Freedom Day in COVID-19 Reflections

I woke up early, as I often do. The skies remained dark even after 7 am.

At midday, when I committed to writing this piece, the gloom persists.

The monstrous clouds hide the sun. With only streaks of orange energy breaking through the grey waves. I try to capture a small surge from the dwindling rays.

We’ve been in lockdown for 31 days and today is Freedom Day. This is the first Freedom Day that I’ve physically been in South Africa, and only because of “the rona” reality.

Here I am. Here we are. In a national state of disaster.

I rose early because I slept early. Sparked a dwindling joint and decided to tick off a few projects from my proverbial to-do list despite the “holiday”. Sometimes I think my to-do list confuses itself for my heartbeat; I guess, both play an instrumental role in my survival. I found myself on google soon after opening my computer, greeted by an updated doodle for the day which included South Africa’s flag colors and a springbok.

I chuckled. “Oh, a springbok on Freedom Day.” But who am I to lament the thoughtlessness of Google, a Black American in South Africa. Twitter wasn’t far behind on my tabs-that-must-be-open list, and of course, the mindless thirty minutes of scrolling. Not an hour later a mutual tweeted, “Google representing our Freedom Day with a picture of a Springbok.” Laughter combustion! Honestly, of all days?

Freedom Day commemorates South Africa’s first democratic presidential election post-apartheid which is information that can be found with a simple “freedom day” google search. Who could have thought that the springbok was a valid representation of Freedom Day?

My robust laughter quickly quieted and the internal inquiry fleeted. I completed some house chores. But as I sat down returning to complete another work-related document, I thought of Freedom Day more. I did a quick search to read a few opinion pieces and short historical reviews about the day. And I began to ponder what Freedom Day feels like to those that voted or recall 26 years ago when the queues traveled for kilometers with citizens insistent upon casting their vote.

Freedom Day 2020 is a peculiar one. For all the obvious reasons including the irony of currently being in a “lockdown”. This marks the first time under the democratic government of South Africa that the movements of citizens have been restricted, to this extent. In theory, the lockdown proclamation impacts the movements of everyone in South Africa, but communities already experiencing extreme poverty, houselessness, other forms of shelter-insecurity, plus immigrant and other marginalised communities are directly impacted by police and military presence daily.

As in many other countries, non-essential business, travel, and personal movement has been curtailed, if not totally halted. Initially, this meant that only transportation on reduced schedules, corporate food production and distribution, and medical care services were operating, and only during specified time periods could you, a citizen, travel for these essential services.

Sigh.

How?

Listen, I fundamentally believe in life over profit. Thus, I am an advocate for this lockdown. I was moved by the President’s declaration of the state of emergency and its consequential lockdown measures. I believe it was the best decision. On the other hand, I am aware of how unrealistic such a declaration is for the country’s epicenter.

The most unequal country in the world closed a large part of its corporate retail and production industries and almost all of the informal sector with the exception of limited taxi routes and the eventual re-emergence of some food vendors. Additionally, to petition for essential status, ownership and citizenship were prejudicially linked.

I watched and discussed with comrades, via twitter, and in publications, as the government promised, and released, resources to the country. News outlets and social media feeds shared the deployment of water tanks to rural and water insecure communities.

There’s something eerie about those words. Water-insecure communities.

But last Friday, four full weeks since the declaration of the state of emergency, I sat on a call titled “Minister Sisulu, Where’s Our Water.” Many communities that are historically water-insecure continue to be without water in the midst of this global pandemic.

Can one be free without clean, drinking water, accessible? The panelists described the water challenges in their communities. Many of them can trace the shift and increase in anxiety related to water access to the drought that has plagued the country since before 2015. Though, many may only recall the Day 0 declarations after the dams that supply Cape Town fell unreplenished.

We were in a crisis years before the virus was discovered in Wuhan.

The most undeniable reality that I’ve had to face since realizing the impending coronavirus reality is that people will die, not only to virus-related complications but also because of structural and environmental inequity; at the core of this: pervasive houselessness, food and water insecurity, and xenophobic policies, and this is not exclusively a South African reality.

What can Freedom Day possibly mean, today?

Well, last Thursday, President Ramaphosa announced the institutionalisation of a phased approach to reopening the economy. Starting from this Friday, after five weeks of Alert Level 5 SOE measures, we’re stepping down to a Level 4.

Retail shops will be able to sell a fuller range of their inventory including items not initially deemed essential. Clothing and some other retailers will be able to reopen to sell some of their goods. Restaurants will be able to provide takeaway and delivery services. More substance farmers and fishers will be able to provide food for their families and communities. Larger farms and wineries not allowed to operate at Level 5 will resume production.

After the presidential address, I could hear the sounds of happiness and cheer from neighboring buildings. The announcement came in time for the Freedom Day weekend.

But when reviewing the changes under the decreased level, it started to look like a highly stigmatized and exploited demographic of “workers” will return to the labor market. The demand for their labor is high but their remuneration will not change. Restaurant and retail store employees, miners, and limited-income fishermen return to work …

Is this freedom?

Those cheers linger with me. And I consider how the restriction of movement and the mobilisation of the military must impact and trigger these same people. Throw in the inability to purchase alcohol and tobacco. On top of many communities completely comprised of one-bedroom shanty homes or overcrowded urban hostels.

The particularly disheartening truth is that there has been a miscommunication. In a country with eleven official languages, the President’s speeches are always delivered exclusively in English. But I’ve never heard a mother call to her child in English. This is a period of great sorrow, universally. Our global health leaders are requesting drastic changes in behaviors and interactions — this is not easily communicable information in any language.

I can imagine that when the burdened South African people filled those queues in 1994, they knew that they would not wake up to a new country the next day. They voted for their children, their communities, a nation they could only imagine. Should not, twenty-six years be enough time to understand the value of publishing communications in numerous traditional vernacular for South Africans and the various immigrant communities?

And honestly — this is pacifying.

What is freedom, when South Africa’s people are hungry? What does freedom look like to communities sharing a toilet between 60 families?

I do not know freedom as a Black queer body, but I can imagine a liberated world where water and food are equally accessible, at bare damn minimum.

But as I write these thoughts, I feel encouraged that Freedom Day 2020 presents an opportunity for us to imagine a new world, as the world that we knew before is gone forever.

— —

A note from Courtney,

South Africa and her people have received me warmly and I am honored to spend much of my year traveling the continent or in my Johannesburg flat. Comrades have challenged me to think more practically about the emancipation of all oppressed people and the deconstruction of the systems that perpetuate our marginalization. I write as a labor of love for Black people, globally, and as an act of resistance against the violence of capitalism, white fragility, and patriarchy.

Free, Black, Queer | Strategist. Plant-based. | I write as labor of love for Black people, globally | they/them