"Our lives, when we go back after this lockdown, are simply not going to be the same."

PROFESSOR SALIM ABDOOL KARIM, South Africa's chief coronavirus scientist

On 5 March, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed South Africa had recorded its first case of the deadly novel coronavirus. 

Life as we knew it would change, but the extent and scale of this change was unforeseeable. 

Just a few weeks later, on 23 March, with the number of infections at 402, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

"This is a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection, and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people," Ramaphosa said in his address to the nation.

Schools closed, physical distancing was enforced and South Africans were restricted from leaving their homes. Streets emptied out, and infections rose. The buying and selling of alcohol and cigarettes were outlawed. Slowly, wearing a face mask in public became the norm. 

In a subsequent national address, the president asked the nation to "endure even longer", before extending the lockdown. And although initial restrictions have eased, the country is unlikely to ever go back to normal.

News24 spoke to ordinary South Africans, to find out how they are living through the pandemic. 

These are their stories.

LUCINDA EVANS

"Yes, we know that Covid-19 is the imminent danger to all of us, but the second threat to women, children, older persons, disabled people and families is actually hunger."

Image: Bertram Malgas

Image: Bertram Malgas

Community activist Lucinda Evans has an intimate understanding of the challenges faced by some of Cape Town's most disadvantaged communities.

Born in District Six, Evans and her family were removed from their home when the apartheid government declared the neighbourhood a whites-only area, under the Group Areas Act of 1950. Her family was then forced to start a new life in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats.

"As a woman from the township of Lavender Hill where everybody has red flagged us before getting to know us,  it was very important for me, and still is up until today, to show people that there is Lavender in the Hills."

This experience, she says, inspired her to be an activist and community leader. Today, the 46-year-old, is the director of Philisa Abafazi Bethu South Africa. The term Philisa Abafazi Bethu means heal our woman in isiXhosa.

This non-profit organisation helps survivors of gender-based violence and also offers various child protection programmes.

When government implemented the nationwide lockdown as a way of curbing the spread of Covid-19, Evans' team had to find new ways of serving the community.

"Yes, we know that Covid-19 is the imminent danger to all of us, but the second threat to women, children, older persons, disabled people and families is actually hunger."

In response, Evans provides some 3 000 people with hot meals, daily. "Our mandate is gender-based violence and child protection but it had to take a new form because we had to ensure that people eat."

The internationally-acclaimed community leader attributes her strong leadership qualities to the three women who raised her – her grandmother, mother and aunt.

"My grandmother was widely known as an 'uitkyk ouma', because she was always looking out for her grandchildren and many of the children in the area."

Evans says it was her grandmother who taught her the fundamentals of leadership and the importance of paying it forward.


NEO LETLAPE

Under normal circumstances, you would find 32-year-old Neo Letlape from Soshanguve begging for money in the streets of Tshwane. He tells people the money is for food, but he actually has a nyaope addiction. Letlape began experimenting with the drug at the age of 17 and has been living on the streets for more than five years.  
"I started when I met a girl at school, we started teaching each other," he says.
When the country went into lockdown, Letlape was put in a temporary shelter at the Lyttelton sports club.
"We were not aware of this lockdown. We were hearing people say that there will be a lockdown but we did not understand what they were talking about."
Here, he has a roof over his head, access to food and medication to assist with drug cravings. He is uncertain about what will happen after the lockdown ends.
"This place is temporary. It's not for a long time."

Image: Chanté Schatz

NURAAN OSMAN

"I do try to make sure that my cup is full so that I may pour into the cups of others."

Image: Amy Gibbings

Image: Amy Gibbings

The director of the Ihata shelter for abused women and children, Nuraan Osman, keeps a mattress and a set of pyjamas in her office just in case she has to spend a night at the shelter.

"If I have a high-risk client experiencing withdrawal symptoms, I will stay through the night to support the house mother and catch a nap when I can," she says.

The shelter is based in Heideveld on the Cape Flats and Osman says her job does not entail regular working hours. "It's more like a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week kind of job." 

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have presented the shelter with a number of unique challenges. According to Osman, she and her staff have had to "up their game", working even harder than they usually do.

"But at the same time, I feel very privileged for the fact that for us it's been business as usual. The normalcy of my life getting up at 05:00, getting to work has continued so I don't think I've been as affected."

It has, however, been particularly challenging trying to ensure clients have all their basic human rights met, while also trying to make sure everyone is protected inside the shelter. "Explaining to an adult woman that she can't leave as and when she feels like it, is incredibly difficult."

To redirect this built-up tension, Osman says they have had to make sure the women and children go to the garden every day, breathe some fresh air and get in a little exercise when they can.

"Because all that pent-up aggression and staying in your room all day can lead to absolute chaos."

Osman says there is a lot of care that goes into making clients feel stable and secure during this time as well as making sure her staff members are coping.

"I love the ocean and so the fact that the beaches are locked down right now is killing me because that is my ultimate debrief, but I do try to make sure that my cup is full so that I may pour into the cups of others." 

Images: Chanté Schatz

Images: Chanté Schatz

MELINDA FERGUSON

“I did feel the same kinds of feelings, as I did when I was a hopeless addict.”

Image: Aljoscha Kohlstock

Image: Aljoscha Kohlstock

When President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in mid-March, acclaimed author and award-winning publisher Melinda Ferguson said she lay in bed and cried - for two days straight.

"I could feel what was going to happen… I didn't know that it was called lockdown, but I knew that everything would change and never be the same again."

Ferguson said she was grieving in those two days.

Up until February, she was incredibly excited by the prospect of 2020, as it was going to be her "best year ever". She had 12 book projects laid out for the year and had contract agreements with multiple authors.

"Literally overnight, it felt like my entire world just absolutely imploded."

When the country went into lockdown, she said, she did not like the feelings bubbling inside her. Ferguson, a recovering drug addict, said she did not think of relapsing but "I did feel the same kinds of feelings as I did when I was a hopeless addict."

So she turned to Online Narcotics Anonymous meetings. "They were really a saving grace for me. I got a lot of strength listening and sharing some of my issues, some of my feelings and emotions to strangers online."

Ferguson said lockdown felt like a big demotivator but added that she is not one to sit around and do nothing. She was halfway through compiling her first e-book, Lockdown, the Corona Chronicles, by the time the lockdown was announced. It was birthed in record time.

"About two days after the book went live, because I'm a lunatic, I thought: 'What about another one?'" And so the follow-up, Lockdown Extended, was born.

"I think I've used this time to be innovative in terms of trying to keep some kind of energy going," she adds. Ferguson, who used to travel up to four times a week, says she misses flying between cities and still has a suitcase packed for a trip she did not go on.

"The suitcase has stayed packed in case the trip still actually happens because part of me still can't believe I’m not going to the airport four times a week."

Her sons live in Johannesburg and she is not sure when she will be able to reconnect with them in person. "That really does make me sad. I just wonder when I'm actually going to hold my boys again," says Ferguson.


DANIELLE BITTON

This Cape Town-based singer is fighting breast cancer during the coronavirus pandemic, but despite her own personal battle, she's still spreading joy. Danielle Bitton has treated her neighbours to a series of concerts from the balcony of her apartment in Sea Point during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.
She says it came as a "complete shock" when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer late last year. "I didn't even know what to do. I kind of compartmentalised and went shopping." She was in China at the time, travelling as a performer in the musical Evita.
Bitton is currently still undergoing chemotherapy, and due to the lockdown she's had to brave it on her own. Some days have been tough. In one instance, she says, she "felt like an apparition" of herself.
"I am just so grateful for days I do feel better and stronger. I will beat this. I know I will." Bitton says she's just thankful for the opportunity to spread some joy and hope "in these trying times".

Image: Aljoscha Kohlstock

LEONARDO GREEN

"It brings me joy, to see your joy, and knowing I've made a difference."

Image: Chanté Schatz

Image: Chanté Schatz

Leonardo Green is a man of his word. From a young age he always wanted to serve and uplift his community - and today he is doing just that.

"I've been involved in the community - with the Community Police Forums (CPFs), the neighbourhood watch and the crime deterrent part of it for about eight years", says Green.

As chairperson of the Eldorado Park Neighbourhood Watch in Johannesburg he wears many hats. And with the outbreak of the coronavirus he has added another one to his collection. If he's not helping to enforce lockdown regulations, or chasing people indoors, he makes sure physical distancing is being implemented at various stores.

He helps drive awareness of the coronavirus in a community that, he says, believes the disease only affects the rich.

Green also keeps an ever-watchful eye on troublemakers involved in drug-related matters, because "the scourge of drugs in the area is huge". He says the high rate of unemployment in the area and the need to make a quick buck all contribute to the high crime rate.

Not one to sit on the sidelines, he's teamed up with various organisations to assist with food parcels for the hungry. "We’re reaching out to a lot of private donors – an each one, reach one kind of thing", Green says.

Together he and his team have set out to help feed 5 000 families in Eldorado Park and surrounds – because he says: "It brings me joy, to see your joy, and knowing I've made a difference."

Images: Chanté Schatz

Images: Chanté Schatz

TANIA VAN DER HEEVER

"I asked God: 'God, why am I pregnant now, especially in this time?'"

Image: Supplied

Image: Supplied

Baby Grace is just a few weeks old. She was born into a world of chaos, with the country in the heart of a hard lockdown.

Her mother, Tania van der Heever, is battling to make ends meet, but she believes it was her faith in God that got her through the "worst time" in her life.

"I asked God: 'God, why am I pregnant now, especially in this time?' I couldn't even afford a nappy or anything, because my husband is also at home," she told News24. 

But Van der Heever is grateful that she could turn to community worker Joanie Fredericks from Tafelsig, Mitchells Plain, who helped her with donations for her newborn.

As each day passes and the country's economic predicament worsens, many parents across the country face a frightening future. But, with the help of community action networks, they have not been forgotten.

Sea Point mother Harriet Came joined forces with Fredericks, and together they are tapping into every network they have available to make a difference.

The two women, one from an affluent suburb, the other from the Cape Flats, have in common a passion for people, and a desire to help wherever they can. Together they are trying to reach as many new mothers like Van der Heever as they can.

It's an exhausting task, but each load of donations that Came collects, and each load Fredericks delivers, makes their daunting task worthwhile.

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