Dispatches from a province at the peak of the virus

As we celebrate our second birthday with intimate portraits of life in Gauteng as Covid-19 rages, New Frame commits anew to fair, accurate journalism that constantly questions the status quo.

New Frame launched two years ago, on the anniversary of the Marikana massacre, with the aim of producing journalism that was scrupulously careful about accuracy, consistently credible, well written and presented, and animated by a passion for justice. We were not aiming to be first with the news but to produce work that mattered.

We did not want to add to the interminable and often toxic noise of the new public sphere mediated by the social industries. We were not looking for the kind of sensationalism that might win more clicks in the short term, but debases the media – and the public sphere more generally – in the medium term.

We were striving to grind new lenses to enable a fresh take on our country and the world, to see social relations more accurately and more fairly. We looked for journalists who were people of integrity, who understood that journalism requires constant reflexivity around ethical and epistemological questions, and that it is a form of intellectual engagement requiring constant learning across fields such as history, law, policy, politics, economics and more.

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The primary axiomatic principle guiding our project was a commitment to the fundamental equality of all people, everywhere. The second was a commitment to reason and evidence as necessary preconditions for making a useful contribution to a democratic public sphere.

Of course, no project ever fully realises its aspirations. There will be limitations and mistakes. There will be moments when urgency, with all its risk, is imperative. But we do hope that if we can continue to work in a spirit of collaborative critical reflection within New Frame, and with other media projects, we can continue to grind our lenses with greater and greater precision.

A clear view

When we launched New Frame in our news editor’s kitchen in August 2018, there was considerable optimism in many quarters about the end of the Jacob Zuma period. It was widely thought that the removal of Zuma from office would end the repressive kleptocracy into which the ANC had descended under his presidency.

Two years later, that optimism lies in ruins. The kleptocrats continue to thrive in the ruling party, the pressures to move economic policy even further to the right are mounting, the urban crisis is being addressed with routine and escalating state violence rather than solidarity with the most oppressed, and millions of people continue to live without a viable level of income. Impoverishment is worsening, and has been for years.

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When the Covid-19 crisis hit, a long-floundering public health system meant the immediate costs of the coronavirus were staggering. Infections are now over half a million. More than 11 000 people have lost their lives. The actual number is likely far higher. More than 27 000 healthcare workers have contracted the virus, and 230 have died. The more we learn, the more it becomes clear that the longer-term impacts of both the virus and the lockdown will be severe.

More than three million jobs were lost in the first month of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown, while more than a million people were pushed into poverty. In May, it was reported that more than 230 000 people had been arrested during the lockdown, 11 killed by the police and one by the army. At the same time, brutal evictions were unleashed against impoverished people in all our major cities. In this crisis, the state escalated its routine governance of impoverished black people with authoritarianism and violence. 

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New Frame’s second birthday comes at a time when experts predict Gauteng will be at the height of its coronavirus affliction. Nearly a third of the country’s infections are in this province. And still, among it all, ordinary people persevere. There remains a human insistence on continuing with some form of normal life. So, in the ordinary days of mothers, shopkeepers and the frontline workers protecting us from the coronavirus and burying those who succumb to it, we went looking for Gauteng’s “new normal”.

This weekend, our coverage tells the story of Gauteng, the epicentre of the pandemic, at its apex. From birth, through life, to confronting Covid-19 and eventually death, we’ve traced the virus through a life cycle in the province.

The experience of new mothers in the east of the province and a group of volunteers responsible for preparing the bodies of victims for burial in the south show the ways in which intimacy is being denied in two of life’s most significant chapters, its beginning and its end. A day at a tuck shop in one of Johannesburg’s worst-hit areas, Alexandra, highlights that aspects of the new normal are not all that new. Informal shopkeepers know better than anybody that the geography of the city’s racist and capitalist development was always as much of a threat to their livelihoods as any pandemic. And in the fears of a nurse working at one of Johannesburg’s Covid-19 hospitals, we get a sense that the weight of the burden South Africa’s frontline workers are shouldering every day is far heavier than just illness. 

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These are tough times. The extent of the crisis in our country must be faced clearly. We are proud of the work New Frame has done to contribute towards enabling a clear view of some of our most urgent challenges. Our writers and photographers have produced valuable work on police violence, the urban crisis, labour issues, xenophobia, the taxi industry and much, much more. There have been interventions in the fields of sport and culture that carry real weight. Our new podcast has been extremely well received and our mixtapes have won listeners from Mumbai to Buenos Aires and New York. All this has moved us closer to our aspirations.

Our readership has grown at a rate that has vastly exceeded what our research indicated was likely. We thank everyone who has chosen to invest their time and energy in reading or listening to our work. We will continue to endeavour to reward that investment as we confront a perilous moment in our country and, indeed, the world.

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