Pumla Dineo Gqola

On movement, human rights and Covid-19

1 April 1960: Workers categorised as coloured under apartheid queue for hours for the bus at the end of the working day to return to their township homes. (Photograph by Grey Villet/ The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

On the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, I woke up long before dawn and drove almost 200km to deliver supplements, medicine and groceries to my ageing mother. The novel coronavirus was on everybody’s mind, believers and sceptics alike. As we kept abreast of the news, sifting out the fake from the real, my siblings and I grew increasingly concerned about Mama’s vulnerability, at 77, to the menacing virus. On this drive, I carried a mask because nobody wants to be the woman who unwittingly carries the virus that kills her mother.

As the sky grew lighter, my thoughts flitted back and forth between the Sharpeville and Langa massacres and Covid-19. I could not help reflecting on the sad ironies of where we find ourselves on Human Rights Day 2020.

Standing against militarised machinery

Sixty years ago, activists were mowed down in Sharpeville and Langa. They stood up against the most militarised and well-resourced machinery of the time. Leaving passes at home, they acted not just in defiance against apartheid legislation in the form of Pass Laws, they were also motivated by the deep knowledge that the ability to move is integral to freedom. 

All liberation movements understand the connections between freedom and mobility, that physical confinement is a cornerstone of oppressive regimes the world over. 

For landless, displaced Africans under constant apartheid surveillance, restrictions on movement were also about enforcing the lie that displacement was legitimate and justified. It was the creation of South Africa as a white republic, and of black life as disposable. 

Therefore, the refusal to carry passes was also a collective assertion of will, not just of defiance. In hierarchical societies, the expression of will by the oppressed is met with more regulatory violence, the kind with which audacity is met. That is the punishment for refusing to be dehumanised and terrorised. 

Painful echoes

Today, our society is radically different from the one that saw these marchers shot, although there are painful echoes that remain. There is no restriction of physical freedom in the way of a surveillance state. Yet, the freedoms of movements we live with are not quite what Pan African Congress leader Robert Sobukwe and his comrades imagined they were creating. 

It is hardly a secret that class determines the ability to move freely, or that class always works in interlocking ways with race, gender and other axes of power. In post-apartheid South Africa, the connections between movement and freedom are somewhat more complicated, because we have maintained apartheid’s spatial geography and the gaps between classes have widened.

Yes, rich and poor African people can move about free from having to carry passes. But surveillance continues to dog our society. It is cloaked in the fear that women walking the streets carry with them, the gated communities and patrols that mark young black men as not belonging because of their “suspicious loitering” and the danger of ambiguity when it comes to sexuality and gender. 

All of this complicates the relationships between movement, freedom and democracy. And the coronavirus highlights that the landscape of freedom post-apartheid has reinstated an old obligatory regime of movement.

Since the onset of Covid-19 awareness, noticeably fewer people are out at the crack of dawn. Those of us out and about as the day begins are also keeping larger distances between one another, doing away with the usual camaraderie. Pavements are no longer shared and a few times, a street is crossed to give even more physical distance than the recommended metre or two. The numbers that have declined the least belong to the women who alight from taxis and buses, walking to work in the homes of the well-heeled of the suburb I call home.

Tight restrictions on freedom

The week after Human Rights Day, as President Cyril Ramaphosa readied himself to announce a nationwide lockdown, I overheard several of these women have varying conversations about Covid-19. As I greet and walk or run past, maintaining my distance, I am struck by the blinkers their socially distancing employers are retaining. 

These employers are socially distancing by working from home, but this does not extend to the women who clean their houses, who are not able to work away from the physical sites of their jobs. Working-class black women in domestic work and similar employment are obliged to travel long distances almost daily.

It would be cruel to read these sojourns as freedom. In this time, aware of yet another danger, that of being infected directly by their employers or indirectly by someone else’s employer, they nonetheless have to traverse substantial distances in close proximity to other bodies.

These women’s physical movements have an inverse relationship to their capacity to move socioeconomically. In other words, while superficially they seem to embody freedom of movement, their very movement through the city testifies to the tight restrictions placed on their real freedoms. Their passes are invisible, but they are pinned to their chests like a bill of sale.

The fact that we shy away from is this: Why is it possible for managers to let their subordinates work from home as a safety precaution, while requiring their domestic workers to continue to travel for more than an hour even in a city as small as the one I live in? Another: Why are these workers moored to forms of transport that are so impractical for them?

There can be no freedom of movement with apartheid spatial geography in place. More frightening are the ways in which this physical geography is enshrined in a collective, middle-class psychic apartheid geography that makes sure these blinkers are safely in place. 

Sixty years later, we may be significantly less honest about the intersections of unfreedom and movement, or of freedom and obligatory movement, but it is as urgent today as ever. It does not go away because of the lockdown, or as the government has banned almost all minibus travel and other forms of public transport from Thursday midnight. It simply embeds itself in other ways during our collective confinement.  

The middle class and confinement 

For many middle-class South Africans of my generation and older, the Covid-19 lockdown is the first time we have had to think seriously about confinement on a daily basis post-apartheid. We have imagined that, at least physically, we live out Sobukwe’s dream, even as we punctuate this with calls for the return of the land.

Sociologist Mamadi Matlhako says this virus is forcing us to think about our vulnerabilities, individually and collectively. We have to confront many of the lies, and accompanying brutalities, that we rely on to maintain our tenuous comforts.

She pointed this out as many of our mostly academic colleagues clung to the false confidence offered by zero positive corona tests in the Eastern Cape at the time. Intellectually, they knew, like we did, that testing numbers were so low that we simply did not know how many cases there likely were. Even this false confidence did not last long before a woman from our city who had travelled to Germany tested positive, and then another and so it went.

What we know and take for granted 

Perhaps the virus is not showing anything about our society that we did not already know. What its onset and the subsequent lockdown will doubtlessly do is change how we feel about what we know, and what we take for granted, even slightly. It may not usher in the much hoped for gentler, empathetic society that many are waxing lyrical about online, but it does show the many inescapable ways in which we are connected to each other.

As many continued to insist that we adopt what Italy took too long to start doing, or what China and South Korea have been incisive enough to do, it was clear that pre-existing inequalities in our society are the reason some of those solutions are impossible. And while it is early days, I hope one of the lessons we learn is to never again look away from the structural violence that affects all of us to differing degrees.

I hope we remember, too, after this onslaught, that the face of the diseased is not the women who eke out a living in our homes or the young men flagged as dangerous, even if they bear the brunt of it because of the unfinished business of freedom. As we attempt to “move a mountain with a hand shovel”, to borrow author and academic Helen Moffett’s formulation, we are reminded that 60 years is a long time to sit in this familiar place. 

This article was first published by New Frame.