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Written by: Leslie Bank & Bonelwa Nogqaza

Abstract: This article explores the consequences of framing the Covid-19 pandemic as an issue of culture and custom in rural South Africa and the implications of this for the way culture has been re-politicised in this time of “recovery and reconstruction”. The piece seeks to mediate this discussion through an account of “wounds” and how the wounds of the past remain open fields of conflict and debate. The article concludes by discussing the retreat of the state in rural areas in the post-pandemic era and the emergence of DIY ruralism in a new time of crisis.

Plate 1: A Xhosa traditional ceremony on the Transkei Wild Coast. (Source: Zipho Xego). June 2023.

Bio-science triumphed over culture in the war against Covid-19. Prevention was trumped by cure with the discovery and global roll-out of several effective vaccines. Life appears to have returned to normal as new issues and challenges dominate the headlines, although the global toll of Covid is still being calculated around the world. In the meantime, the legacies of pandemic-induced death, social rupture and poverty are all too plain to see. Damaged economies have yet to recover and shattered livelihoods have still to be remade.

In the rural landscapes of the eastern seaboard of South Africa, where Covid claimed the lives of more than 0.7% of the population, the new normal is frightening. Widespread hunger, escalating crime, growing youth drug dependence, mass unemployment and pervasive poverty silently unfold against a backdrop of collapsing state services and a struggling public health system. The prospects for recovery and reconstruction look bleak, as the wounds of the pandemic entrench pre-existing precarities and structural inequalities.

In this area, the pandemic ignited as a war on culture. In the middle months of 2020, the state noticed that Covid infections were spiking in rural districts, especially in the former Transkei and Ciskei homelands of the Eastern Cape. The national government blamed customary practices, alleging that the rising rural infection rates were a product of large traditional family funerals at which Covid regulations were flouted. President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team of bio-medical scientists and advisors acted quickly to ban rituals and contain funerals. They deployed the police at these events, which were now identified as micro “hotspots” within a larger landscape of rural infection.

The War on Culture

During his public addresses on national television, Ramaphosa regularly gave warning about the rural poor’s adherence to dangerous and deadly customary practices. In April 2020, it was alleged that a single funeral in Port St Johns had spread the virus over large parts of the region. This claim, which was publicised widely, was precautionary, based more on assumption than proof. In the meantime, the city-based congregation in poor areas went under the radar.

What the president and his advisors failed to recognise was the tsunami of youthful reverse migration to the rural areas that accompanied the pandemic. As urban jobs vanished and colleges and schools closed, tens of thousands of youths and unemployed adults returned “home”. These numbers far exceeded those who returned for funerals and/or to engage in customary practices. However, it was the idea of “custom” that bore the brunt of scrutiny as the police swarmed through the villages, breaking up family gatherings and terminating rituals. Throughout 2020, the presence of the police effectively became mandatory at rural funerals – although these same officers were not generally present at those places in town where people congregated in great numbers, such as taxi ranks, taverns and supermarkets.

Rural families and communities lived in fear of infection and were left to wonder when the next police raid would happen. Many were deeply offended by the assertion that their customs had “caused Covid”. They claimed that the pandemic posed a threat from the outside that had nothing to do with the way they practised their culture. Many rejected the state’s tough lockdown tactics and regime of surveillance. They argued that they had struggled to defend their culture against the assault of British colonialism during the Frontier Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries – and would do the same during the state-declared “war on Covid”.

Meanwhile, in the absence of adequate bio-medical care; basic services; and proper public education, traditional cultural practices and indigenous knowledge came to represent a significant bulwark against an apparently hostile and increasingly dangerous wider world. On a practical level, many families turned to medicinal plants and local knowledge to treat cough, fevers and infections. At the same time, the pandemic appeared to divide rural communities into traditionalists and those who believed in a modern idea of progress, as Christianity and colonialism had done in the past. In this struggle, the survival of Xhosa cultural practices and beliefs were once again set against external forces of elimination and denigration; although some villagers supported the state’s narrative of the pandemic in the belief that the government’s approach would bring protection and improvement.

In Tsolo, a cultural heartland of the Xhosa nation in the Eastern Cape, we spoke to traditional healers, surgeons, and cultural leaders about this time. They spoke freely about their perceptions of the pandemic and the cultural war that had needed to be fought against the state and what were seen as its alien policies. The healers claimed that the state had rejected their deep African cultural knowledge and expertise and had sought to tackle the pandemic without their support or involvement. They explained that this was why they had refused to help the government with its vaccination campaign in 2021.

Bewitching Police

In discussing the early months of the pandemic, the local traditional leaders made much of the unwanted intrusions of police in the villages and their unwelcome presence at family funerals. One traditional healer recalled that:

People were furious at the harsh and drastic actions taken by amapolisa (police) during the pandemic where they disrespected custom by throwing away imiqombothi [home-brewed beer] and meat. The ancestors were also not pleased at the level of disrespect. People now didn’t really care about the pandemic, but they remember when the police turned to be their enemies. People have been fighting the police, who are always running away from them, but not so during the pandemic.

He continued:

At this time, the police played a huge role of safeguarding by enforcing their rules. This made them despised by the people. It was the first time that I saw police officers being that active on duty and responding as they did during the pandemic. According to them, the pandemic was a successful project for the police. The amapolisa are never doing their work but when it comes to useless things like enforcing Covid-19 rules they were so active, ignoring reported serious cases such as death and crime related incidents.

Another healer said the people were so angry that they started bewitching the police to keep them away from their homes and communities. They resorted to using herbs, concoctions and charms in the hope that their ritual events would go unnoticed. The rule at this time was that all rituals were to be reported to the nearest police station to ensure that uniformed police were on site to implement social distancing and other Covid regulations. So, news of any ritual was shared privately among rural residents to ensure that knowledge of the event did not reach the police station.

With time, the police presence subsided. By mid-2020, private funeral parlours became the frontline of enforcement, holding bodies until the day of burial; wrapping coffins in plastic; and ensuring that ritual practices of viewing and washing the body could not be performed. One of the healers believed that the will of the people had driven the police away. He said: “At the height of the pandemic there were many police-related car accidents and the motive behind most of them was that the police were being bewitched by people.” Traditionalists took the retreat of the police as a small sign of victory.

Masks and the ‘Wound’ of the Mouth

Local healers and residents who followed tradition also spoke pointedly on the issue of masks and the meaning of the state’s demands that people should cover their mouths. They said that an order for Xhosa people to cover their mouths cannot be made without proper explanation because in their culture, “the mouth is an uncovered wound” that “should not be covered”. One healer put it in these words:

Covid-19 ibiphikisana nesintu, meaning it goes against that which culture and custom posit. One should remember isintu says umlomo awubekwa siziba, meaning you don’t put a cloth in front of your mouth. In our culture it is umlomo wasikwa waphola, a cut that has not healed because it is needed. Covering your mouth when speaking or addressing someone is culturally a sign of disrespect. When you put something in front of your mouth, the next person won’t hear you, they will wonder why you disrespect them, and will disregard what you are saying. The compulsory use of masks meant that people were being asked to disregard their culture and custom, and that which isintu (custom) posits. I would say ibasebenzise kakubi, meaning Covid-19 was intended to destabilise our own way of life.

The healer explained that insisting on covering the mouth at rituals, where the police were the enforcers, was especially problematic because these were the times when the mouth was crucial in transmitting cultural knowledge. He said that the ancestors had ensured that the wound of the mouth was not healed so that people could extend their culture through orality. Others concurred that the Covid restrictions offended them, not only by limiting numbers of attendees and enforcing social distancing at funerals, but by preventing people from communicating in culturally acceptable ways. They insisted that the state should have found other ways to mitigate danger rather than enforcing the “closure of the wound the ancestors required to be open”.

Plate 2: Engaging with healers in Tsolo, Eastern Cape (Source: Bonelwa Nogqaza)

Another old man joined the conversation and commented on the tipping of beer pots and the ban on drinking beer at rituals as problematic. He said that the application of the mouth to the beakers in which the umqombothi (beer) was served was a sign of mutuality and respect. To refuse to place your mouth on the beaker, as a man at a ritual, was a sign of rejection, a statement that you are not part of abantu (the people). To apply your mouth here was seen as an expression of respect for the family and the wider community.

The healer concluded: “Those who recommended that our mouths must be covered without coming to explain why must … have ulterior motives. They intend to silence communities and our culture. They do not understand our language and understanding of the wound that should not be covered.” He explained that the mouth is the organ that “makes Xhosa culture”. He wondered how the state could ask his people to cover their mouths without coming in person to explain why this might be necessary.

Nomzamo, a 40-year-old woman in the community, said that traditional Xhosa villagers in this area had been raised with the saying umntu akalothole lenkomo, akabekwa mcheme. The saying refers to the device attached to a calf’s nose which is used to help detach it from its mother as part of a process called ukulumlwa. When this device is being attached, the calf is unable to do anything. Nomzamo said that the introduction of the masks was similarly designed as a measure intended to ukulumlwa kwabantu (prevent people) from talking properly. Zoliswa, a 36-year-old woman, said that people who covered their mouths when speaking were up to no good. She said that it was understood that there was a reason why umlomo wasikwa waphola (the mouth was a cut that healed) – it was an open wound that was meant to be seen. Zimi, a 35-year-old woman, said umntu ovalwa umlomo ngumntu ofileyo (the only person whose mouth should be closed is a deceased one). She suggested that closing the mouth was associated with a kind of cultural death, marking an inability to communicate.

An old man, Dali, said that the masks were also problematic because they made it difficult for him to breathe. He said that releasing carbon dioxide into the mask was unhealthy because humans must inhale fresh air and oxygen. A younger man associated the mask with the suppression of manhood. He said that it impacted his masculinity because indoda kumele ithethe kuvakale (a man must be eloquent in his speech, which confirms his manhood). A local sangoma laughed when she said that the rules were absurd: “How can you speak to the ancestors with a covered mouth?” She concluded that the rules were designed to stop the Xhosa people from practising their culture.

Inxeba: The Wound of Circumcision

In the conversations in Tsolo, the focus inevitably shifted to another kind of wound: inxeba, the wound of male initiation. Circumcision is the cut that signals the transition from boyhood to manhood and which requires young men to go to the bush for several weeks to be instructed in the arts of manhood. The cut is performed by ncibi, a traditional surgeon, and managed by his male nurses. During the police clampdown of April and May 2020, male initiation lodges across the Eastern Cape became a primary target of law enforcement. The police sent the boys home and often allowed medics to attend to their wounds. Practices of male initiation have become highly politicised in the Eastern Cape since the HIV/Aids epidemic with the state encouraging male medical circumcision as an alternative to the traditional cutting practice as part of its efforts to combat HIV/Aids. The issue and the controversy around it have been widely covered by the media.

Plate 3: Critically acclaimed isiXhosa documentary film, Inxeba (The Wound) released in 2017, which sparked controversy around issues of customary practices of circumcision, sexuality and masculinity.

The ncibis we spoke to explained how the HIV epidemic had changed their way of operating. One traditional surgeon explained how he used to use a single spear to cut the boys, so that they would be “bonded in blood” as the blade moved across the whole group. The regulations now stated that a different spear should be used on each penis. The ncibi explained:

I have 32 spears in his house that I utilise when circumcising a boy. I am always very cautious of how I use the spears. When I re-use a spear, I firstly cleanse it with a bottle [of Old Buck gin] rather than medical spirits. Generally, I run away from using izinto zesilungu (Western things) which do not go hand in hand with Xhosa tradition. I initiate the boys with a spear inside his kraal and prefer doing it either in the early hours of the morning or in the evening so that the witches and other people in the village do not see them. When I have done initiating them, I take the boys to the forest where they build a shack for themselves so that they are distant from the people.

He went on to say that Covid had opened a window for “disrespecting the tradition and sacredness of ulwaluko (initiation)”:

Health care professionals started polluting the space of ibhoma (huts). They chased us away and brought izinto zesilungu to abakhwetha such as bandages, betadine, cotton wool, sanitisers and masks as a way to both treat the pain and protect them. These are things that amadoda esiXhosa (Xhosa men) are against. Bringing those things to our secret places was disrespectful. It disregards what they know and believe in. As Xhosas we believe that isilonda asiboshwa and refer to the circumcised penis as isilonda (a wound).

Another ncibi spoke about the danger of covering the wound with Western medicines. He said that it was against traditional cultural practice:

You don’t cover the wound with these things [bandages etc.], for it does not heal if you do so. You don’t treat a pain by using izinto zesilungu, you must follow through the traditional medicines. In the ibhoma, I treat them with traditional herbs and dress them with amagqabi (leaves). When the healthcare professionals visited us during the pandemic, they looked at these herbs in the ibhoma, herbs such as leaves, onions and other green herbs and uttered disrespectful words in English: ‘What are these leaves and these things like onion and dirty shit for?’

The ncibis welcomed the return of male initiation practices after the pandemic but complained about ever-expanding state and bio-medical regulation. They felt that the degradation of cultural practices, such as initiation had undermined the integrity and power of Xhosa culture in the lives of young men, and was a cause of many problems among the youth, including bad luck, delinquency and drug addiction.

Open Wounds and DIY Ruralism

In reflecting on these narratives of cultural defiance and objection, it is important to understand that they are born of feelings of bitterness and exclusion. The refusal of the state and the bio-medical establishment to engage with traditional healers and local cultural experts during the Covid pandemic alienated them, stoking the flames of cultural and political discontent. The experience also re-invoked divisions between those who “believe” in the project of modernisation and those who are determined to resist – that is, those who place value on the purity of their culture.

The fact that so many families interacted with traditional healers during the pandemic because of the collapse of the rural public health system meant that their anger and views were widely disseminated – reopening the wounds of colonialism. By associating bio-medical interventions with the imperatives of liberal imperialism, culture was again politicised in ways that have made innovation and change difficult to realise. Furthermore, the inability of the South African state and officials to initiate meaningful participatory rural development programmes after the pandemic limited the possibilities for new forms of “people’s science” that might create better, safer practices through broader conversations and co-production for the future.

Extending emergency social relief grants to the rural poor electronically is not a substitute for rural development. It offers no platform to address the growing problems of rampant, gender-based violence, drug and alcohol addiction or rural vigilantism. In the absence of new leadership and the political will to guide post-pandemic recovery and reconstruction, DIY ruralism might again be written through the scripts of restorationist ethnicity and the doomsday theologies of rural pastors. Given the histories of cultural resistance in these rural communities and the way the state managed the pandemic in these areas, it appears that old wounds will take a while to heal yet.


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