lockdown from a new enemy, set to ravage our nation. COVID-19 is not Die Groot Krokodil, so openly evil that we can launch an armed struggle against it. This time we are faced with another unseen nemesis like the HIV virus. The coronavirus is a tiny microbe spreading its invisible armies throughout our cities and towns, swifter and more easily even that HIV.  And the people it is set to destroy are again the poor and broken of South Africa.

But this time we know what can happen if we don’t fight. This time we have a president who is leading from the front.

This struggle ironically cannot be fought by mass gatherings of protest or by an armed struggle. This enemy thrives on our togetherness, something the apartheid regime recognized about our struggle for freedom and that’s why they banned public gatherings.

But this time for the sake of freedom (and life) for our people, especially those we have failed, please heed our president’s call to stay at home.

I was a child during apartheid; I stood by while HIV ran rampant and killed Kefilwe; I did not protest her brutalization.

This time, I am staying the fuck at home so my country(wo)men can live to see another Freedom Day!

How’s that for being a lady?

‘They also serve who only stand and wait’

John Milton, On His Blindness

[1] The dompas in apartheid South Africa required black people to carry identification at all times, including permission to be within (white) urban areas.

Every click you make, every stance you take…they’ll be watching you

“Dryware, wetware, hardware, software, blackware, darkware, nightware, nightmare . . . The modem sits inviting beside the phone, red eyes. I let it rest— you can’t trust anybody these days.”
― 
Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors

I have joined a voyeuristically-addictive Facebook group which has members posting photographs from their windows during lockdown. https://web.facebook.com/groups/viewfrommywindow/files/

People from all over the world are responding and posting their pictures on the page and I am realizing how fortunate some are during lockdown. Unless they have copied and pasted something from a local travel mag (I’m always suspicious of the lie factor), people on this Facebook group seem to live amidst great beauty in infinite variety. Some of those vistas make me a tad jealous; I’ll be honest, especially with spring blossoms emerging in Northern hemisphere gardens in flamboyant, living defiance of the COVID-19 virus’s silent death march through countries.

The green-eyed monster in me was pacified however when I reflected on how privileged I am to be able to step out onto my bedroom balcony and see all of Table Mountain, Devils’ Peak and Lion’s Head, silhouetted by the setting sun in the distance.

Not my picture but similar view.

However, as spectacular as some folk’s panoramic, views may be, it struck me that we don’t know what lies behind them as they take their shots: what sadness, what fear, what violence lurks in their households. We don’t know whether they have washed the dishes in their kitchen; or made the bed in that boudoir; or what books lie on couches in the lounge behind them. We don’t know what their stories are. And rightly so. That’s something we in South Africa fought so hard for in our struggle. Privacy is a right enshrined in our constitution. It’s to stop heavy handed wannabe-totalitarians from spying on us.

I get that this site is to encourage lockdown-prisoners to look beyond their current confines and see the world beyond, in order to stay connected, as well as in order to appreciate the tranquil beauty of nature – and haven’t we seen how pristine a state the ravaged earth has restored itself to, with opaque polluted clouds of smog no longer obstructing God’s creation in cities where industry and human traffic have been suddenly switched off by COVID -19?!

And I fact-checked this post btw – it is considered pretty accurate.

But I confess I am reluctant to post a pic of my own iconic view due to internet paranoia (okay and I am a rubbish photographer!). That whole Big (Orange) Brother is watching idea via multiple conspiracy theories has some substance when one reads the terms and conditions of social media sites. Let’s face it, if a service is free, YOU are the product. (Of course, this doesn’t stop me posting copious family snaps on my Facebook feed and being pretty open about my life, to the horror of my social media lawyer-friend. I suppose it must be possible for spies to obtain my IP address) Mind you, good luck to anyone trolling through my stuff. Pretty boring. While they’re in there if they could just answer some emails for me it would be great. At least they can read what I write. I can spell. But it’s the principle of privacy that’s at stake here.

And they are listening in:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/google-home-recordings-listen-privacy-amazon-alexa-hack-a9002096.html

It’s the advertisers who are benefitting of course. Even the microphones on our phones and cameras can convey information to certain websites unless you change your settings. If you don’t believe me, listen to what Microsoft support services says about how to limit it:

https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4468232/windows-10-camera-microphone-and-privacy

George Orwell predicted it in 1984. Margaret Atwell’s ‘eyes’ in A Handmaid’s Tale allude to spies abounding; even Sting promised to be watching me every step I took. (Sadly, I don’t think he meant it.)

Just the other day we had a random conversation about skin tags in our house – you know those teeny tiny mole-like growth one gets sometimes. Now that was a truly arbitrary conversation, but blow me down if I wasn’t sent adverts about skin tag removal the very next day!. Your phone is listening to you – at least mine is. Now if I could get the children to…

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a total conspiracy theory fruitcake (that moon landing though?…) But if this Big Brother surveillance is a thing, it could work to our advantage. I am hoping for magic medicine for cellulite now so I have told all my devices about my quilted ass. I’ll let you know what they suggest. At least such descriptions might put off the alphabet-soup agents from listening in too.

Anything would be better than all this indoor cycling I’m forcing myself to do. So, COVID Lockdown/Covert Surveillance – bring it on!