July 15, 2021

Afraid & Depressed, Scenes from South Africa remind me of Palestine

About two years ago, I travelled to Tunisia for training. All around, were the ravages of what I guess were the 2015 inhumane terrorist attacks and follow-on events. Expensive yachts have been abandoned, beautiful hotels are in ruins, huge parts of coastal areas such as Hammamet are deserted, even five-star hotels are completely empty. At one tourist site near the President’s home in Tunis there were men with huge rifles, similarly, on some of the most beautiful beaches, there was security armed with weapons. I thought then, this is not something we ever want our world to look like.

 About a year ago when COVID-19 lockdowns began in Johannesburg, a once bustling South African city had in a sense ‘gone to sleep’ and economic suffering intensified for middle class families, for example, those reliant on income from the tourism or the hotel industry were hardest hit. I recall, listening in to radio as a father cried that he does not know how to support his households’ material needs. Other parents had called in, to share that they could no longer afford school fees.

 OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, usually a hub of activity has been reduced to a sore sight and even Kenyatta International Airport (Kenya), where I landed a couple of months ago. Waiters and waitresses in restaurants, tour guides both in Kenya and here at home in South Africa, were so thankful. You could see a mix of stress, concern and relief reflected in their facial expressions when lockdown measures were relaxed.

 The third COVID-19 wave in South Africa gripped us recently (June 2021), all around us someone close to us tested positive, someone close to us struggled to access healthcare and many are in mourning. Already, with COVID-19 we were in a dark, depressing hole. In my mind South Africa and most of the world which has locked down in one way or another was beginning to resemble the ravages and deserted streets in Tunis. Robben Island one of the most important parts of South African history is at risk of closure. COVID-19 has already taken so much away from us and is set to take even more lives. We are set for disaster of mammoth proportions as pandemic efforts are disrupted and as people in the country begin to ignore the virus.

 This week many of us, in the back of our minds, had hoped the protests supporting Former President Jacob Zuma’s release from prison would pass.  Although in retrospect, the signs were all there, that this would not be the case.

We could see the pieces of political chess being played, his son, Duduzane Zuma leading protestors (with zero COVID-19 protocols) in a bid to pursue his presidential ambitions, the former President Jacob Zuma dramatically handing himself over to authorities. There’s no denying it, the former President’s strength is to play on emotions, ‘be the victim’, already the narrative had begun ‘the first anti-apartheid activist is jailed, he has handed himself over’. Zuma’s other strength is to play politics and have no doubt that politics, specifically, that centres of power in the African National Congress are also at war. Innocent citizens, all of us, are now caught in what I dub a game of political chess and crossfire.

Soon after Zuma’s arrest, sparks in violence followed, ‘suddenly’ key hashtags were/ are trending around violence, the police force looking on as violent protests happen and now a play on South Africans sore point i.e. racial tensions. The outcome of these political moves of chess is an economy butchered, and a country up in flames starkly similar to scenes we see in warlike settings such as Palestine.

There are no quick fixes, Zuma cannot be released, it would cost us our democracy. The violence we see in our country through crime, and now protests will not go away overnight, the rising levels of unemployment in all honestly will not be solved, the economy has been burnt and the middle class forced into poverty and joblessness.  We are left with no other option but the deployment of the army, but this is not a long-term solution, do we really want to maintain ‘peace and stability’ through a militarised state?

The only hope I hold is that perhaps, a strong, opposing and positive force to counter all of this will emerge and this is the force we need to rally behind and support.

Even then, there are no easy solutions in sight, not when we are pawns within this game of political chess, what moves are next? We live in fear and are fearing for our lives and our country.  The thing most feared, is who will lead the “checkmate” and what will be left of our country in the aftermath?

Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning independent public health practitioner, and pens #ThoughtSpace with a touch of inspiration, critical thinking, and creativity

Tweet: @ChoonaraShakira

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