July 4, 2020
COVID-19 updates: a kindness project

From the article: "I returned to South Africa in December 2019, after a decade away which included a US PhD. My partner and I had planned to move into our home on 31 March 2020, but one of the strictest national lockdowns was announced of all the global roll-outs, and we were stranded.

I have high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome and our temporary studio apartment was not an option. The thought of being “caged” as I experienced it, in a tiny flat from which one could barely see the sky had me holding my head and rocking in a corner in panic like a scene out of Rainman. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I might need to be institutionalised for my condition (and not for the first time, I reflected that were I born elsewhere in South Africa’s economic landscape, I probably would have been).

By chance, the next day we met our “new” neighbour in the complex we were moving into. When she heard what had happened, with no questions asked and having known us for only a few minutes, she offered us the keys to her home. As she was living alone, she had decided to spend the lockdown with relatives. Within a few days, my mind put itself back together, my hands stopped bleeding from stress and I was able to return to my research.

Our neighbour’s offer did not come from a desire for recognition, or praise. It was simply an example of what is locally – albeit in sometimes clichéd and tired ways – referred to as ubuntu: A belief in one another that is quietly holding South Africa together while we go through this process of dismantling and reconfiguration. “I am because you are”, is a lesson that many South Africans are internalising in completely new ways during the lockdown, and is what the Archive of Kindness that I have begun to compile aims to record.

Why an Archive of Kindness?

Lockdown has shown South Africa both the best and the worst of who we are as a country. When it ends, we have to hope that it is the best that will prevail. It should not be surprising that in the violent, unequal state that was South Africa before Covid-19, violence and inequality are now prevalent within reactions. There is a great deal to critique, to criticise, to mobilise against and it is good that this is happening.

And yet there are also other sides to the experience. People are now in contact who in normal circumstances would never know of the other’s existence. Urgently formed Community Action Networks (CAN) are linking not only neighbours, but neighbourhoods in ways that bridge the divides of apartheid urban planning.

People are asking for help and in many cases they are receiving it through personal cash transfers organised via social media. If you were hungry in South Africa three weeks ago, that was your problem and yours alone, but suddenly there are any number of Facebook groups to appeal for help on, and any number of people cooking food. Sitting at home, we are connected as a nation in different ways.

This connection is changing us. Once you have seen, you cannot un-see, and across South Africa, people are seeing one another with fresh perspectives. The archive is being made so that we do not forget that such change is possible, and that the same way the 2010 World Cup taught us that Cape Town’s trains can run on time, lockdown might teach us that no person in this country should sleep with an empty belly, nor feel alone. ..."