Covid-19 has curtailed our path to freedom

Hundreds of children practise social distancing as they receive food from an organisation, Philisa Abafazi, in Lavender Hill. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Hundreds of children practise social distancing as they receive food from an organisation, Philisa Abafazi, in Lavender Hill. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 26, 2021


Cape Town - Growing up, I used to fantasise about the order being reversed: a two-day work week and a five-day weekend. Why not?

Why didn’t we have weather days here in South Africa when it snowed so hard that there was no school for the day and later you could ride a sledge down the hill with your friends like in those American TV shows?

That fantasy, I must confess, carried on into adulthood. A low-key monsoon that didn’t really cause any damage or flooding but only cut off the routes to work sounded great.

Hmmm… Netflix and an endless supply of pizza while locked up at home in your PJs.

Surely that represented the ultimate freedom? Free of responsibility and the daily grind.

But, as they always say, be careful of what you wish for.

In the autumn of 2020, it happened. What I had secretly wished for came true when the Covid-19 pandemic locked us and the rest of the world into our homes.

The feeling I was waiting to experience my entire life was exactly the antithesis of freedom.

We couldn’t roam around freely, exercise, frequent our favourite eating spots or visit friends and family. My kids couldn’t go to school and they punched the air in delight the way I would have at their age.

Going into the office was prohibited until further notice. We lived in fear and paranoia.

In that very moment in March last year, my lifelong fantasy became a real-life nightmare.

It felt cruel actually to think that the freedoms so many had sacrificed so much for, for all us to enjoy, could be taken away so quickly by an invisible menace.

Like the head of state of a Hollywood blockbuster whose nation faced impending doom, a decisive President Cyril Ramaphosa took some drastic steps to save lives.

And no one can deny that is exactly what happened.

Mistakes were made in the curtailing of our freedoms that would later have unintended consequences for people’s livelihoods, though.

In a kind of a perverse way, a democratically elected president whose political party was at the forefront of liberating South Africa from a regime that oppressed the majority of people, was now instituting some tough measures of his own and curbing freedoms.

But this time every South African – black, white, young, old, Muslim, Christian and Jew – had a common enemy, surely, that would forge us together like never before? Or, at least not since that Rugby World Cup final win in Japan just a few months before the lockdown?

Nope, it wasn’t going to happen.

Those who never really had to pay a high price for their freedom could somehow not grasp what was at stake. They now had the loudest voices in protest.

“We demand to use the beaches,” the barefoot protesters chanted while defying the law. Some, notably those who would have been most likely to have benefited from our unjust past, would even proclaim “this (the lockdown) is worse than apartheid”. Really? You have absolutely no idea, do you? The lack of self-awareness was breathtaking.

The cruellest part about the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic has not been the curtailing of our freedoms. Are we ever really free if most of the citizens of our beautiful country live in abject poverty?

Are we ever really free if more than a quarter of us can’t find work? Are we ever really free when our women and children live in fear of what the men in this country are doing to them day in and day out?

The cruellest blow of the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the deaths of thousands upon thousands of South Africans and millions around the world.

But in our local context, it has curtailed a path to our freedom. When every child in South Africa can dream of being the best they can be without that dream being tempered with hunger pangs or fear of abuse then, and only then, will we be really free.

Before Covid-19, we had tasted freedom. And, dare I say, we had taken that freedom for granted. When we take stock of the years since our hard-fought freedom we must readily acknowledge the many, many shortcomings of our imperfect democracy. To be free takes hard work. To get there will take genuine five-day work weeks – only stopping to breathe over the weekend.

Each and every South African putting a shoulder to the wheel. It is my fantasy crushed… and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

* Gasant Abarder is former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus and is the former inaugural regional executive editor of Independent Media in the Western Cape. His debut book Hack with a Grenade – an editor’s back stories of SA news (Best Red, HSRC Press) is available at all good book stores.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

*** Read more on our #UnmuteFreedom campaign here.

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