By Karl von Holdt
The first day of the national lockdown, the park is quiet.
Fear of the new coronavirus epidemic is sweeping around the world, hospitals are overwhelmed, patients are dying in the corridors, cemeteries cannot cope with the deluge of the dead, governments are locking down all activities.
In South Africa the President addressed the people. A national lockdown is to begin. The public is expected to stay at home. Most economic sectors are shut down. Shops except for those selling food are to be closed. Restaurants, taverns and bars must close. People are banned from moving around except to secure food and other essentials. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes is banned. A curfew is imposed. The army is mobilised to support the police. Parks, gyms and resorts are closed. It is one of the hardest lockdowns in the world, initiated at an earlier point in the spread of the pandemic than in any other country. Does this mean that we are one of the best countries in the world?
When I sit at my desk I have only to turn my head and I can distract myself with the activities in the park. Perhaps during this period the park, our park, will reveal whether we are the best country in the world – yes, this green rectangle of grass that slopes gently down from the line of silver birches planted against a concrete wall to the west, and composed of undulating contours scattered with a handful of trees and play equipment, to the football pitch and cluster of gym equipment next to the concrete wall on the east, which has been artfully painted with people enjoying their leisure.
For instance: I hear a bang, look up and see people scatter. Is it a firecracker, often the case towards the end of the year? Is it a gun shot punctuating an argument, infrequent these days? Is it a posse of overweight officers firing off rubber bullets from their shotguns as they chase the citizens of our republic off the soccer pitch and the green grass and clean out of the park altogether?
Every incident a puzzle.
Our park is a small park as parks go, just a city block in size, a patch of green in a crumbling inner-city suburb where people come to play with their kids, laze on the grass, shriek on the slide or swings, smoke zol or sell drugs, sleep in the sun when there is no job and no money and nowhere to go, or play football. Sometimes there is a preacher. I live just across the street from the park. I have watched this space changing slowly since the end of apartheid thirty years ago, as the white suburb became a mixed suburb and then a black suburb. So now: pandemic, lockdown.
8:30 AM, the beginning of lockdown. A couple of police officers on big motorbikes come riding through the park – it had seemed empty, but a handful of people scatter and flee, and the young men from the block of flats next door rush inside, laughing. Now they are sitting outside again at the front of the building, but behind the fence, listening to music. There is no one at the soccer pitch. Every now and then someone walks across the park on the way to somewhere. While numbers are sparse, there is no sign of physical distancing – three men walking closely together, two young girls.
11:30 AM: the young men next door have brought out a couch and are drinking beer. There is a wailing of police sirens from the direction of Rockey Street, the famous entertainment and shopping street that bisects our suburb.
3 PM: more people are lounging around the park. A couple of young women have joined the men next door. People are testing the margins of what they can do, slowly and by degrees drifting back into normal patterns to see whether there is any response from the state…
More sirens coming from somewhere else in Yeoville. A bit later more sirens, then three police vehicles drive slowly down the street on the other side of the park, some of the few people in the park start running, others just watch. The police are also testing the situation.
The next day a video is circulating on social media. You see a convoy of police vehicles coming down a street a few blocks away from the park, gun shots and people running, then the screen goes topsy-turvy accompanied by indistinct sounds. Then you hear a woman’s voice shouting in alarm: Stop shooting! Stop shooting! I’m a journalist! The screen goes blank. The chairperson of the Community Policing Forum says it is fake news. The Station Commissioner says nothing has happened in Yeoville. Later in the day the journalist confirms that there was nothing fake about the video at all.
Our park cannot be locked, despite the new fence that was installed by the municipality two years ago along with the new seven-a-side soccer pitch and the outdoors gym and swings and slide. First some of the panels of the fence disappeared, and then the gates. Despite these gaps, the park has become very quiet, except for the figures of those who use it as a shortcut to get to the supermarket, and a handful of the homeless people. After two weeks, though, young people begin to turn up in the park, frustrated at being cooped up in crowded flats and rooms, and bored by the lack of activity.
The young men next door host a small party in the garage below the flats. Soon there are several young men regularly parking their cars outside with lots of car-washing, chatting, and listening to music. None of them wear masks. Collective life is re-emerging. Then the soccer games start up. That is when the cops arrive, armed with shotguns and rubber bullets.
The first I become aware of it is when I notice a wave of young men and women scattering across the park, running for all they are worth to get out and away. What could produce such panic? Then I hear the bang-bang , and see the cops and the little puffs of smoke from their shotguns. Sometimes a single van sneaks up and two or three of them leap out and vainly chase after the sprinting youths. The following day an entire convoy of vans, cars, pickups with tinted windows and a military truck or two appears, racing down one side of the park while others race up the opposite side, screech to a halt, and cops are charging from all sides , clearing out the park and arresting the few who cannot get away.
Police vehicles come by several times a day. They warn those gathered next door to disperse, and the young men jump into their cars and drive off. The homeless people who come regularly for a tin of food and a chat on Saturday mornings have stopped appearing at our gate, and after dark one evening Dudley and Arnold, two of our regulars, come by and explain that it is dangerous to move about on the streets during the day, as the police are rounding up homeless people and taking them off to designated camps, severing them from the precious networks of survival they depend on.
With time the intensity of the police presence declines. In the park confrontations devolve into a cat and mouse game as the people realise how unfit and slow are the police officers, and how limited the range of the rubber bullets, and take to laughing and jeering once they have reached a safe distance. While control of the park is being contested behind them, passers-by in the street continue on their errands, unhurried. The show of force convoys become infrequent and then stop, as the police find other things to do. The soccer players reschedule their matches to the dawn hours, which is also when the shifts are changing at the police station so there is little police activity, and the players’ shouts and the roars from crowds of supporters are loud in the chilly autumn mornings.
The display of the law’s might becomes more spasmodic. Now a random police van cruises past the park with three or four officers, masked against the virus, their shotguns poking from the windows for all the world like hunters on a wild game safari, and if they see some activity that offends them they stop and open fire through their windows, no longer bothering to dismount and give chase. With law and order thus restored they drive off well-satisfied.
And so a fresh puzzle arises. What explains the ease with which citizens may be fired upon in our democracy? But perhaps this is no puzzle at all?
Certainly Lizzie Khubeka, who cleans our house and lives in a room in a flat up on the hill is not puzzled. Those boys are naughty, she tells us. This is echoed by our neighbour Mr Matlala, a former trade union shop steward. Those young boys need to be disciplined, is his view. The chairperson of the Community Policing Forum tells us that the pandemic regulations need to be enforced, and that there is a lot of drug-selling in the park. In any case, he says, the police are using blanks – though the spent shells we collect in the park suggest otherwise. As for the two young men who live with their mother in one of the flats next door, and are among the soccer players, they just laugh and bring us the spent shells.
The puzzlement seems to be ours alone.
Not that the police were only visible during the pandemic as stern enforcers of the law. Far from it.
After six weeks of strenuous lock-down the President announces a slight easing from Level 5 to Level 4. Amongst other things, exercise in public places is now allowed between 6 and 9 in the morning. Streets in the suburbs fill with joggers at dawn.
Overnight our park becomes a carnival of humanity. Women, men, children of all shapes and sizes are out exercising – jogging, boxing, pumping at the gym equipment. We go out and join in, walking briskly around the jogging track. Youngsters in running kit overtake us, a large elderly woman strides slowly along with great concentration. A father is teaching two children how to ride a bicycle. Over several weeks we see their riding improve. There are three large groups of women, each with a male instructor guiding their exercise routines. The instructors seem to be Nigerians. Many here are clearly devotees of exercise, muscular, fit, dressed for maximum physical exertion, doing situps or press ups, bounding about, running many laps. The four boxers weave and punch, dancing back and forth in a mesmerising display, their sparring choreographed to catch each blow on the glove. Others are new to this, overweight, stiff, dressed in old tracksuits and jerseys, enjoying the exertion in the bracing air.
As we walk around the track we move from chilly shadow to warm sunlight and back into shadow. We walk past a cluster of men at the far corner gate who are not the least interested in exercising. They are conversing, the air thick with the sweet rough smell of zol, selling chocolates from a box, and most likely selling drugs as well. We pass the young men sweating at the gym equipment. We pass the wild and purposeful soccer game, the players gleaming in the sunlight, and the rows of soccer players exercising under the eyes of their coaches. We pass into the shadow under the trees at one side of the park. We pass the homeless people who camp at the top end of the park. They are not impressed by the sudden crowds of boisterous exercisers in what is effectively their bedroom. Some turn their backs and bury themselves in their bedding, while others wrap their blankets around themselves and stare impassively at the passing parade, waiting for everyone to leave at 9 so that they can emerge and do their ablutions at the tap. We cross back over the street and home for breakfast and coffee.
Such a sight has never been seen in the park. People yes – especially after the new fence and the refurbishment, families and flocks of children and groups of friends gathered here to relax and play and laugh on weekends, and there was lots of activity, but always in counterpoint with restfulness and the pleasure of lazing, never was everyone as focused and purposeful as now. It is as if suddenly ‘the public’ and ‘the public space’ have found each other, emerging into the sunlight in a glorious expression of life and community after six weeks of isolation, anxiety, boredom and fear. We had begun to forget what being among people felt like. We feel as well our own oddness – a middle-aged white couple, one in a wheelchair, ambling around in a space that is exclusively black. This is not of course an abstract ‘public’ or a general ‘society’ – it is South Africa, here and now. Here and there a gaze lingers on us as we pass, puzzling over our presence. Others greet cheerfully.
Sadly, this moment is not to last. As soon as the restrictions are further lifted a few weeks later to allow exercise in public places at any time, and also to open many sectors of the economy, the moment shifts. Many of those who exercised early in the day now return to work, or to preparing children for school every morning. Exercising continues, but with fewer participants, and at any hour of the day. We seem to have lost something – a certain kind of comradery, a shared sense of our common plight.
During this same period the gathering next door expands, and moves across the road to the fence around the park. Alcohol is still banned. Every afternoon of every day the group of young men gather there in the sun and converse, sometimes a dozen of them, sometimes a score, their voices louder and more argumentative as the shadows lengthen. Occasionally a woman arrives on the arm of a man. Sometimes a rather expensive looking couple alight from a sports coupe. They are drinking, although unobtrusively. Most of them arrive by car. The two brothers from next door are brewing in their garage and supplying the gathering. Around sunset, they disperse. There is still a curfew.
While the occasional foray of armed police into the park continues, the police are on increasingly friendly terms with our neighbours. At odd times of the day a police vehicle can be seen, paused outside the block of flats, its occupants chatting and laughing with the two brothers. After some weeks they are doing the same with others in the gathering. We hear that the two young men, our neighbours, are involved in a car-selling scam. They photograph an expensive car, any car, and then advertise it through social media. When they get callers they tell them to send petrol money so that they can bring them the car for viewing and a test drive. Then they redeem the money they have been sent, toss away the sim-card, and start again.
Over time, and with the progressive easing of the lock down conditions, the gathering changes. First it moves away from the flats, which are just up the road from us, to a small concrete plinth under a tree on the pavement just down the road from us. The two young men from the flats seem less and less to be involved, and participants arrive with their own alcohol. Some of the core members arrive mid-morning and chat and joke. By late morning someone has arrived with a takeaway of food that is shared out. Sometimes one of the fruit vendors who ply the streets with their trolleys full of fruit passes by, and the gathered men buy and share pawpaw or pineapple. More and more people arrive over the course of the afternoon, and soon a party is in progress.
The President announces a further opening of economic sectors and relaxation of regulations. Alcohol and cigarettes are still banned. These talks by the President – he addresses the nation about the grave crisis facing us. He talks about the virus, the regulations and the new behaviour we must cultivate, about the economy, about his discussions with ministers and business, about everything government is doing to protect us from the health crisis and the economic crisis. He is earnest, sober and concerned. But the South Africa he is addressing does not exist in our park and our neighbourhood. Police enforcement? Masking and physical distancing? No alcohol? The distribution of food parcels and emergency grants?
No one I know or have heard of in this neighbourhood has received a food parcel or grant, despite trying. Some people are masking and being careful, but many are not. Though perhaps this is unfair. By definition, those who are taking the regulations seriously are much less visible in the park or on the street. They tend to stay at home, avoid crowded places, go to work with their masks on. Those we see are those who don’t, or can’t, take the regulations seriously.
We spend the hard lock-down period living in a completely secluded fashion, and being very careful when going out for essential shopping. At the time of the first loosening, when the park resembled an open-air gymnasium, I am having a telephone conversation with my neighbour and long-standing friend and colleague, Mr Matlala. He says he is waking up at night worrying, because his heart is jumping and he can’t breathe. He went to his doctor who said there was nothing wrong, but gave him some pills. This didn’t help so he went to the traditional healer who also said there was nothing wrong with him. He is worried about dying alone in his bed with no one to help him. His wife died three years ago, and he avoids his children and their families, who share his house, because he is anxious whether they are being careful enough. All he does is work at his computer, eat supper alone, and watch TV. The only way to avoid the coronavirus is to completely isolate himself, and he lives in fear of its invisible threat.
We talk about the concept of panic attack. Yes, he has heard the term but doesn’t know what it is. I tell him how we are living next door, not working too much, spending time in the garden, and having lots of conversations. Of course, we are married and have each other’s company. The next morning he phones me laughing. That was good advice, he says, he slept well and kept laughing to himself in the middle of the night thinking that his neighbour rescued him.
We agree to have a cup of tea together in the garden on the weekend, and Adele bakes a cake. A few days later he is in the park and photographing the community at their exercises. From then on we make sure to meet up every now and again for tea in the garden, and when the pandemic has declined we have the first braai , in the garden together but carefully distanced. The fire, the smoke, the aromas of sizzling meat, are wonderfully sensual and social pleasures that we have been missing for months and months.
Some time later as winter has turned to summer our friend Pumza and her teenage son visit for another one of our garden teas. We had been seeing them regularly for years, they live in one of the flats next to the park, but we haven’t seen them for months. How strange it is to see them again in the flesh, despite our voices being muffled by our masks, until the fresh scones and tea arrive and the masks come off. These are the small victories through which we celebrate our reemergence into social life.
Pumza and Khwezi have been in total lockdown as well. She has a government job, and the department moved to remote working. Khwezi says he enjoyed the opportunity to sleep late every morning until his school reopened on a system of rotating shifts. Pholo (3) is simply delighted to have her older brother to herself every day. Pumza got into the habit of running early every morning to keep fit, and avoids going into the park to exercise as she thinks it is too crowded. She says she has discovered that she is not the social person she thought she was, she has barely stayed in contact with friends and hasn’t missed going out with them. Adele says she has had exactly the same response and is happy to let go of social engagements, while I on the contrary am amazed and talk about really missing the contact with friends, itching to go out again.
This morning when we wake up and the morning begins and we open the curtains there is a body in the park. It is mid-August, an ordinary weekday morning. A neighbour tells me she woke up in the night and saw the blue lights of the police and figures in the park through the window of her bathroom, and wondered what was happening. We debate whether to go out and look. Is it intrusive, voyeuristic? Is it not important to bear witness? It is not something to take lightly. We go out.
There is a police van in the park, standing guard over the body. The two officers, with masks, are bored, playing with their cell phones. They don’t know what might have happened. Monosyllabic. Reluctant. As if, it is not their job to answer questions, nor ours to ask them.
There is a quiet knot of people on the path, gazing at the dead man. New arrivals ask, who is he, what happened? The man lying on his side, his cheek against the grass, dishevelled. His trousers and other garments are strewn across the grass behind him, and he is naked from his waist down, his underpants around his knees. His end has been violent. The grass at this time of year is dry and yellow and dead, and bits cling to his jersey and his face, and a cloud of flies hovers about his head which, from where we are, looks battered. He lies there in the early sun, a body, unpeaceful, unknown, he has already been lying there for too long, his last moments naked to everyone’s gaze, though impenetrable. There is something indistinct about him, as if he is dissolving a bit from the edges. His name is not known, nor his family nor whether he had one. There is a puddle of muck in the grass in front of his face.
The onlookers’ faces, our faces, are disturbed, attempting to penetrate the obscurity of this death and of the life that has been torn away here. People murmur that it is wrong for him to be lying like that without covering. Why have the police not done what is right? Adele goes to ask the officers if she can get a sheet to cover him. They agree. She goes home and comes back across the grass with a sheet, and one of the women among the other onlookers comes forward and helps her spread it over him. Even one of the policemen stirs himself, and comes out from the van, and watches, and raises his thumb in appreciation. That is better, there is some dignity in the concealment, some recognition that it is a person who died here last night.
Later in the day the gathering of men at the edge of the park convenes as usual. There is no sign of the death. The mortuary van took the body away mid-morning.
By now we are beginning to feel somewhat under siege. Cars often park across our driveway. Some evenings loud music is boomed from one of the cars’ sound systems. When we complain to a couple of those we have come to recognise as core members, they immediately instruct the offender to turn down the music, to move the car.
We can help you any time, they say. If you need a garden boy, just tell us and we will find him. Even if you need a girl to clean the house. We remonstrate with them about colonial terminology, but we are white.
There seem to be multiple trades and deals going on. A boot-full of goods is moved from a small grey car to a large black bakkie. Another day it is liquor. A different car arrives, someone comes over from the gathering and talks to the driver or passenger, something – presumably cash – is handed to him and a few moments later he comes back and hands over a small parcel – presumably drugs. A couple of times large sums of money are spotted in the lap of someone sitting in one of the cars. Every day police vehicles pass by, three of them in particular, and pause at the side of the road. Someone comes over, there is a conversation, and something exchanges hands. Sometimes one of the police vehicles simply passes by, with a friendly hoot or even a brief blast from the siren and a waved greeting. All of this in full public view.
Three or four times the cops will swagger over to one of the parked cars, order the occupants out, and begin searching them and then the car. From my vantage point it seems as if they have found interesting or suspicious items on the men, or in the boot, or under a seat. The men will be ordered into the van. It looks as if arrests are imminent. But then the men will be allowed back into the car, some conversation takes place, and the cops will get back into their van and drive off. Are these serious searches , with nothing found? A way of extorting more money? Or are they a public performance, demonstrating to anyone watching that the police are doing their job?
Here again the park presents a puzzle. The police look like they are in charge, but are they really? Looked at from one angle, you see powerful men who wield the law, deciding who to pursue, who not to pursue, deciding when to enforce the law and when to relax it, and whether that relaxation can be sold. Shift your angle slightly, and you see powerful men in the park – polite, good-natured, convivial – but with the power to buy the law and bend it to their purposes. From this angle it is the police who seem to be weak, neutralised in the face of the bosses of powerful and lucrative networks who are able to establish their own system of order and co-opt the police into it.
We use our networks to contact a senior figure in crime intelligence, and a colonel comes to visit us. He tells us this is the modus operandi of druglords – they regularly meet in an innocent venue while building their networks and alliances and making deals, and they ensure that they cultivate friendly relations with the community around them. They are deliberately polite, friendly and well dressed. Anyone who makes trouble will be sorted out. He says he could send in a team to raid them, but nothing would be found, and he would prefer to gather intelligence on them instead. He will definitely be back to spend a few hours studying them from our second story room, and taking photographs, so that he and his colleagues can try to establish links between this grouping and others they are investigating. Do we agree? Of course we do. Apart from anything else, we would be able to resolve the puzzle of what exactly the gathering is about. He added that he will look different when he next comes, probably he will be dressed in overalls and going as a contractor of some sort.
We never see him again, though we hear from him a couple of times. To be fair, criminal intelligence have their own issues to deal with. A colonel investigating gangs, organised crime and corrupt cops in the Western Cape is assassinated. The brother-in-law of a university administrator, also in criminal intelligence, is shot and killed. The head of criminal intelligence, one of those who seek to clean up the police force and a man who has investigated and prosecuted several corrupt cops, is suspended on suspicion of corruption. If you know how to read this correctly, you understand that this charge is part of the fight-back of the corrupt. Things are never as they seem.
As summer arrives the gathering moves into the park in search of shade . This improves things somewhat, though there is still a constant traffic of cars, and the noise of raucous men, and a litter of polystyrene takeaway boxes scattered all over the grass in the zone they occupy. Children and families avoid that space. The cops still come past three or four times a day, and hoot or honk the siren, and someone jogs over and the customary exchange takes place.
In early December the day comes when a strange silence falls over our street and the park. There has been no day marked by the absence of the gathering since before mid-year. We joke that perhaps they have gone somewhere for team-building, or an excursion into the countryside. The next day is the same. And the weekend comes and goes. They do not reappear.
The chairperson of the CPF says that the provincial police came and warned the gathered men that the park was not for their kind of gathering, and they must move. There is no attempt to seek out or investigate the cops who were taking bribes every day for six months, of course. And then we find out that the gathering has indeed moved – into a house a block away, all of the familiar cars parked on the street outside. No doubt the same cop vans come past every day with a friendly hoot for a chat. But we at least have returned to relative peace and quiet, with only the normal sounds of children’s play, football battles, and the murmurous conversation of lovers or parents and children at the concrete benches in the park.
So is South Africa not the best country in the world?
Over the past year our park has revealed puzzles of law and puzzles of order. It has revealed the carnival of life in our neighbourhood and its terrifying capacity for violent death. The image of the man, of his unpeaceful body, remains imprinted on the park, a question that finds no answer. We still do not know his name, even as the first rains of summer wash away the dust, and the green grass of spring replaces the dead grass of winter. The police say they have no record of a death. A preacher and his acolytes set up a public address system and for four afternoons in a row he delivers a tirade against sin and sinners, warning of hell and damnation, so loudly amplified that none of us can escape his vision.
There is a second wave of the pandemic now, and new restrictions, announced by the President. He seems burdened and tearful. Perhaps it is the weight of all these parks in South Africa and all the people in them and all the puzzles they contain.
He announces that all parks are closed. In ours, though, nothing changes, it is full of voices and sunlight and cries of enjoyment, and when the police vans drive by they show no interest at all in emptying it.
Karl von Holdt is a sociologist at Wits University and a storyteller who has lived in Johannesburg for many years, though recently moved to Cape Town.