BUSANI NGCAWENI: Being human in the age of calamity


This is the age of calamity. Words of comfort will soon lose sincerity, more so as we mourn without showing up. More painful is the interruption of burial rites, creating emotional havoc through the new interment protocols.

Our poets and seers could not have predicted this; from SK Mqhayi, Mafika Gwala to Credo Mutwa. Even the songs of Princess Magogo couldn’t foretell the size of the ongoing tragedy. When Nina Simone sang “there is a new world coming”, this is not what we envisaged.

Where do we start? Lament the social drivers? Clamour for vaccines? Condemn the health system? Call for tighter measures?

This is truly the age of calamity. It is almost like there is a queue; next, next, next.

Condolences have become routine, a show and tell that “I too knew the deceased...”.

It started as a cleansing ceremony; nature stopping all the engines and furnaces.

Earlier on in the pandemic, we noted that the social landscape that was until early 2020 dominated by social media influencers, celebrities, covetous charismatic pastors in polyester suits, slay queens and kings, as well as professional opinion peddlers was redrawn, with most of the rest forced into hibernation.

"Oh, heavens, this global-cleansing ceremony is just too cruel!" we said.

This retreat opened space for politicians and scientists to, for once, shape public affairs and become purveyors of truths - life became more important than profits.

"What a reset," it was written.

At times it felt like things were under control. The engines restarted. Like rats we rushed back into the town square. Yet the largest global cleansing ceremony nature has ever performed wasn’t done. No hurricane, no volcano, no tsunami has ever forced humans to return to base as COVID-19 has done.

This virus is taking humans back to basics, to introspect, to rethink about the present and hopefully to be human again - that’s what we all thought some months ago. Those who challenge the principle of universal healthcare ran for cover, as scores of people were dying across Europe and North and South America. Human solidarity gained positive momentum - well, until the political economy of the vaccine amplified the scourge of inequality.

Sadly, even after years of lamentation by global leaders, inequality will persist, for as long as the capitalist system, whose defining locus is greed, retains its hegemony. So, will the global south remain in the margins of the “new” envisaged world order whose gate pass and terms of trade will continue to be issued by the global north? Vaccine distribution will be the litmus test.

Progressive forces failed to reshape the global order post-2008 when capitalism devoured itself. Will they miss this opportunity again when the world is on a reset button? Will Africa remain the stepchild of the global north post this crisis?

But that’s a detour. This note is not about the ethics of being black in the Euro-American dominated world nor about being a resident of the global south with all the associated disabilities accumulated over centuries of slavery, colonialism and globalisation.

Today, we are talking about the calamity unfolding in our lifetime.

Whereas we know of thieves in the night, this pandemic is brazen; it takes life in full view of the world. It began like a body-shaming virus taking the obese. It was rampant against the elderly and those with co-morbidities.

Like all living organisms, it muted itself into a new variant that is now forcefully taking away the young, fit and fabulous.

Today it is claiming whole families, circles of friends and even colleagues. It is taking businesspeople, politicians, celebrities and laymen.

Did you see the tragedy of the elderly Sizani Ngubane from Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal, the leader of the Rural Women’s Movement? She reportedly died alone, in pain. It is alleged that officials did not respond to her hospitalised son’s pleas for them to check on her and he had confirmed that she was positive. He would later find her decomposing body in her house, the story goes.

“Unwrap me, I am suffocating...” the dead are said to be making these midnight calls in some Eastern Cape villages. Fearing what AC Jordan called the wrath of the ancestors, they are said to be responding to the dreams, exhuming graves to remove the plastic wrapping of the coffins. So follows calamity of Trumpian proportions - a tragedy so big, scandalous and preposterous as the fable of a cow biting to death the teacher in the same province. We should not, however, downplay fears that families are burying wrong people since the ritual of confirming the identity of the deceased has been disrupted.

Think of the two teachers in the Durban who are said to have given a lift to a hiking lady. They would later lament her nagging cough (without a mask and probably with the car windows closed). Days later, the driver passed on and her colleague followed shortly thereafter.

In biblical terms, we are witnessing grievous affliction.

In the past weeks, I wrote on this platform how the tragedy of COVID-19 replayed the spectre of political violence of the early 90s, where we saw families being brutally massacred. Today, we are back to family mass funerals. Survivors will bear the brunt of telling the tales of performing cleansing rituals to appease the ancestors.

Whereas dying mothers in the early 2000s were helped by onompilo (care workers) to create memory boxes for Aids orphans, COVID-19 takes us too quickly. A memory it leaves behind is that we can’t perform burial rites as we know them, leaving family and friends grieving from being excluded from the list of 50 people allowed to attend funerals - a cultural disruption as grievous as Lord Shepstone prescribing the number of lobolo cows.

But we are human. Hope drives our being and becoming. And so, once again, we assert that tragedies notwithstanding, the basic human instinct is that of survival, and therefore we will eventually outlive this pandemic.

For now, let’s keep on lighting the candles. Let’s send the condolence messages, as insincere as they feel they have become. Let’s continue to mourn without showing up. Let's toast to the health workers who are paying the ultimate price trying to save us.

Seasons come to pass, as poets have written. This, too, shall pass.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device