A year in lockdown: The new normal is no closer than it ever was

The experts say it takes a minimum of 21 days to break a habit Keep it up for three times as long and your better life choice becomes a lifestyle. On Monday, it was a year since President Cyril Ramaphosa gave us the first of what we’d call our family meetings, when he declared a state of disaster. Next Saturday, it’ll be a year since he plunged us into Lockdown Level 5.

It took everyone by surprise. In the old days, the suburban daggakoppe used to buy their bankies on petrol station forecourts, but suddenly blue-rinsed gogos were getting their illicit fags the same way. As for the boozers, WhatsApp became the letterbox of choice for smugglers who would have put Pablo Escobar to shame.

But, by and large, South Africa behaved – and laughed at the absurdities of some of the regulations. Lockdown was a golden time for South African humour, but it was also an unimaginably tough time. The economy hadn’t been doing that well beforehand, the shutdown put everything into a tailspin. Livelihoods were lost – but lives weren’t. And that was the whole point; flatten the curve of infection, stop our already compromised public health system from becoming overwhelmed and compromising the public’s health.

We succeeded. And, those who had gave more to those who had less, contrary to the gospel of the hate-mongers. The start of the lockdown saw an unprecedented outpouring of generosity both financial and in kind, with volunteer organisations tirelessly dishing out food parcels and run soup kitchens. 

For a brief moment, when they weren’t being shown up by their own hypocrisy, our lesser (yet disproportionately vocal) political leaders shut up and observed their own lockdowns too. It would have been marvellous had it lasted, if we had actually built back better as we pivoted to the new normal – as we were told to do.

But we’ve all got to make a living. After more than 365 days the old normal is proving a desperately hard habit to break because selfishness and narcissism are far harder viruses to contain, perpetually mutating through opportunism and expedience. 

Politicians most of all have to make a living too because there are elections around the corner – and tenders too. Duduzane Zuma, whose only work experience has been working for the Guptas (for which we now have an entire State Commission of Inquiry) announced he fancies becoming president. 

The EFF managed to simultaneously render campuses battlegrounds and race-bait in defence of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane while feverishly purging the social media records of its leaders who wanted to pillory her two years ago.

And then on Thursday, Eskom suspended load shedding for four hours for King Goodwill Zwelithini’s memorial service – despite the super spreader events in KZN the day before. It couldn’t keep the lights on for a nation struggling to breathe, but somehow it could for a dead man. 

A year on since we went into lockdown, we’re still looking for that great reset. The new normal is no closer than it ever was.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 20 March 2021.