Claiming spaces under lockdown


This article is a part of our new blog series titled, ‘One Day in the Life of‘. 

The multicoloured African horizon piercing the darkness at dawn. Its sombre luminescence casts a melancholy glow on the zinc rooftops of my hometown on the outskirts of Cape Town. This used to be my favourite part of the day, the consistency of the sunrise and the calm vested in knowing it shall rise again.

The past few mornings have been different and plagued with uncertainty. It is the holy month of Ramadaan (at the time of writing) when the Muslim community embodies humbleness, charity, peace and humility while fasting from dawn to dusk. But instead of the perpetual calm of the kaleidoscope of colours offered by daybreak, I am reminded by the loud ringing of my alarm that dawn has broken, and morning prayers can begin. 

We are quarantined within our own homes since the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had announced a national lockdown under the National Disaster Management Act. Enforcing obedience, a large military presence was commissioned to ensure every South African should practice social-distancing, good personal hygiene, and social responsibility to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

I first found it ironic when it was announced. The majority of the country’s citizens in rural areas do not have the basic human rights enshrined in our Construction which allows access to running water, sanitation, space, dignity, or sustenance to survive this pandemic. Public health facilities are often unreachable in remote areas as the pre-1994 spatial planning had prioritised the historically privileged to the detriment of the majority, a price we are paying faced with an unfolding epidemiological crisis. As stories flood my social media accounts detailing the atrocities experienced by the marginalised, irony is replaced with rage.        

A long-standing issue has been a lack of access to resources in South Africa. It has posed difficulty when schools were closed. Online teaching was explored initially but dismissed as it would not be possible for public schools. A personal computer, a smart phone and data are privileges. When we speak about claiming spaces and amplifying voices, whose voices do we amplify when only a few have access to these privileges and in many cases, womxn are under lockdown with their abusers and forced into silence?

Gender-based violence is an intersection of sexual harassment. It concerns agency and consent and is rooted in challenging toxic hegemonic masculinities and its entitlement to power over women’s bodies and their sexuality. Epidemics such as gender-based violence are ever-present, in the first week of lockdown there were 87,000 cases reported to the national police. And to further explain the extent of inequality playing a role in the repose to the COVID-19 crisis, several people in townships were beaten by the military enforcement for enjoying “contraband” which has been classified as liquor and cigarettes in their own backyards while thousands with access to the internet have created petitions to be able to exercise and walk their dogs in the suburbs of Sea Point.

Civil liberties have been compromised by the enforcement of curfews and social control without the voices of people who often experience the repercussions of policy and law amendments. It is necessary to take precaution but there is a need to adapt first world approaches, such as the blueprints of the lockdown in Wuhan, to the South African context considering its historical segregationist policies that has generational repercussions which feed into inequality. This apparent control of spaces especially affects women and children, as it always has. The burden of care falls on mothers who now can only take public transport between certain hours of the day to find food or medication and even then, they are questioned and harassed for occupying spaces. As an activist and as a journalist, I am compelled to find these lived experiences, but I find myself unable to continue this important work because I am bound by the lockdown regulations.

I am faced with the conundrum each day. Weighing up the risks linked to venturing out with increasing levels of infection and potentially being a carrier. The stories that matter in neighbourhoods like mine do not occupy the same space. Digital spaces are flooded with stories being told by individuals who have the advantage of language, whose main concerns are often whether they can order takeaways under relaxed levels of the lockdown. On the flipside, many activists have taken to social media to air their concerns and media houses are doing their best. A majority womxn journalists and activists are on the frontline risking their lives to aid the marginalised and raise their concerns.  

However, my new reality is daunting. It no longer starts with the calm of daybreak. It begins with a reminder of the burdens many South Africans must shoulder during this time of crisis and the polarisation of inequality. It starts with trying to raise funds to create food parcels for my neighbours who are struggling under the economic weight of retrenchment. It starts with searching for hand sanitiser to distribute because my community does not understand the gravity of the epidemic. Public health education has not reached them in accessible modalities, bridging language, cultural and traditional barriers. It is the same for gender-based-violence and sexual harassment in all spaces. I spend my mornings building awareness six meters away from my neighbour, from behind the metal gate in my front yard, clad in a mask and gloves with hand sanitiser at my side. Stomach rumbling, my headscarf skewed, and forehead sprayed with perspiration. 

Gadeeja Abbas is a South African activist and curator of catcallsofcapetown, a popular initiative against street harassment. She is also a Communications and Multimedia Specialist working in the non-profit sector with a special interest in working toward alleviating gender-based violence in South Africa and on the continent.  As the former Multimedia and Communications Specialist at Sonke Gender Justice, the Chief-Reporter for the Weekend Argus and the Daily Argus, she has reported on issues stemming from societal injustices within impoverished communities, monitored court proceedings in high-profile cases and dabbled in reporting on politics. 

Image credit: Gadeeja Abbas. 

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