The South African government’s COVID-19 pandemic response has revealed that the rhetoric and infrastructure of apartheid remain embedded in the emergency rule playbook. They also continue to influence citizens’ own responses to crises.
“I’m putting myself back into Level 4 lockdown,” my mother emphatically states as we discuss, at the beginning of December, whether we should travel to KwaZulu-Natal for a family gathering. It’s already clear that South Africa’s number of infections is rising in its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the government has kept us on Level 1, my mother is sure that it is best to plan as if we are back on Level 4, the second-most-severe lockdown level.
My mother and I are linked umbilically by apartheid—in the year that I was born, 1976, my mother and her best friend had to flee the burning University of Zululand (colloquially known as Ongoye) on foot, as university students across the country joined in the revolt started by Soweto’s high school students. She was already pregnant with me. When the story is retold, it is to emphasize the fact that they didn’t even know where they were fleeing to; they were simply following the footpaths that they saw the university’s support staff using on their way to and from work. With only the clothes on their backs, my pregnant mother and her friend had to find their way back to Johannesburg by train, an approximately 14-hour journey. Those memories of apartheid’s smoke billows and tear-gas chokes are still alive, and could be said to be influencing the behavior of many South Africans, including my mother, under the current State of Disaster regulations.
Historically, the use of emergency powers to quell rebellion first occurred after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960. This permitted the government to arrest anti-apartheid activists without trial, and it was followed immediately by the banning of the two most prominent black political organizations—the Pan African Congress and the African National Congress (ANC). It was in the aftermath of Sharpeville that both organizations first considered and then began preparing for an armed struggle against apartheid. This was the period when Nelson Mandela went underground under the nom de guerre of “The Black Pimpernel” until his arrest in 1962.
In the period leading up to the 1963–64 Rivonia Trial of Mandela and other ANC activists, the apartheid state modified and honed the meaning of its “anti-terrorism” strategies, and therefore its use of extraordinary powers. It was not until the 1980s, however, that the term “state of emergency” began to apply to all South Africans. In the aftermath of the June 16, 1976, student revolts, the apartheid state found itself beleaguered by the collapse of not only its own authority but the authority of its institutions, especially the Bantustan governments—the supposedly independent and self-governing states created to give African people “independence” outside of “white” South Africa.
In this period, the first state of emergency was declared on July 20, 1985, during P. W. Botha’s tenure as prime minister. The imposition of martial law was at first limited to select municipal districts, but as it became clear that the insurrection in the townships was not going to die down, Botha declared a second state of emergency on June 12, 1986, four days before the tenth anniversary of the 1976 student revolt. This was the state of emergency that effectively lasted from 1986 to 1990, when the public and official negotiations between the National Party and the liberation movements began.
Although this is the basic textbook history of the deployment of the term “emergency” in South Africa, there is a much longer and convoluted story about the state’s relationship with epidemiology, hygiene, and sanitation, and the use of these “emergencies” to shape the ordering of urban and rural spaces. In a 1977 article that has defined the fields of African and South African history, Maynard Swanson argued for what he termed the “sanitation syndrome” and used this concept to explain “slum” demolitions and forced removals. Swanson wrote:
This “sanitation syndrome” can be traced as a major strand in the creation of urban apartheid. As disease and epidemiology became a widespread societal metaphor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other historical changes taking place in South Africa as elsewhere were leading to the evolution of segregationist ideology. In this context the accident of epidemic plague became a dramatic and compelling opportunity for those who were promoting segregationist solutions to social problems.
In the early months of 2020, when it became inevitable that South Africa would follow the choice of other countries and go into a 21-day lockdown, Swanson’s 1977 article was revivified and applied to the catastrophe that was unfolding due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the main, the focus was on the legislation framing the state’s response—the deployment of the South African National Defence Force; the imposition of a curfew; the prohibition on the sale of alcohol; the forced closure of businesses such as restaurants and liquor and department stores; and the sudden requirement that every South African had to have a legal domicile, in a country in which vast numbers of residents are either migrant workers or vulnerably housed in informal settlements.
The contagion of apartheid is still alive.
These initial responses to the government’s State of Disaster proclamation missed one important point, which is that the government’s regulations were—for many South Africans of a certain age—not a novelty but a revival of other such states of emergency. South Africa was already in preparedness mode because of the countless planned and accidental infrastructures that had been put in place by the apartheid governments.
Take, for example, the term “lockdown.” Many of South Africa’s townships were built to have only one or two points of entry and exit. This means that in order to “lock down” a township, so no traffic can enter or leave, you only need to place roadblocks at these points. Moreover, the apartheid state made segregation aerially visible through the building of humongous eight-lane highways that separated “Black” areas from “Coloured” and “Indian” areas. Each racial group had a designated ghetto, with even working-class white South Africans given their own townships. These infrastructures are still there, which meant that during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the military and the police didn’t have to do any actual locking down; black people were already living in locked-down enclaves.
Metaphors of Malady
But the point is not just about the permanence of apartheid infrastructure; it is also about how such infrastructure continues to shape the manner in which South Africans understand “contagion.” Thus, despite all the evidence presented by the government to show the prevalence of COVID-19 across the country, there were still many South Africans who spread misinformation claiming that the “people over there” were the ones spreading the virus. The “people over there” were not just black—there were plenty of anonymous WhatsApp recordings of stories about how some white employers were deliberately infecting their black housekeepers with the virus while pretending to not be infected.
It is therefore the contagion of apartheid that is still alive and festering, not just the coronavirus. No amount of public service announcements—print or digital—could abate the unsettling and racialized assumptions about which bodies are more likely to be diseased and which are not. But most important, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has found itself having to adopt the language and metaphors of its segregationist and apartheid predecessors in order to justify the many levels of lockdown that the country is living through. The paternal care in Ramaphosa’s “My fellow South Africans” opening to his routine updates led many to start calling these broadcasts “Family Meetings.” More pertinently, Minister of Police Bheki Cele became the face of the state’s enduring power with statements such as, “I hear them crying that cops and soldiers are brutal. Not listening to us is brutality.”
Metaphorically, it is also possible to read this moment as an enactment of the revolution that never happened. In her 1981 novel July’s People, Nadine Gordimer created a vision of the future that many white South Africans had been told they had to be afraid of—militarized, angry, and revolutionary blacks invading the quiet, tree-lined streets of suburbia. The narrative revolves around the Smales family—husband, wife, and three small children—who, deciding to flee from the encroaching civil war, choose to “follow” their manservant, July, to his rural home, which up to this point they had never bothered to know about. Although it is not directly about plagues and epidemics, the novel’s most touching points are about how the health and well-being of black bodies are evaluated and understood differently from that of white bodies. Gordimer deftly dramatizes the succor that a “poor” black worker is pressed into giving to his white employers—who had, as if by custom, imagined themselves to be his benefactors—as well as the enervating fear that the adult whites lived with, while the white children adapted themselves to their black age-mates.
In July 2021, looting and rioting erupted in Durban and other cities in KwaZulu-Natal and in Gauteng province when the Constitutional Court ruled that former President Jacob Zuma should be arrested and jailed for contempt of court for refusing to testify before the Zondo Commission, which is investigating state capture under his administration. Again, it is not only the violence, chaos, and disorder that matter; it is that almost immediately, South Africans resuscitated the metaphors of malady and contagion. In many affluent suburbs, vigilante and self-protection militias were created and roadblocks were erected to stop the spread of the riotous mobs. South Africans, it seemed, had not exhausted nor been exhausted by the vocabulary of “emergency” bequeathed to us by apartheid’s logic.
Commentators have read these events as if they are freshly minted post-apartheid anomalies, whereas in fact the current state of disaster management and the July riots are symbolic expressions of the interregnum or even liminal state wherein the country is neither over nor “post” apartheid. The continuities between apartheid and the present are to be found not in the language of race and racialization but in the social metaphors of disease and mitigation of contagion, and the sociomedical interventions that attempt to arrest it. It is therefore not the menacing presence of an infectious disease that threatens the social fabric, but the fear of the presence of the “Other” that feeds the sanitation syndrome we have inherited.