One day, we’ll all remember when the world paused. When an invisible virus ravished the lives and livelihoods of millions around the world, leaving very visible evidence of devastation.
The thing about a pause is that it bridges time – and a time of adversity stretches it painfully. For the millions of informal traders such as Mam’ Thandi Thabethe, a 53-year-old mother of two, this pause stood between the already challenging time of earning an honest living of R160 a day and a time when she wouldn’t be able to. Suddenly, in the depths of devastation this pandemic wrought, her struggle, along with that of the millions of South Africans, became one of survival – not by avoiding the disease, but by avoiding hunger.
Described as one of the greatest humanists, in his novel War and Peace(The Russian Messenger), Leo Tolstoy wrote: “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” During this painful pause we’re in, with our lives put on hold due to lockdown restrictions, Mam’Thandi’s patience had run out – and defying those restrictions came with risk of having her human dignity, and that of her family, abused. Captured in the media by e.tv news and sports journalist Graeme Raubenheimer and supported by lawyer and activist Tumi Sole and the arsenal of South Africans who protested on her behalf, Mam’Thandi’s quest to make an honest living became a symbol of the underlying truth of this period for millions of South Africans: that the pandemic of poverty is the real one facing our people daily.
At every level of society, the real struggle is different. The order to stay at home is all very well – but what do people like Mam’Thandi do when there’s no food in that home and hungry children to feed?
So there we saw her, as captured on our cover by Sechaba “Infadizzle” Kgalala, handcuffed by the police for operating without a permit. She broke the law, but upheld the greater principle of providing for her family and doing so honestly. That Catch-22 moment left a sour taste in the mouths of many South Africans who later offered her assistance. As we celebrate our heritage this Africa Month and our mothers on Mother’s Day, I think of that moment and cringe. Will it be that incident by which the level of our decency and authenticity is judged? A level which goes against the very currency of our Africanism by mishandling the elderly, accosting the most vulnerable in a plummeting economy that fails to recognise the plight of the millions of informal township economy traders like Mam’Thandi?
At DESTINY, we choose to stand in and for the truth. That truth addresses what and who we are when we choose arbitrary authority over compassion – and, conversely, what and who we could be by choosing compassion and humanity over arrogance.
That truth also sheds light on the reality of unemployment security – who knew that the “new normal” economy would mean that an employee faces as much risk as an employer simply by working in a “non-essential” SMME? Jayshree Naidoo, a mother, CEO and co-founder of Yeidi, an SMME-focused incubator and innovation centre, recently presented a TEDxPretoria talk entitled People are More Than the Jobs They Do. In it, she said: “We’ve had to lift the spirit [of the recently unemployed] because their sense of being broken and demotivated has actually got nothing to do with them losing their jobs, but them losing themselves into a job. As the years go by, they’ve forgotten who they are. Their identity becomes fused with the job they’re doing, their title on a business card or that amount on their pay-cheque – they forget that those things reflect a false sense of power which they think they possess by having this job.
”As the world of work is forced into major reset, it leaves us all asking ourselves: “What job are we all being called to do now, collectively?”Oscar Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth – that which is rarely pure and never simple.
”Our truth isn’t pure – it’s murky. The detritus of the apartheid regime still muddies it within an adult democracy that, through its cracks and imperfections, imposes the same police brutality on the vulnerable Mam’Thandis of this country. Their efforts to survive are capitalised on and then denigrated, demoted to descriptions such as “informal” and “undocumented”. Indeed, the very existence of the Mam’Thandis of this country is denigrated, informal and undocumented. It seems that the pandemic itself is wearing a mask and telling the truth in ways we dare not ignore. We’re in danger of standing on the wrong side of history again, 26 years after democracy – this time not as the oppressed, but as the oppressors.
We don’t seek to point a finger of blame in any direction. It’s our role, as media, to spur the conversation in directions that need to be fully addressed and, as such, act as an extension of the commendable efforts our country’s essential services staff and our leaders, particularly President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. To spur that conversation, we’ve enlisted some of the country’s best thinkers, researchers, experts and voices in various fields as an ode to you – the reader – who’s kept businesses like ours alive, even during these challenging times.
We trust that their in-depth insights will spark in you a very different kind of virus: one filled with life, optimism, critical evaluation and collective consciousness, as well as the courage to ask impertinent questions – and find pertinent answers.
As we endure this current pause in our lies, we offer this issue in the hope that Mam’Thandi’s plight, and that of millions of other South Africans, will be seen, recognised and addressed. That would be a healing far greater than simply recovering from COVID-19.