Covid-19 in Cape Town, South Africa: A reminder of our collective reality.

Joel Bronkowski
7 min readMay 17, 2020

I was 21, a bright eyed American Christian with good intentions. I was on my way to save Africa, one camp or construction project at a time. Oh South Africa, are you thankful for my month of service? South Africa stole my heart. I was taken with it’s complex history and cultural make up. The V&A and Afrikaaners I was hanging out with made it somewhat relatable but also completely different than anything I had ever experienced. It probably didn’t hurt that South Africans have a thing for Americans.

It’s been 16 years since that month long trip. So much has happened in that time. I returned to the states and became that guy that tried to name-drop South Africa into every conversation I had. I wore my ‘Africa guy’ status like a badge of honor as I plotted my next trip to get back there. Fortunately I was too afraid of tattoos otherwise I would’ve surely got an Africa tattoo or something.

Moving to South Africa

Following those months of servitude and several years of time elapsing I did the unthinkable, I decided to head to South Africa for a whole year to help run JAM, a Christian organization that ran camps and did community outreach work. One year became two. I saw so many things, was a part of so much positive energy. I gave a lot of myself but slowly became enchanted with the idea of being more immersed in local community and increasingly disenfranchised with the ministry traveling far and wide. Weekends my teammates would go to their friends and families, but my only connection to South Africa was the organization. My motives were mixed in moving on. I knew I needed to branch out in South Africa but I also was madly in love with a university student and struggled to imagine what normal life could be like in South Africa. And so still dead set on figuring out how to change the world, I entered grad school to study sustainability. I’m not sure I really understood what I was signing up for. The two years I spent at the Sustainability Institute forced me to attempt to find some middle ground between the formal development sector and all I knew from a life of being part of churches and the way they saw their role in helping. Spoiler alert – neither side has it figured out but it’s shocking how little either group engages with the other.

Following that interesting time of ministry work and studying sustainability I found love and got married and finally found my niche working in tech. Slowly I became less and less in tune with the challenges of South Africa and the people across the invisible lines that separate us. With the exception of giving to causes and addressing needs of the homeless from time to time, I’d arrived at a place in my life where I truly felt like the best thing I can do is work for companies that create opportunity and address needs.

2020

January 1st, like many of you, I wrote a few things down that I wanted to change. As of March 1st I hadn’t done any of them. Covid-19 was becoming our reality and all around us was panic, uncertainty and desperation. I randomly joined this Facebook group called Cape Town Together not knowing exactly what I was in for. I really wanted to take some kind of action to help in some way. I was thrown into a few WhatsApp groups based on where we live. The Cape Town CBD group was so quiet and so initially I followed the Gardens group. A week or so in, the CBD group became more active and the organising committee asked if I would be an admin. Next thing I know our group was partnered with Khayelitsha’s CAN. If you aren’t familiar with Khayelitsha it’s a township about 15km (9 miles) outside of the Cape Town city centre with over 1m people. The Khayelitsha CAN has a rock star group of leaders and a team of dozens of volunteers. Some of the newer large sections of Khayelitsha are known as informal settlements and have tens of thousands of people living in shacks. Many of which work jobs that have been put on hold during lockdown. For the thousands living week to week Covid-19 has taken them from a vulnerable situation to a desperate situation.

So there I was a newly appointed coordinator to help the leaders of the Khayelitsha CAN. On early calls with them I was overwhelmed by the needs they were trying to address. They described their realities going from home to home sharing a few ounces of sanitizer. And there I was in my large apartment will a full fridge and fibre connection on calls with volunteers on the ground with people in such tough situations. There’s so much to say about all that has transpired over the past weeks.

Reflections on Cape Town Together

In a ton of ways I’m thrilled with the things I’ve seen. We’ve been a part of rallying people from Cape Town and abroad to provide food for a month to 200 families, we’re helping fund a soup kitchen and procuring thousands of masks. We’ve played middle man between businesses and NGOs. We got creative hosting these online Pub Quizzes to motivate people to give. We’ve tried to tell the stories from people that are in the trenches doing their best to address needs. And while it really does feel good to do something, it often feels a bit disconnected. I know what we’ve done is meaningful, to play middle man and collecting funds, but at times I’ve found myself detached from what it all means. Perhaps this is the collective strain of frustration everyone is feeling. Maybe it’s the challenges of trying to balance my real-work with my volunteer-work.

I’m in the place where I wanted to be, in touch with the needs of the people in this country. I have direct insight into just how vast the needs are that need to be addressed. I suppose the reality of what I’m feeling is the reawakening of the awareness that I am a part of the problem. The structures we live in and the way we live is just immensely disconnected from the realities of most South Africans. We live in the most unequal society in the world. Living in denial of this was really nice and being in touch with it is uncomfortable. So much so that I fear a time where I have to step out of my apartment and drive my car into these very informal settlements we’ve been helping.

Overwhelmed

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my computer working away on some fundraising campaigns, we were a few days out from hosting our first quiz. I’d lined up all these cool sponsors, got my Shopify site firing on all cylinders. Orders were flowing in, calls were being made, out went the newsletter. We’re really doing some good work, I thought to myself. A message popped up in one of our million WhatsApp groups from one of the volunteers in Khayelitsha. It was from Sbu and he said that his neighbour’s shack burned down and she was killed along with her 4 year old, leaving Brian, a 7-year old, as the single survivor. Sbu asked that we ask for clothing and some funds for food. We rallied to raise funds and send clothes and we organized a social worker who speaks Xhosa to be in touch with the family. It felt good to quickly address the needs and during the week I received the sweetest photos and voice note from Brian and his aunt Nosiphe.

We had a discussion with our CAN about whether we should raise more funds to cover the funeral and decided that if we were to do that it might set a precedent for other families. The money we had raised covered some of their costs. A few evenings later I received a long voice note from Nosiphe, Brian’s Aunt. I started playing the voice note and then stopped, I was growing tired of the overwhelming amount of requests for help and I couldn’t handle another one. It’s not that I didn’t care but I just anticipated the ask and just didn’t want to deal with it. Later that evening I listened to it, here’s what it said:

“Thanks guys for the donation, we got R8,000 ($500) so yesterday we went to do the DNA test and the results came and then we are going to do a funeral, we’re doing fine so far about everything, the funeral and all that stuff, we just doing fine, thanks guys we appreciate everything you did for us, may God Bless you all! We’re just very very happy, thank you guys”

I listened to it. I sat there floored for about a minute before sorrow overcame me. What do I know of suffering? What do I know of need? What do I know of needing to rely on strangers for help? And above it all, I grew tired so quickly Nosiphe and Brian’s need in their darkest hour. The extent in which I was willing to help was conditional and transactional. The voice note caught me so completely off guard. This family and young boy could use the words ‘happy’ to describe the gifts we gave, during the hardest week of their lives.

Closing Thoughts

I don’t know what the future holds for me or my involvement in the Cape Town Together movement but I know a lot of good has come out of it. But I also know that it’s uncomfortable to have to wrestle with the world I live in and the world just 15km away. My realities are so different and yet with Covid-19 we share an interconnected reality and hope for brighter days. What this means for the future is unknown but we’re all learning, trying our best to rally around the most vulnerable among us during these turbulent times. Wildly, very few of us have met in person. I suppose it’s somewhat remarkable that we’re able to accomplish anything whilst on lockdown, we can thank technology for that. And with that technology some of these invisible walls that separate us are coming down if even through a frenzy of WhatsApps, voice notes, video clips and images. People of different races, socio-economics and different backgrounds are being brought together to stand in solidarity with each other, even if it’s digitally for the time being.

Khayleitsha CAN Members. Photo by Zacharia Mashele.

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