AMUZWENI NGOMA: We need to resocialise ourselves to survive COVID-19


COVID-19 is a social disease. It depends on basic forms of interaction that organise, regulate and make social life possible. Handshakes or hugs as forms of greeting one another is an example. Singing and dancing together is another. Or even a "puff n pass". Generally, the world has quickly learnt that seemingly innocuous social interactions drive COVID -19’s infection.

South Africa, through the outstanding leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, is doing remarkably well in responding and containing the spread of COVID-19. In different ways, ramping up the country’s response to COVID-19 has the potential to birth a developmental state that could change Africa’s fortunes.

For now though, South Africa is rightly focused on containing this current wave of COVID-19 infections. But it is also important to think, plan and mitigate against the potential driving forces that could lead to a second and deeper wave of COVID-19 infections.

Cultural and religious activities are significant forms of social life and identity for South Africans. And it is these forms of social life that could spur a second wave of infections after we reach alert level one.

We learn from Statistics South Africa’s 2015 community survey that five religious groupings dominate the country’s religious landscape. Christians are in the majority at 86%, followed by South Africans who practice ancestral, tribal, animist and other traditional religions, at 5.4%.

Just below the two percent range are Muslim South Africans at 1.9%; and further below the one percent range are South Africans that identify as Hindu at 0.9% and Jewish at 0.2%.

Over 5% of South Africans do not affiliate with any particular religion. But what is significant, is that these percentages mean that over 50 million South Africans are adherents of some type of religion.

What is also important about South Africa’s religious adherence, is that religion and culture structure and organise people’s social lives in very significant ways. Firstly, outside of work, religion structures people’s weekly movement while cultural activities performed during specific months of the year also shape the movement people from one place to another.

For example, we see from the above stated 2015 community survey that weekly religious observance is especially high among those of Muslim faith, followed by people of Christian and Hindu faith. Even with a conservative estimate, this means that over 20 million people attend a religious service or ceremony at least once a week.

And, with South Africa’s varied religious landscape, this means that thousands upon thousands of people move around for religious purposes from Sunday to Sunday or all the days of the week.

Of course, on the weekend, getting the car washed while enjoying braai meat with friends is a socio-cultural activity with almost religious undertones.

Other cultural activities include anniversaries, unveilings of tombstones, cleansing rituals and ceremonies, going to the mountain for circumcision, Bar Mitzvahs, Eid Mubarak, 21st birthday and graduation parties; and so on. While some of these are period-specific, like July for this year’s Eid Mubarak – others may continue later in the year, when we expect to be at alert level one (and hopefully, with no stages of load shedding).

At various points during South Africa’s lockdown, videos have gone viral, showing people of different faiths convening for prayer and worship and thus contravening the lockdown regulations. This has taken place across rural and urban landscapes and across religious affiliations. These videos also showed these adherents being arrested for the contravention.

We have also seen couples being arrested for trying to get married, large pots of meat being spilled at imicimbi. Of course, this has created a sense of discomfort, and dis-ease to see, particularly since religious and cultural expression are historical and deep forms of expression.

Hopefully, these arrests will deter others from illegally convening for religious or cultural practice during the next lower but still critical alert levels of the lockdown.

But what happens after alert level one? When all cultural and religious activity can resume?

It is important to remember, that alert level one does not imply the absence of COVID-19 or the risk of infection. It means that the country’s infection rate will have been lowered. And, again, we have seen that low infection rates are not necessarily a cause for comfort, given the disease’s capacity to increase rapidly and even exponentially.

Many will be looking forward to meeting friends and families. Maybe even colleagues.

Churches and cultural organisations and other formations will be eager to catch-up with and roll out the rest of the 2020’s calendar of events. And so, thousands of people of faith will move around a lot to attend the choir, scriptural readings or prayer sessions. And, as a member of the Methodist Women’s Manyano, I personally cannot wait to don my black, red and white to sing and pray till the cows come home.

To resuscitate strained, ailing or failing small businesses many will attend business and leadership sessions, hosted both by private companies and churches. Others will be the first to hit the green to precipitate the renegotiation of contract terms, and so on.

The November and December months are periods of heightened cultural activity. There will be imicimbi and imigidi taking place across the country, but mostly in the Eastern Cape. These are great feasts. Graduation parties and 16 December parties are abound.

Cultural and religious ways of being will be rebooted, and amidst all this will lurk the resurgent threat of COVID-19 infections, with the potential to reverse very hard-won gains.

How can we avoid this?

On the one hand, this demands that the President and his government would have drawn deep lessons from this current lockdown, that no decision will have gone undocumented, unmeasured and improved upon. This gained knowledge will therefore mean that the South African government will be in stronger position to respond effectively.

But, above all, even with the Minister of Police Bheki Cele’s attempts to regulate intimate relationships, avoiding the resurgence of COVID-19 depends on the capacity of South Africans to self-moderate.

It means South Africans too must apply what they have learned and resocialise themselves. It calls for South Africans to be fluid, rather than dogmatic about their individual and collective identities. We need to cohere on resocialising ourselves. We need to remember that ‘delay is not denial’ and postpone various festivities and save our money.

The ways in which South Africans learn to resocialise themselves, will really determine how we, and here’s the irony, collectively beat COVID-19.

Amuzweni Ngoma is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra). You can follow her on Twitter.