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"Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa" Deemed a Manifesto for Mapping Social Change

Review by Lauren Culverwell, Anthropology Southern Africa, Volume 46, Issue 1.

"The book is thus not simply a discussion of the impact of Covid-19 on rural communities but a carefully mapped manifesto calling on governments to consider local customs, contexts and cultures when crafting responses to global threats."

The Covid-19 pandemic and its effects have threaded themselves into South African communities, leaving a series of significant stitches and loose threads in its cultural fabric. Leslie Bank and Nelly Sharpley’s book Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa examines this emerging tapestry of Covid-19 experiences in the rural Eastern Cape, focusing on how communities navigated the rapidly shifting landscapes of health, hierarchies and habitudes during the pandemic. The book examines the inner workings of the communities’ cultures and customs before and during the national lockdown, articulating a critique of South Africa’s response to Covid-19. The authors masterfully problematise the government’s decision to follow global science perspectives that deemed local cultural practices dangerous superspreader events and to enforce individual behavioural adjustments. According to the text, this “state-strong” approach — with its emphasis on repression and exclusion — fractured possibilities of social reproduction and failed residents in the Eastern Cape.

Capturing and representing community responses to a global phenomenon as intricate as Covid-19 is no easy undertaking, yet the authors do the complexity of this task justice. Moreover, with their shared research interests in rural development and social customs, Leslie Bank and Nelly Sharpley form a dynamic author duo. They have co-written several articles that focus on the same concerns as the book, including the collapse of the health services and the horror and disruption that accompanied the 2020 Disaster Management Act’s restriction on funerals and other “superspreader” rituals. The work on which this book is based has already garnered attention from various actors in the public and policy spheres.

The book grew from a commission of the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council. It evolved into a project that spanned several months due to the topic’s complexity and the difficulties with securing ethical approval. The text masterfully draws on engagements with 10 communities considered peak Covid hotspots in the O.R. Tambo and Chris Hani municipalities. Although the book draws on ethnographic fieldwork and engagement with community members, the authors intertwine a plethora of perspectives and sources into the text. For example, they examine local news coverage, track official government communications and draw on and develop applicable theories, such as Giorgio Agamben’s (1998) conception of “bare life.” This lends the text perspective and balance and allows for thoughtful, nuanced insights. Furthermore, since the book explores the inner workings of these municipalities before the Covid-19 pandemic to make sense of them during the crisis, it weaves in and out of timelines, knitting together a magisterial narrative that ranges from the nineteenth century to the near past. With these threads of past and present evidence, the authors expertly craft contextualised narratives and illustrate how communities, customs, home spaces and healthcare systems have developed into their contemporary forms.

Despite the text’s complexity, the topics are sewn together seamlessly and in an accessible style. Chapter 1 introduces the former Transkei region and explores the cultural significance of customs such as neighbourhood beer-drinking rituals, family-based stick fights and funerals. It depicts customs and their adaptions over time as vectors of social change and tools of resistance against the ruptures that accompanied urbanisation, migration and colonialism. This contextualisation lays the foundation for Chapter 2, which expertly tracks the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on ritual and customary practice, highlighting the extreme fear, horror, indignity and humiliation that characterised the forms that death and burial had to take during this period.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of the “medical mayhem” that erupted in the already strained public health system when the infection rate in these municipalities started to spike. It also tracks the coping strategies that the communities developed in response to the crisis. Chapter 4 examines how the lockdown period aggravated generational and gendered conflicts. This theme of contested and exacerbated hierarchies is further developed in Chapter 5, which investigates Anthropology Southern Africa 71 how local gatekeepers and officials (ranging from the police to funeral directors) managed and mediated the lockdown from their respective vantage points. This chapter is particularly insightful because it demonstrates how governmental regulations are filtered through and affected by various hierarchies. Chapter 6 focuses on the second wave of Covid infections and the subsequent lift of the strictest lockdown restrictions, exploring how rituals and customs were reactivated and utilised as a form of cultural resistance.

At its core, the book contends that what was, on paper and in policy, intended to be a war against the coronavirus transformed, in practice, into a war against the customs, cultures and citizens of the Eastern Cape. This undercurrent runs throughout each chapter and contributes to one of the book’s key arguments: that the South African government’s response to Covid-19 should have engaged more with local voices and not merely followed global science and practice. This text highlights the ability of ethnographic fieldwork to capture lived experiences and situate the reader within a community’s conflicts and contestations.

For decades social scientists have countered well-used platitudes like “disease does not discriminate” by demonstrating that disease frequently weaves itself into pre-existing social inequalities, local histories, governmental ideologies, healthcare frameworks and cultural practices. For years social scientists around the world have called on governments to acknowledge these factors and reconsider adopting one-size-fits-all approaches to health crises. Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa recognises and draws on this legacy by incorporating critical insights from the Ebola and HIV crises of the last decades (Fairhead 2016; Leach 2015; Nzioka 2002; Robins 2006; Whyte 2005). These examples substantiate the authors’ advocacy and illustrate that the book’s key issues extend well beyond the specific Covid-19 pandemic and into past and future interventions. One can only hope that the book’s consolidated findings will help shape the management of future health crises.

The examination of the Covid-19 pandemic has largely been characterised by generalising narratives as the global flows and discourses have been reshaped and redirected by the pandemic. Part of what this text offers to existing scholarship on the pandemic is a reminder that global health narratives shape smaller, local stories and that suffering must not be reduced to statistics or lost in the larger global narratives. As South Africa is emerging from two years of intense restrictions, this book reminds us of the insights that can be gleaned from considering these smaller discourses. The text is of potential interest not only to readers interested in tracking the impact of Covid-19 on culture but more generally to those interested in the nexus between governmental discourses and cultural counter-discourses, theories of people’s science and human economies. Part of moving forward both as scholars and as citizens of South Africa involves grappling with the uneasy truths and realities of what Covid-19 exacerbated and brought to the fore in the country. However, as the authors stress, this is far from a closed narrative or process. The impact that the pandemic has had on customs, social reproduction and a broader cultural moment is still revealing itself as point of significance for further investigation.


Agamben, G. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Fairhead, J. 2016. “Understanding Social Resistance to the Ebola Response in the Forest Region of the Republic of Guinea: An Anthropological Perspective.” African Studies Review 59 (3): 7–31. https://doi. org/10.1017/asr.2016.87

Leach, M. 2015. “The Ebola Crisis and Post-2015 Development.” Journal of International Development 27 (6): 816–834.

Nzioka, C. 2002. “The Social Meanings of Death from HIV/AIDS: An African Interpretative View.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 2 (1): 1–14. 72

Book Reviews Robins, S.L. 2006. “From ‘Rights’ to ‘Ritual’: AIDS Activism in South Africa.” American Anthropologist 108 (2): 312–323.

Whyte, S.R. 2005. “Going Home? Belonging and Burial in the Era of AIDS.” Africa 75 (2): 154–172. https://

Lauren Culverwell, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa © 2023, Lauren Culverwell

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