Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


South Africa

David Attwell

Tucked away in my North Yorkshire home, in the surreal tranquility of Newton-on-Ouse—since the floods of February and March a little welcome sunshine has brought out the bluebells to replace the daffodils that replaced the crocuses—I contemplate on my desktop a photograph of another home, in the far South.

I’m trying to get there, having decided that my life in the Northern academy must come to an end. The place is Simon’s Town, South Africa’s Portsmouth or Annapolis, only more tranquil and less overrun, home to the famous penguin beach, towards the end of the peninsula at the head of which lies Cape Town.

In the photograph, Simon’s Town is scattered across the foot of a mountain across a stretch of False Bay, bathed in the radiant light that displaced southern hemisphere people can never seem to forget.

Simon’s Town seems achingly far away now. It should be straightforward: call in the movers, book a flight. It is anything but.

Newton-on-Ouse and Simon’s Town are in full lockdown. United in time, or by time, in a precise sense, with both countries trying to decide if the moment has arrived when the arc of the disease has flattened enough to begin lifting restrictions. While global time has contracted to the lifecycle of a virus, our spatial mapping has grown wider, more or less abolishing intimacy altogether and changing the way we think about home.

Globalization has never disturbed the way place is rooted in the heart, despite all the social philosophy aimed at theorizing the opposite. Sociologists Michael Savage, Gaynor Bagnall and Brian Longhurst showed in Globalization and Belonging that the preferred mode of belonging for the middle class (in the UK, they argued, but surely the norm everywhere now) is elective belonging rather than ‘born and bred.’ But the price of elective belonging is that ancestral longing, much of it unrealisable, haunts us. Proof lies in this new, existential anxiety about how that other home is coping, or not, with the coronavirus.

If history is the nightmare from which Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus is trying to awaken, then Cape Town’s coronavirus is the nightmare that awaits you if you’re trying to fall asleep.

The city has over three hundred informal settlements. Khayelitsha alone is home to nearly two million people. Social distancing is impossible. With whole neighborhoods sharing a single tap, the household washes in a shared bucket. At the end of the street there’s a row of portable toilets. As fast as the city erects brick houses, more shelters are put up, clinging to the walls and illegally extending the powerlines. And everyone is in the same mediascape with cell phones and satellite dishes beaming the news into every shack, and fear into every heart.

Simon’s Town, too, has its shack town: Red Hill, over the top of the mountain. Its residents have been promised brick houses a football field away from the town’s newest shopping mall with its upmarket supermarkets and restaurants, where many of Red Hill’s people earn their living.

This is my other, bipolar home, a place of outrageous beauty and equally outrageous inequality. You would be forgiven for thinking that South Africa’s contagions have always been social and political but in fact, the fear of biological contagion has been at the heart of its history of segregation.

The first black township was created in 1901 when stevedores caught bubonic plague from feed brought in with horses from Argentina during the Anglo-Boer War. They were quickly removed and quarantined outside the city in tented camps that became the permanent settlement of Ndabeni. In 1918, troopships bringing black soldiers back from Europe after World War 1 brought the Spanish flu. When these men travelled on trains to their homes throughout the country, they ended up in similarly quarantined camps.

Contagion became part of apartheid’s official lexicon, with the Group Areas Act targeting ‘black spots’ like District Six for removal from cities imagined as white. The legal entrenchment of such language had disturbing consequences when the system fell: Nelson Mandela’s successor as President, Thabo Mbeki, tragically insisted on a public health policy that refused to accept that HIV had become endemic or that it led to AIDS. These were white and Western myths.

South Africa has come a long way since then. Acting on the best epidemiology, current President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government moved swiftly, shutting down airports, restricting gatherings, closing the hospitality industry and public transport. The country is now in full lockdown, with the most severe restrictions on movement anywhere in the world. ‘There will be no dog-walking,’ declared the cabinet minister responsible for law and order—a shaft aimed at middle class exceptionalism.

It seems to have worked. South Africa’s arc has leveled, but only, as the head of the president’s advisory council Salim Abdool-Karim warned, to buy the country time to get ready for the longer, slower peak expected by September. Meanwhile, twenty-eight thousand public health workers are visiting homes in the suburbs and townships, screening and isolating the unwell; hospitals are preparing wards and ICUs; huge bulk-purchases of protective equipment and ventilators are arriving from China. Unlike Europe and the US, there is no condescension about calling for intelligence and equipment from China.

The restrictions are proving successful from a medical point of view, but already there are angry scenes. People can’t work, so they’re hungry. The police are using teargas and truncheons to keep them off the streets, a situation too reminiscent of the past, so police vehicles have been stoned. With a ban on alcohol sales, bottle stores have been looted.

So we wait. The distance from Newton-on-Ouse to Simon’s Town is now measured in months, not the eleven hours it takes to fly down the corridor of the same time zone.

The Cambridge History of South African Literature By David Attwell and Derek Attridge
The Cambridge History of South African Literature By David Attwell and Derek Attridge

About The Author

David Attwell

David Attwell is Professor of English at the University of York....

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