99 days, 4 lives, 1 pandemic: South Africa in lockdown

Heather Mason
Bongani Mabuza and his wife, Sibongile Motlhasedi, owners of the African Accent Spaza Shop, stand outside their shop in Katlehong Township east of Johannesburg. Spaza shops are small convenience stores, often operating in private homes.
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On the morning of July 3, 2020, South Africans woke up and began another day in lockdown – the 99th day, to be precise.
In the arid northwest, a forensic nurse woke her three boys, her heart aching that she couldn’t touch them. A store owner leaned over his counter, wondering if today would be one of the increasingly rare good days – days when people chatted, bought novelties, and didn’t count their change. The head of the country’s coronavirus task force lingered in bed a few extra minutes, relieved there was no early-morning interview or Zoom call for a change. And a single mother in Johannesburg rose to make breakfast for her daughter before heading to the only job she had left: a few hours of cleaning, for $10 a week.
Their days are all distinct in a country that is staggeringly diverse, and unequal. But together, they paint a picture of what South Africa’s president has called “the gravest crisis in the history of our democracy.” And they speak to experiences most of us have felt in the past few months, from fear to fortitude.
These are their stories.

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic has exacerbated divides and deepened inequalities. No two individuals’ experiences are the same. But in South Africa, as anywhere, our experiences are bound by common threads: fatigue, love, uncertainty, resolve.

On the morning of Friday, July 3, the 99th day of South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, Bongani Mabuza rose before dawn to open the small corner store at the front of his property in the Johannesburg township of Katlehong.

The winter air was singed from controlled burns of the prairie that surrounded the city. And in the inky darkness outside Mr. Mabuza’s gate, the street was quiet. Before COVID-19 hit South Africa, 5 to 7 a.m. were one of his busiest times. His spaza – a local name for this type of store – served bread and Coke and hot sandwiches to a steady stream of customers in blue workmen’s overalls and security guard uniforms heading to jobs in the city. 

Now, there weren’t many people who needed to be up that early. Three months into the lockdown, so many South Africans had lost their jobs that there were more people unemployed than still formally working.

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic has exacerbated divides and deepened inequalities. No two individuals’ experiences are the same. But in South Africa, as anywhere, our experiences are bound by common threads: fatigue, love, uncertainty, resolve.

For 99 days, Mr. Mabuza had charted the pandemic’s course by the purchases his customers made. On the good days, they bought candy bars and energy drinks. They paid in large bills and didn’t count the change. On those days, customers cracked jokes, whispered gossip, and didn’t ask if he knew anyone who’d died of the coronavirus. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But there weren’t many good days anymore. Now, most of the time, people came in with their eyes cast low, clutching the exact change they needed for a loaf of bread. Or they used their last few Rand to buy vouchers for a popular cell phone gambling app. That is, if they had any money left at all. Mr. Mabuza had so many customers he’d given food to on credit that he’d mostly given up hoping they’d pay him back.

By the time dawn cracked over his little shop that morning, at least 2,952 South Africans had died. Tens of thousands were sick. Millions had lost their jobs. As countries across Europe and Asia began a cautious return to normal life, South Africa’s case curve was bending in the other direction, vying with countries like the United States, Brazil, India, and Mexico on the table of the world’s worst outbreaks. The pandemic’s global centers were shifting south, toward deeply unequal countries where it pulled apart the cracks in already battered public health systems.

And yet, all around Mr. Mabuza, life continued. On the other side of town, a single mother rose to make breakfast for herself and her young daughter before heading out to a cleaning job. One hundred miles to the north, a forensic nurse woke her three boys, her heart aching as she promised herself that she wouldn’t touch them again until this crisis was over. In the coastal city of Durban, meanwhile, the head of the government’s coronavirus task force snuck a few extra minutes in bed, bracing himself against the day of Zoom meetings to come.

And in Katlehong, Mr. Mabuza stepped behind the counter of the African Accent Spaza Shop: the business he had named in defiance of the white teachers who told him he spoke English well, except for his “African accent.” He leaned forward, watching the world outside his doors come slowly to life.


Dr. Salim Abdool Karim had always been an early riser, and also a night owl. His ability to get through the day on four hours of sleep had served him well as a med student and a young scientist. It had been useful as a young father and as an AIDS researcher, and it was particularly helpful now, as he tried to figure out how South Africa would survive what the country’s president had called “the gravest crisis in the history of our democracy.”

But on the morning of July 3, the chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID19 – the man dubbed “South Africa’s Dr. Fauci” – had a rare reprieve. No early morning interview with a radio talk show host or morning news show. So at 6 a.m. he decided to linger in bed a few extra minutes, covers pulled tight against the chilly Durban morning.

Like nearly everywhere in the world, the previous 98 days had been grueling. In late March, with case numbers still in the triple digits, the country had begun one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, which forbade even outdoor exercise and the sale of tobacco and alcohol.

Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images
Salim Abdool Karim, the chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 and the man often dubbed “South Africa’s Dr. Fauci," has long been both a scientist and an activist. On April 14, 2018, he was one of the conveners of the 'March for Science' in the city of Durban.

That bought time, but it also created new catastrophes. Families struggled to eat. Women couldn’t escape their abusers. Police and soldiers meted out violence on people who violated the lockdown rules.

Now, three months in, the lockdown had eased but there were new crises. Journalists, ministers, even the president, grilled Dr. Karim about them on nearly a daily basis.

When would the days-long backlog of coronavirus tests be cleared? Was public transportation safe? When would the peak arrive?

They all seemed to boil down to one thing: When will life be normal again?

It was a question Dr. Karim wanted an answer to as much as anyone. South Africa’s lockdown had been only five days old when, on March 31, he had first lost someone to the disease.

“When I went to see her in the hospital, they wouldn’t let me in. When I asked to speak to her, they said she couldn’t talk because of the ventilator. And when she died, there wasn’t a funeral,” he says of his friend and colleague, the AIDS researcher Gita Ramjee. “That’s when I realized that this disease doesn’t only kill, it kills in a way that doesn’t allow people to say goodbye, or to grieve.”

That was the world he wanted back.

For Sindisiwe Nokulunga Maseko, the normal everyone was always asking Dr. Karim about had never been easy. In the best of times, the 25-year-old single mother had pulled in around $300 USD a month from two cleaning jobs and a small government assistance check. That was just barely enough to buy groceries and pay rent – as long as no one needed medicine or new clothes that month.

But when she woke up at 7:30 on July 3, her old life felt enviable. Now, her only steady work was a cleaning gig at a community center down the road, which paid $10 a week for three two-hour shifts.

It was better than nothing. When the lockdown started, for Ms. Maseko, like the other million women in South Africa who work as housekeepers, that spelled an immediate end to her work. And because her jobs had been informal – paid under the table, in cash – she wasn’t eligible for unemployment.

“I was angry. I saw that we are going to struggle because of this thing,” she says.

This wasn’t the first time Ms. Maseko had lived on the edge. Indeed, since she’d first arrived in Johannesburg in 2014, as a 19-year-old with an infant daughter, she’d never been more than a few steps ahead of calamity.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Sindisiwe Maseko cleans a community space in her neighborhood in eastern Johannesburg in early July. The job, which pays about $10 a week for three two-hour shifts, is her only steady work since South Africa's coronavirus lockdown began in late March.

In those first years, she’d made her tiny budget work by squatting rent-free with her sister and her sister’s two young children in a room in an abandoned house on the eastern edge of the city. It was the kind of sprawling old building that a hundred years ago might have been owned by one of the well-to-do white families who’d made their fortune in Johannesburg’s gold mining camps. Now, a new generation of the city’s fortune-seekers had crowded in, tapping an illegal electricity connection from the nearby city wires and drawing water from an outdoor tap.

Back then, Ms. Maseko did any job that came along – sweeping streets, installing electrical wiring, cleaning houses. It didn’t really matter what she was doing, as long as her girls – now there were two – had something to eat and money for school uniforms. “I want them to become doctors,” she said. “Or singers.” Or anything else, really, so long as they had a choice in the matter. She never had.

In October 2018, she and her daughters moved into a concrete room at the backyard of a nicer house. It was small and dark, and they had to cross the yard to get to the bathroom or kitchen, but it was theirs. For the first time in her life, she felt like she’d made something of herself. That she and her girls were going to be ok.

At 9:15 a.m., as Ms. Maseko was mopping the community center floor in Johannesburg, Cecilia Lamola-Larufi was trying to figure out how to manage her day’s first crisis.

In the offices of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders in the city of Rustenburg, she scrolled through her emails while her phone lit up again and again. The day before, two of the clinics in the city where she helped oversee sexual and gender-based violence units had been forced to close temporarily after several members of their staffs tested positive for COVID-19.

Courtesy of Siyathuthuka Media
Cecilia Lamola-Larufi, who helps manage Doctors Without Borders' centers for victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence in Rustenburg, South Africa, organizes kits for collecting evidence at a clinic. Since the country's coronavirus lockdown began in late March, many victims have struggled to access their services.

That worried Ms. Lamola-Larufi. In Rustenburg, a city flanked by platinum mines in South Africa’s arid northwest, an estimated one in four women had been raped. At their care centers, Ms. Lamola-Larufi’s nurses gathered the forensic evidence of those crimes, collecting fluids and documenting the crime scene mapped onto the woman’s body – purple bruises, black eyes, broken bones. But by far their most important role was something less tangible.

For many of the women who walked through their doors, Ms. Lamola-Larufi knew, this might be the only moment in the aftermath of their assault that they simply felt heard. This could be the one and only time when no one was going to ask what they were wearing, or if they had been drinking the night it happened.

“You never stop a woman who wants to talk to you from talking,” she says. “You never tell them, ‘Ok, I’ve heard enough.’”

Her team knew the statistics: Only around 8% of rape cases reported to police ended in a conviction. And nine in 10 women in Rustenburg who experienced sexual violence never reported it to police in the first place.

“The system often fails them so it’s even more important that we do not,” Ms. Lamola-Larufi told her teams. The evidence they collected, she reminded them, “gives [these women] a voice.”

But during the lockdown, that had been harder than ever. Many were simply stuck at home with their abusers, unable to find a way out. Others made it to the care center but struggled to explain what had happened. Six feet away, behind surgical masks, the nurses and social workers struggled to read the only part of the women’s faces they could see – their eyes. Had they been crying? Were they afraid?

At a distance, sometimes, it was hard to tell.


At African Accent, the morning had been busy. A rare good day, by Mr. Mabuza’s count. In early June, with the economy cratering, South Africa’s government had slackened the rules of its lockdown. Restaurants, hairdressers, and casinos reopened. People in the suburbs began to call their housekeepers and gardeners again. And so now, a month later, many Katlehong residents had been paid for the first time in a long time. By noon, so many customers had come in with large bills that Mr. Mabuza was out of change.

Yet he felt deeply uneasy. Few of the customers wore masks. He himself rarely did either. That was a hard thing to explain, he thought, unless you’d been in this part of the world as another deadly disease made its rounds: HIV.

Heather Mason
Bongani Mabuza and his wife, Sibongile Motlhasedi, stand behind the counter at their African Accents Spaza Shop in Katlehong Township. Since the start of the coronavirus lockdown, many of their customers have not been able to afford their usual purchases.

Then, as now, the disease was a humiliation. So Mr. Mabuza had developed a theory about why almost no one in Katlehong wore a mask. It made you part of this thing that had already destroyed so many lives in your community. “How else can you show you don’t have it except to be unmasked and unbothered?” he reasoned.  

Anyway, in Katlehong, a settlement of small, tidy houses and tin shacks, few people knew anyone who’d actually fallen ill. The pandemic’s worst damage had come instead from hunger, and from the police.

In the early days of the lockdown, Mr. Mabuza had watched as cops and soldiers in sand-colored fatigues marched down the street, guns swinging. “That’s how the cat and mouse game started,” he says. When they found someone on the road, there was rarely a conversation about what rule they’d broken. Instead, he saw people slammed against the ground. He listened as soldiers barked humiliating orders: 50 push-ups. Frog-hop to the end of the block.

“Normally in the township when you call the police, they take hours to come,” he says. When his own store had been robbed a few years earlier, he’d found the perpetrators before the police had the chance. So why now had they become so committed to doing their job?

“At a point, coronavirus stopped being the enemy, and instead it became the police,” he says. “People were being brutalized into staying home, and government was saying it was for their own safety. How do you make sense of that? Government knew we wouldn’t fear this unknown disease we’d never seen. So instead they made us fear the police instead.”

Mr. Mabuza had seen violence like this before, in the dying years of apartheid, as political killings – and equally brutal police reaction – gripped Katlehong. He was five years old the first time he saw a dead body lying in the road on his way home from school, not far from where his shop now stood.

He knew what the people brought to preserve order were capable of. And even now, most days, that seemed scarier than a virus.

In Durban, Dr. Karim’s day had turned, as it often did, into a parade of Zoom meetings. He met with a group of clinicians working on a reliable rapid test. Then came a Zoom call with a task force looking into virus transmission on minibuses – the cramped, rickety vans that carried most commuters to work. They were desperately important to keep the country running. And when that conversation was done, he had another about one of the most fraught questions globally – what to do about schools.

That problem, like every other he faced related to COVID-19, stood at the intersection of public health and social justice: The kids most at risk from COVID-19 were also the most at risk of falling behind in their education.

That was how it almost always went with epidemics. Like AIDS or measles or any of the other infectious diseases Dr. Karim had studied in his life, the coronavirus itself did not discriminate. But the society it entered did.

He’d known that since he was a child, growing up in an Indian township wedged between a middle-class white suburb and a rundown African one on the edge of Durban. And it was underscored when he arrived, in 1978, at South Africa’s only medical school for “non-white” doctors.

“As soon as you got there, you got roped into the struggle against apartheid,” Dr. Karim says. “We were out at 3 a.m. painting ‘FREE MANDELA’ on bridges before our lectures.”

When he graduated, Dr. Karim went into medical research. And his studies solidified a basic truth of apartheid South Africa: to be Black and poor was, very often, a death sentence. 

“The experience of growing up under apartheid is inextricably linked to my choice to become a doctor, and all of the work I have done since,” he says.

Health was justice. Justice required good health. And as the sun slunk low, Dr. Karim clicked “leave meeting” on his final Zoom call of the day, and prepared at last to head home.


“Did you do your school work?” Ms. Maseko asked her older daughter as the sun collapsed behind the horizon, leaving Johannesburg in a chilly winter darkness. It was two days before a full moon, and it hung low and heavy in the night sky.

Since the pandemic started, 7-year-old Londiwe’s teachers had sent weekly assignments for her to complete in her workbooks. But Ms. Maseko couldn’t afford to buy her daughter those books. So she’d asked another parent to send her photos of the pages by WhatsApp, and then she copied the text and images carefully into a notebook she’d bought at the grocery store.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Sindisiwe Maseko, a single mother in Johannesburg, cannot afford to buy her daughter's school workbooks, so she hand-copies the pages into a notebook she bought at the grocery store.

EDUCATION & ATTITUDE CREATE OPPORTUNITY, its cover read in bold letters.

Sometimes Ms. Maseko struggled to explain Londiwe’s assignments to her. She’d left school in tenth grade, when her family couldn’t afford the $20 to buy a new uniform. It had been so long now since she’d done math problems or memorized English grammar rules.

Anyway, Londiwe was struggling to focus. She missed her friends, she said. And she was bored of being stuck at home. Truth be told, Ms. Maseko was too.

Their concrete room felt like an igloo on winter nights, and in the main house, there was always so much noise – babies shrieking and oil frying and soap operas blaring from the small TV. Ms. Maseko preferred to be alone, watching Indian soap operas. “I didn’t finish school, so I like practicing my English,” she says. “I like the dance. I like to see another part of the world.”

Sometimes on nights like this, she imagined herself living in a house she used to clean, before the lockdown, which had so many rooms she couldn’t tidy them all in a single day. A house where she could get some quiet.

In Rustenburg, Ms. Lamola-Larufi arrived home spent. On her walk to work that morning, she had noticed a group of people loitering in a small park. They were waiting for cars to stop and ask for help with a small job – ironing, painting. When she looped back in the afternoon, many were still there, slumping dejected on the lawns and benches.

It wasn’t lost on her that she could have grown up to be one of those women. And it wasn’t lost on her that she could have grown up to be one of those walking through the doors of her centers every day.  

A decade ago, her younger sister’s partner had stabbed her to death, leaving behind their daughters, ages 2 and 6 weeks.  

“I’m trying to stop other people’s stories from ending like hers,” Ms. Lamola-Larufi says.

It gave her purpose to do this work, but it was also heavy, and she’d long ago learned that if she didn’t find ways to escape sometimes, it might crush her.

So her family had started a tradition. Every Saturday, she, her husband, and their three adolescent boys all picked a song. And then the five of them pushed back a couch in their living room and danced. “And we really dance,” she says. “Until our bodies are just lightness.”

On day 99, as she arrived home, she had that to look forward to.

In the coming weeks, South Africa’s case numbers would double, climbing towards a half million. The leaders of two of the most populous provinces would fall ill. At the country’s largest airport, two people would die in a shootout between police and criminals trying to steal a shipment of face masks.

But on July 3, that was all still to come. For now, Ms. Lamola-Larufi was thinking ahead, to the moment tomorrow morning when one of her three sons would hit shuffle on the family playlist, and for a moment, they would all lose track of where they were.  

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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Reporters on the Job
Staff writer Ryan Lenora Brown gives the inside scoop

Like so many other things, reporting has been reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, I’ve been doing nearly all of my work online, replacing face-to-face interviews with phone calls and Zoom meetings. It works, but as a reporter, I’ve missed the small details that you see only when you meet someone in person – the poster on their bedroom wall, the color of their nail polish, their willingness to make eye contact or not.

This story marked the first time in four months that I had reported from outside my house, and it was startling to see how much different the process had become. 

To visit Cecilia Lamola-Larufi, the nurse, I had to cross a provincial boundary. These days, that means stopping at a police roadblock to present documents proving you are an “essential worker.” 

With Bongani Mabuza, the spaza shop owner, and Sindisiwe Maseko, the single mother, we sat outside, far apart, and wore masks. I hoped they could read the smile on my face when my eyes crinkled, or the empathy in my gaze. Even with masks on, however, the experience was familiar. 

Being together physically helped dissolve the emotional distance, too. I laughed and nodded and listened. And for a few hours, the world felt more normal than it had in a long time.

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