Open Letter to South Africa: I’m here locked down away from ‘home’ but more at home than ever. Can I please stay?

My husband and I returned to what has been our part-time home in South Africa late in November 2019 in the hopes of a long stay during which time I would complete my application for South African citizenship, but that in itself is a much longer story, the short version being that I was born in the UK to exiled South African parents. Anyway, my husband and I have been back and forth for a while and now we really just want to settle. For both of us, our home in Johannesburg feels more and more the place we want to be.

Watching the coronavirus pandemic take hold has been scary, eerie and slightly surreal. While the numbers tell us that this is a growing problem which South Africa cannot ignore, we don’t see it when we go out or when we talk to friends here. We don’t feel it when we go outside. We don’t know anyone with Covid-19 or even anyone who has tested positive. It does, however, feel like a different story when talking to friends in the UK, though. Their numbers are accompanied by personal experiences, making us glad we decided not to return to the UK immediately.

At the end of January, we received our confirmation that our 90-day visitor visas had been extended until May and it was such a relief. We planned to return to the UK and from there, apply for longer term residence visas, all the while hoping that my South African citizenship would be confirmed. However, as reports came back from around the world and, more frequently from friends and family in the UK, that the spread and the mortality rate of Covid-19 was worse than any simple ‘flu, I knew it was inevitable that South Africa would not be spared. While the UK continued to enjoy its freedoms, I devoured reports about the novel virus and, unlike with the previous SARS virus, I started to take precautions. Spotting disinfectant wipes in Pick n Pay one day in early March, I grabbed them and installed them in our car. I wiped down handles, the dashboard, the steering wheel, and internal surfaces immediately and have done so regularly since then. While I have carried a small hand sanitiser bottle for years, I didn’t consider it as essential as I did for this virus. Something about all of this felt different. My (immuno-compromised) son in the UK at first dismissed it as ‘just another ‘flu, Mum’ but I urged him to take it more seriously and he is lucky enough to have a job where he can completely work from home. He’s now been in some form of isolation since the beginning of March. Talking the situation over with my husband as more countries announced travel bans, we decided to stay in South Africa for the duration of our visa extension rather than put pressure on already straining services trying to repatriate people. #we’restaying has become our mantra.

I have, therefore, been highly invested both in how Covid-19’s impact has been managed both in the UK and here in SA.  So many of the UK’s systems, protocols and principles are embedded into South Africa’s bureaucracy that my husband and I often note that it feels like we are in a UK of the 1970s, only with way more sun. Tracking the way that the two countries have so far handled this pandemic, though, has given me more confidence that our decision to settle in South Africa is a positive step. While just weeks ago, with the UK seeing greater numbers of infections daily, the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told people that he was still happy to greet people and shake hands, we started to see South Africa mobilising firstly to track and then manage the arrival of the virus. That he later succumbed to the virus and suffered intensely is the ultimate in tragic irony and I am grateful that he is at least recovering well. Still, there will always be (reasonable) criticism of both approaches, but in South Africa, the imperative rather appears to be the preservation of life and the importance of its citizens, while in the UK it was the preservation of personal freedoms and an attitude which treated the virus as a sentient, actively threatening enemy. This is not a war we can understand in militaristic terms. This is a fight for survival for many, but it is also a fight which (thankfully) many will naturally overcome. Like many people, across various WhatsApp groups I saw reports which varied in their helpfulness, hopefulness, accuracy and detail.

As South Africa’s infection numbers climbed in the first few weeks, the UK was tracking similar numbers of fatalities, so in one sense, we knew that the UK was essentially ahead of whatever curve we might find ourselves on. However, both countries eventually went into lockdown at almost the same time, although in SA we were given a couple of days to prepare ourselves (for those of us with the luxury of both time and money). The UK government had been shocked into action, it seemed, by the way in which some people responded to the closing of clubs and bars – news reports and timelines were full of revellers flooding the streets in a ‘final hurrah’ over the weekend. By that time, South Africa had already announced severe restrictions on bars and restaurants selling alcohol. The lockdown was inevitable, but it came swiftly and decisively. SA’s lockdown conditions are far more stringent than those of the UK (more about that later), but it feels as though it should really be the other way around. The attitude of the UK towards South Africa is still that of a benevolent, much wiser elder. This feels woefully anachronistic now, and I sincerely hope it is one of the aspects which, when we settle into our new normal, gets tossed aside with the rest of the useless attitudinal junk. In fact, seeing the briefing arranged by the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, my husband and I were amazed at just how much information was provided, and at the way that South Africa had been able to trace a very different curve in its covid-19 epidemic than had been the case for the UK. South Africa has (at least for now) given itself time to prepare and cope with whatever is to come while the world’s scientific communities continue to develop treatments and (eventually) vaccines. So, at least in South Africa, we can see and (hopefully) understand that this lockdown came early enough to delay what has happened elsewhere: a far higher rate of transmission in the early stages and tragic numbers of fatalities due to lack of health care capacity rather than the disease itself.

Still, I would love right now to be allowed to go for a walk around the neighbourhood as my husband and I had taken to enjoying. However, this simple form of exercise is forbidden under SA’s lockdown regulations and, in my humble opinion, if the lockdown continues, it should immediately be relaxed. Regular exercise is so important for a healthy mental outlook and it would be a reasonable measure to relieve pressure for those whose homes and gardens do not otherwise allow them to enjoy physical space. The argument against is too much in line with the militaristic attitude to the fight against this virus than it is to truly holistic public health concerns. Maintaining social distancing in areas where people live in close quarters should similarly be part of the consideration. In many areas, it cannot reasonably be a lockdown where the streets are empty. People simply do not have the luxury of remaining in their homes if their homes have no facilities. The attitudes and the roles of the police the defence force (SANDF) need to be carefully managed throughout this crisis. The idea being to try and minimise the early spread of the virus should also recognise the reality of how people will behave when they don’t recognise the danger as being real. In many ways, South Africa’s lockdown has come too soon and too hard. The surreal nature of the virus means that many will simply not take it seriously and, if lockdown regulations are too strict, it will fail to convince those whose living conditions are less conducive to isolation.

As it happens, I’m sat enjoying a glass of wine this evening, having been one of the consumers who helped to empty the bottle shop shelves in the days before lockdown began. If I were in the UK buying alcohol and even going for a walk would be permitted during the lockdown. I would be able to grab a bottle of wine or few along with my ‘essential food shop’ and go for a run, jog, bike ride, or walk my (non-existent) dog. I could even get cooked hot food or just about anything else delivered (contact-free).Yet, fatalities here in South Africa are still in double figures, while in the UK, they exceed 18,000 and the UK’s fatalities in the hundreds daily currently far outstrip South Africa’s daily infection rates.

For my part, I get to enjoy much more space here in South Africa.  With a large garden, I can actually get most of my 10,000 steps in just by watering the plants. In the UK, I’m lucky to push it up to 4,000 if I’m at home all day and make sure I actually take note of my Fitbit’s hourly movement reminders.

Anyway, we’ve now done almost four weeks of lockdown in South Africa and so far our only serious moment of concern came when our tenant and gardener went out to work for another family on the first Tuesday of the lockdown. The dilemma of informal workers is one I knew would be a tough element for South Africa to address in any lockdown scenario. He works a few days here and there for different people, so talking to him, it’s unclear whether he knows what he may be entitled to by way of compensation or even how he might claim it. Yet, it is also something which his other employers knew would be a law-breaking activity. In theory, the situation of him going ‘there’ to work and then coming back should be no more of a risk than his going to the shop to buy groceries. However, it was an act which broke the law and we had, therefore, to be clear that we would not tolerate further breaches. We had already offered and have since provided him extra work to make up for his loss of external income, but these are tough calls to make. Our domestic only works one day a week for us – she works at a car wash around the corner and at another home on the days she is not at the car wash. When I asked her about claiming unemployment, she had no idea what I was talking about, but it may also be the case that there was a simple language gap – I don’t know enough isiZulu to translate welfare state benefit claim procedures! I offered to pay her for the time not worked but she insisted that she would be ok, but the car wash has been shut down since lockdown started and I know that they are ‘no work; no pay’ employers. She got in touch finally today to ask to come back to work. About a week ago, I received a WhatsApp message from an informal trader who had made a cosy for my coffee plunger some time ago. She has a young baby and is struggling, but what do I tell her? There’s nothing we need or want, but should I suggest that she makes masks for people local to her? I tracked down some local numbers for food parcels and welfare for now and sent her the details. I received a thanks, but am worried that it is simply not enough. Yesterday, the President announced a massive expansion of the welfare system, but are they eligible? Are they aware of that or able to claim?

When the notice of the two-week lockdown extension came late on the eve of Good Friday, I must admit that it came as an emotional blow but at least it was only on that level. I had hoped to hear news of the exit strategy then but that is still to come and we are in a relatively secure position overall. The halt in so many economic activities, while effective, remains a huge concern. Things really do need to change. I recently read a piece which claimed to have a ‘blueprint’ for recovery, yet which only sketched the briefest of outlines for business recovery. South Africa needs to address this aspect far more comprehensively than it has done so far. Keeping restaurants and bars closed is a good move, but it could help to support the vulnerable if those which were able to offer contact-free delivery and food preparation services could continue. Similarly, most “non-essential goods” retailers do not need to open stores, but could maintain some level of service by providing online shopping and opening up more general e-commerce opportunities which could ensure contact-free deliveries. We have not even received courier deliveries or any post since the lockdown was announced. The lockdown conditions, it seemed, considered only physical health concerns in terms of ‘physical movement’ but has completely ignored mental health as a serious issue. We have not been able to order books or games to help while away the time we are locked down. We cannot carry out any more work on the home than we planned to do before it was enacted (my husband and I bought a couple of vats of paint, by the way). About a month ago, our oven and hob packed up. We were lucky we were able to replace them before the lockdown, but it was a bizarre source of anxiety as I started looking around at other things which might break while we are unable to buy replacements. Most oddly, though, I find myself, having quit smoking comfortably some years ago, unaccountably anxious on behalf of smokers who were not able to stock up sufficiently before the lockdown began. Neighbours in our WhatsApp group have started sending out pleas for spare alcohol (homeschooling is apparently taking its toll).

Still, in all of this, very little day to day has actually changed for me and my husband. We have fairly quiet social lives and go out for drinks or dinner with friends every now and then. We’ve managed to peg out a small croquet playing area on our lawn and we do way more baking than before. We used to cook pretty much every day beforehand, so now we just have to ensure we think in terms of weeks rather than days and do less meal planning – more outlining. My repertoire now includes cheesecakes made with fruits from our garden. My husband is yet to perfect his bread, but I’m glad he’s still trying. While in South Africa, we tended keep tabs on friends in the UK via social media, but we rarely spoke to them while we were away during previous visits. Some kept in touch via direct messaging, which is great but was rarely sustained. This is really where the lockdown has (at least for now) changed things. Last week, we joined a ‘virtual pub’ night with friends in Devon; we’ve found a regular ‘virtual pub quiz’ to join in on YouTube; my son ‘joins’ us for lunches and dinners, and we can spend hours chatting and pottering around. My refs society had an online quiz and social meeting today which is likely to continue during lockdown. The weekend following our arrival in November, our neighbourhood WhatsApp group had arranged a braai, which allowed us to meet more of the neighbours here than we have ever met in the UK. Since then, the group has been much more friendly and generally active than before (we have been members for over two years, by the way) and the lockdown has seen a marked increase… although mainly in bad lockdown memes and jokey video clips. My family here in South Africa has been similarly way more active on WhatsApp and I hear from them every day (unfortunately with some conforming to the stereotypical elderly relative forwarding far too many fake news messages, videos and corona memes). We have video calls scheduled with friends in the coming weeks and I have installed a pile of apps just to keep up.

This South African lockdown is just one aspect of the fight to contain and manage a virus which has no cure, no vaccine and for which an effective treatment is still being developed. Add to the mix a population with significant numbers of people diagnosed with either HIV, TB or both, the effect that this virus might have in South Africa is completely untested. That the UK has not yet managed to flatten out the rate of its fatalities (as I write, the UK’s covid-19 fatalities remain in the hundreds daily and those are only the deaths identified in hospitals – figures from the wider community are not included and could increase this figure by as much as 50%) implies that the freedoms currently enjoyed there may yet need to be reviewed. Meanwhile, we are hanging on in here, hoping that we can extend our visas for a while longer. South Africa feels like the safer place to be and my hope is that what has been achieved in terms of an initial redirection of the trend seen elsewhere is recognised for what it is: a comprehensive, considered approach to the local management of an epidemic. The details need further refinement, particularly the crudeness of the lockdown approach and more recent amendments including the banning of the sale of hot, cooked food from any outlet. We all need the lockdown to get smarter rather than harder in order to continue to be effective. The government’s briefings do not pull any punches, though. This is a long struggle. This virus is not just going to disappear. So, for now, #we’restaying, and hope to be able to contribute to South Africa’s recovery. If you’ll have us, that is.



2 thoughts on “Open Letter to South Africa: I’m here locked down away from ‘home’ but more at home than ever. Can I please stay?

  1. Steve says:

    How does it look three months later?

    • nomthag says:

      Still better than the UK’s “management” efforts by a long, long way. I’ve seen far too many RIP friends’ posts recently and it’s still ongoing. Now that we can grab a bottle of wine and go for a run, I’m still far more comfortable here.

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