A new project documents the diaries of people living under lockdown in occupied buildings, informal settlements, townships and suburbs in Cape Town, South Africa. Among accounts of hardship, hunger, crime and anxiety, the measures taken to address the COVID-19 epidemic have spurred stories of solidarity and support. Drawing attention to relationships that have long been present before the current crisis, these stories allow us to recognise people’s humanity and interconnectedness.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche knows the power of stories in our lives: how they can shape our understanding of the world around us and our place within it. But power shapes how stories are told, when, where and by whom. That can mean, as Adiche argues, that some people and places become defined by a single story. These single stories limit our capacity to see the fullness of people’s dignity and humanity, the meaning of the struggles that they face, the significance of all they value and achieve and the strength of the hopes they hold.
Over the past two weeks we have been running a Lockdown Diaries project with 70 participants across occupied buildings, informal settlements, townships and suburbs in Cape Town. We have been asking participants to share with us their stories from the lockdown and the impact that it is having on their everyday lives via WhatsApp. Our participants are diverse in terms of their gender, age, race and class, and our connections with them build on existing relationships through research and social networks.
Amongst the accounts of hardship, hunger, crime and anxiety we are hearing moving stories of help and support. The tale of help amidst COVID-19 can fall prey to being portrayed as a single story: a story of charity. However, the stories of help we hear in the Lockdown Diaries, and those emerging elsewhere, are far more diverse. By sharing these stories we begin to see the everyday relationships of support that are forming and deepening across the country. Here are stories with mutuality, reflecting different types of agency. Broadening the stories we tell can better help us to see people’s humanity and their agency, in all its complexity. They help us to acknowledge what is. But stories of support are also stories of survival in the midst of oppression and exploitation. Sharing these stories must also drive us to consider collectively how we can start a new chapter together: to help us rethink what might be.
Ever since our project started, stories of support have been woven into people’s reflections of life in lockdown. Take Jazzy D, for example, who lives in an occupied building in Woodstock. She is a baker by trade but also cooks soup for the occupation made up from donations of vegetables and dry mixes from a network of friends and relatives. These acts of support are not new: Jazzy D has been making soup for the occupation for over a month now, but in a time of lockdown her cooking is needed more than ever. For Thando in Khayelitsha, it was clear that there was a lack of information on COVID-19 amongst her neighbours so she and a ‘few concerned citizens’ conducted an ‘awareness drive’ in the local area. Fadwah, in Hangberg, had also been running awareness campaigns in her neighbourhood, collaborating with a local seamstress so that she could give masks to the elderly while she did so. Recognising the struggles of local students, Esethu, in Khayelitsha, started voluntary tutorials to grade 11 and 12 learners in business studies and economics via WhatsApp. These are only a few examples of the numerous stories of everyday acts of support that our lockdown diarists have shared.
New forms of sociality, solidarity and community
In many ways, these acts of support embody the kinds of relational support that have long been present in different settings across the country. The occupation in Woodstock, for example, despite the precarity of its residents, has nurtured relationships of reciprocity over time. Bartering and the sharing of goods and services had long been the mode of operation there and speaks to the values of their greater project – fighting against spatial segregation as a unified, self-empowered and self-sustained collective. So, when COVID-19 started to spread, the response of the occupation in Woodstock – like others in the city – was similarly communally minded. Lockdowns were organised by hall monitors, sanitiser was used at the entrance to occupied buildings and the cooking of communal food intensified.
Above, we can see how forms of sociality and solidarity forged before the crisis were repurposed amidst the lockdown. These were not the only pre-existing relationships of support upon which people relied. Some diary respondents, for example, highlighted the role that family and friends beyond their household played during the crisis, sending information, emotional support, and economic resources to help them ward off the worst effects of the Lockdown.
For others, a novel sense of community had emerged in new spaces. Natalie, in Newlands, reflects that the lockdown has created community within her road, bringing people closer together. ‘The day before lockdown’, she recalled, ‘people shared books with each other. We were not able to buy many supplies as the shops weren’t well stocked, but we bought lots of naartjies [tangerines] and were able to swap these with neighbours for other food items such as other fruit.’ With the lockdown underway, younger residents began buying groceries for older people (such as grandparents or eldery neighbours) who were unable to go shopping. Many other respondents describe how they are now helping their neighbours, or sharing resources.
Rethinking power in stories of charity
All of these accounts move beyond a single story of charity. They are valuable because they nuance the narratives of power that can be embedded in them. Some of our diarists, for example, highlight the agency of local residents in managing relationships with external donors. In Hangberg, long-standing non-profit organisations led by local residents have played a crucial role in supporting the community. Part of their role has always been linking up with external donors to ensure that their provision meets local needs and physically reaches recipients. Philip is one of several residents in the area who work in this way, providing transport and connections for charitable organisations. Such mediatory roles can be competitive and contentious: Hangberg has not always had a history of collaboration. But, as Philip states, ‘this Corona virus brings a lot of our people together… even if you don’t like the other group you work with them to make it successful’.
The spread of Community Action Networks (CAN) across Cape Town nuances the story of charity in a different way, blurring the boundaries between formal and informal networks; between mutual aid and charity. These initiatives were encouraged, by the government, to foster neighbourhood support networks in the midst of COVID-19 and they have taken on a different form and function in each area that they have taken root. Ntsiki, for instance, spoke of the ways in which Tamboerskloof CAN have been able to broaden their provision using donations of resources from external actors. This allowed the group to provide a soup kitchen for those beyond the walls of the occupation, in BoKaap. In Khayelitsha, China describes how she has worked in Khayelitsha with the CAN to cook and distribute food parcels, and has used donations from the CAN to distribute sanitisers to informal settlements in the area. These networks exist as a paradox: highlighting at once the unity and the differentiation within ‘the community’ in which they operate.
Day after day, diary after diary, these stories of support proliferate. Together, they push us to reflect on the tales we tell about help amidst crisis. Sharing these stories is crucial because they allow us to recognise people’s humanity, dignity, agency and interconnectedness. But they also stand testament to stark situations in which people are carving space for that humanity and dignity to exist. Taking these stories seriously also means reckoning with the power structures in which they are situated and refusing to romanticise survival amidst adversity. Ultimately, they must spur us on to state interventions like the Basic Income Grant that, despite its limitations, makes new narratives possible.
Photo: Cape Town by Romain MATHON on Unsplash.
Alphabetical order or authors denotes equal authorship.