JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown has brought a unique kind of discomfort to a country where memories of physical separation are yet to fade. Stand there. Step back. Don’t touch.
More than a quarter-century has passed since the end of the racist system of apartheid, or white minority rule. Many South Africans in this youthful country did not live it, but history, and its aftermath, are never far away.
Now it’s inequality, the sharpest in the world, that underlies the odd new daily existence. South Africa’s poor number in the tens of millions but, largely confined to crowded townships that are a legacy of the past, they are “the other” now.
In the jittery early days of lockdown, the homeless were scattered from the streets by police backed by soldiers — the military’s biggest domestic deployment since the end of apartheid in 1994. Their presence brought back ghosts.
Security forces, their guns clutched in hands covered by disposable gloves, now stop strangers and inspect their papers: business permits, IDs. Another echo from the past.
President Cyril Ramaphosa in late March urged the soldiers to be a “force of kindness,” saying citizens were terrified — of catching the virus, of losing often precarious jobs, of running out of money to feed their families.
All have come to pass.
South Africa now has the most virus cases in Africa, well over 19,000. The unemployment rate was already at 29% before the pandemic, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned it could climb to 50%.
But most visible is the hunger.
Authorities, aid groups and private citizens alike are handing out food. On one empty Johannesburg street, beggars and street children were delighted to see tinted car windows slide open and hands reach out with a little cash or a can of beans.
Elsewhere across the country people have lined up by the thousands, waiting hours on end, for a package containing basics like maize flour and sardines.
Social distancing everywhere is imperfect, from the rich suburbs where runners and dog-walkers burst outdoors after those activities were allowed again, to the townships where a growing number of worried people wait for monthly relief grants.
In this uncertainty, you do what you can. A plastic bag is turned into a face mask. A balcony becomes a world.
And yet the grief at a death from COVID-19 is so strong it overcomes the hesitation to touch as mourners comfort one another.
Lockdown has been too painful, many say, and for many reasons. Some people simply yearn for sales of alcohol and cigarettes, both still banned even as other restrictions ease.
Now winter is coming to South Africa, deep in the southern hemisphere. The nights are cold. The coughing of flu complicates the challenges of fighting the new virus — not to mention persistent tuberculosis, too.
Other parts of the world are stepping out of lockdown and hoping the worst is behind them. But South Africa, like the rest of Africa, is braced for what’s yet to come.
Some have turned to Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague” for a vision of fear. But its words also contains hope for a country facing division once again: “To state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”