Township dwellers will isolate in their own way

Members of the health services disinfect the Madala hostel in Alexandra, Johannesburg, as the South African government continues efforts to control the outbreak of Covid-19. Residents stand in line to receive disinfectant.
Members of the health services disinfect the Madala hostel in Alexandra, Johannesburg, as the South African government continues efforts to control the outbreak of Covid-19. Residents stand in line to receive disinfectant.

Let me be clear upfront: the spread of the novel coronavirus is one of the biggest threats to humanity and I fully support the scientific proposals suggesting mass testing, mass quarantine, and a countrywide lockdown as the best possible measure to manage and ultimately defeat the virus.

We have seen the fruitful results of a lockdown in Wuhan, China, and we have also seen the devastating effects of delayed responses and partial ignorance in Europe. As such, I fully support and understand the call for a nationwide lockdown  — and I encourage everyone else to do the same.

 Since the president’s 21-day lockdown pronouncement to curb the spread of Covid-19, the media has not spared a day without running stories laying bare the livelihoods of people who reside in SA’s townships.

The angle is largely negative and condescending, depicting township dwellers as people who do not care about their safety nor listen to the national call. It is important to nullify this and put things properly into context.

First, the socioeconomic design of South African townships dictates how life is structurally experienced in them.

Townships do not originate out of the authentic seed of the architectural, geographic, social, economic, spiritual, and cultural sensibilities of African people’s choices.

They are an outcome of decades of social engineering of SA’s major cities constructed from apartheid legislation.

They were constructed as temporal residences of migrant labourers and were controlled by the industrialists to serve the minority regime stationed in the urban city centres.

All kinds of people no matter their backgrounds must be treated with sensitivity, respect, and dignity.

As such, the congestion of people in townships must be seen alongside the high demand of mass labour by the apartheid economy, and those labour relations have continued into the post-apartheid epoch as the present economic structure remains untransformed. In this regard, it is extremely unfair then for the media to blame victims of this geographic design of townships and portray them as simply defying the lockdown regulations.

The township dwellers share mass utility services — conditions that are clearly not their own choice.

 As fragmented as townships are by their histories and by their present social constraints, township dwellers for the past 50 years have consistently redefined and reconfigured their living experiences to be as fulfilling as possible.

From these conditions emerged functioning families and schooling systems with strong community values, pioneering entrepreneurship ventures and unbelievable tales of human resilience, university graduates of all disciplines, theories and ground-breaking philosophies, languages, and various research innovations, and leaders of our democratic transition in public service and business corporates.

Townships and similar rural communities across the globe are inhabited by thoughtful and responsible human beings who have a rich history of responding to economic and medical challenges using their own knowledges and limited resources.

Breaking down SA's coronavirus statistics.

They have consistently survived numerous lockdowns such as poverty, unemployment, immune deficiencies, and natural disasters such as floods.

 The 2018 Statistics SA report showed that townships in the Eastern Cape are seated on a 54% unemployment rate, with half of their citizenship living below R922 per month.

Such statistics are supposed to yield a humanitarian crisis where such families would die every day from starvation.

But why is that not the case? The answer lies in that Eastern Cape township families are heavily involved in entrepreneurial ventures that maintain their microeconomies and sustain each other’s livelihoods.

The media would not understand such a reality because its obsession with townships is limited to the coverage of service delivery protests, crime rates, and now the long queues of innocent people who are collecting their social grants from an administrative system they did not design. 

The proposed structure of the Asian and European lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 will be easily applied in urban areas, as has been the case already — but it will not be applicable completely across the board in the South African context.

For the overwhelming majority of South Africans who survive from self-employment on our streets, business for them is for the household to have dinner in the evening.

These business ventures require outdoor settings with masses of people converging in the space.

However, in light of the safety measures announced to curb the virus, I am positive that these South Africans will still innovatively operate their businesses,undoubtedly with their fair share of difficulties, through their cellphones, in backyards, and other means that the ordinary eye and our media will never comprehend.

In this regard, the infantilisation of township communities and the commodified reporting of their plight should  to be dismissed.

All kinds of people no matter their backgrounds must be treated with sensitivity, respect, and dignity. Every person in SA is committed to safeguard themselves, their families, and communities.

The residents are capable of formulating their own safety mechanisms that will be contextually relevant and fit for their living conditions, as they have always done in the past.

They do not need any false generosity or public lectures from the urban class that has never cared about them to begin with. The lockdown in South African townships and villages will definitely be safe but different. 

Pedro Mzileni is sociology lecturer at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity

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