From Series: Lockdown Around the World: The Individual Stories – The Realities of Social Distancing in a Township

Umlazi, South Africa

This lockdown story isn’t mine, it is my friend Xolani’s experience, which he has shared with me via a combination of messages and phone-calls over the last few days and it comes from Umlazi Township. Before I came to Glasgow, I spent around two years volunteering in Umlazi – the fourth largest township in South Africa. Teaching extracurricular English classes at local High Schools, I formed some lasting friendships with the young people who helped me run them. 

Xolani is a Dloko High School alumnus and since leaving school has pursued a career in acting. After teaching a series of free acting classes at his old high school, he was able to build his own informal acting company, which he sees as an important tool for fostering creativity in a community which has few resources, and keeping young people occupied and off the streets. He feels he would have benefited from such a programme when he was younger, after losing both his parents at an early age and being raised by his grandmother, and struggling with the peer pressure to drop out of school and join a gang. 

When I first met Xolani, I was struck by his generosity and ability to command attention both on and off the stage. He was always happy to help me with translations and keeping discipline in my rowdier classes, and I in return introduced him to some British playwrights and edited his scripts. When South Africa began their lockdown, I was immediately concerned about how this would impact life in Umlazi and thought a short interview with my friend could help shine a light on the problems they are facing. 

How has the lockdown changed your life? 

Xolani: It has changed everything. I was rehearsing a number of projects which were supposed to be showcased over the next couple of months and now everything is indefinitely postponed. I’ve effectively lost my job and will struggle to find a source of income for however long the lockdown lasts. In the meantime all I can do is try to keep busy. I’m writing a new script and practicing monologues, but I miss my company and performing. 

How are they enforcing the lockdown and what happens if you break the rules? 

It is being enforced by the army and the police. It feels like they are treating this like a war by sending in soldiers, but this is not a war – it’s a disease; they should be sending doctors. It is impossible to leave Umlazi without a permit and if you break the rules they will arrest you or beat you up. They target local shop keepers and tavern owners in particular, since they were slow to obey orders to shut and will try to run as usual if there’s nobody forcing them to. Public transport within the township has been allowed for the past few days to enable people to collect their grants (benefits) but it will cease to run from the 3rd of April. 

Do you think the lockdown will stop the virus from spreading? 

It may work in some areas but Umlazi is not one of them. People still congregat in the streets. When they see the police or army they run away, but come back as soon as the patrol leaves. Umlazi is just too crowded and we all depend on each other for food, entertainment and supplies that we need to stop the disease – e.g. soap and running water. We have no way to take or teach lessons online, so now the schools are closed there’s nothing for the young people to do. It is unrealistic to expect people to stay inside all day when three or four have to share a room and the tin walls trap the heat; the houses become ovens. 

How much do you know about the Coronavirus, does it scare you and do think it poses a serious threat to the community? 

To begin with I thought this is a disease which will only affect rich people who’ve been travelling around the world, but now I realise it will affect the whole of South Africa. Since they confirmed cases in Umlazi it seems much closer and I’m worried it will hit our community hard. I’m also concerned by the conspiracy theories that I’ve heard circulating. The government definitely needs to do more to spread accurate information about this virus – there is a hotline that you can message and it will send back automated responses but this service is of limited use for the older generation. 

Is there anything that we in Europe and the UK can do to help South Africa?

Yes, absolutely, although we understand that you are currently struggling with this virus in your own countries. We desperately need the resources to build mobile hospitals and clinics in the township. I don’t think lockdown will help stop the spread here, so we need a vaccine quickly, and we need it at a reasonable price. We will also need short term support to help the thousands who’ve lost their jobs and can’t afford to buy food during lockdown, but aid, particularly from abroad, will be difficult to facilitate under the lockdowns. 

The impact of this virus will continue to reverberate round Umlazi longer after the lockdowns have finished, so please don’t forget about us!

[Tommy Pia – he/him]

[Photo credit: Tommy Pia]


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