In a year in which millions of people have faced death, job losses and financial devastation owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, there is nothing some want more than to relax in their family homesteads in the Eastern Cape in December.
“I cannot resist going home in December,” said Nombulelo Mrwata from New Rest in Gugulethu, Cape Town. Mrwata, who has worked in a kitchen for the same employer for 13 years but was paid a reduced wage during lockdown, is heading to Lady Frere this month. The 63-year-old, who has high blood pressure and arthritis, lost her sister-in-law to the coronavirus. Her family also lost a young child because of the pandemic.
Nozipho Maphuphu, 45, lives with her two adult sons in the Ladies Park extension of the Kwakhikhi shack settlement near Gugulethu, which was built by the children of former hostel dwellers to offset the effects of overcrowding in the main hostel. Nozipho’s sister, Nomalungisa Maphuphu, 36, lives with them and was about to give birth at the time of writing. Only one of Nozipho’s sons still has work, as a security guard.
Nozipho went home to the Eastern Cape briefly during lockdown for a funeral. “But to me, being home means staying there for over a month, and then I will feel good about being home,” she said, adding that the family leaves for Cofimvaba on 13 December.
Funeka Mshweshwe is heading home from Cape Town a few days before Christmas to Gatyane in Willowvale, Eastern Cape. “My only concern is the amount needed to make the trip, as adults pay about R700 each way,” she said.
Mshweshwe had a terrible year after her uncle died from the coronavirus and she lost her job at an early childhood centre. She said her three young sons suddenly found themselves waiting at home while she went to look for food.
“Boy children always raid the bread bin and finding it empty, they throw a tantrum. It seems bread is a boy’s lifeline. My brother-in-law also lost his job. This meant my sister’s four children had to come stay with us. Suddenly, they were seven [children] in the house. I just couldn’t take it.” She was eventually offered a stipend to work at the crèche, which she said helped a little.
‘It was tough’
Fuku Maqendwanana, 71, is planning to leave the Cyril Ramaphosa shack settlement in Cape Town and move to the village of Gqaga in Engcobo, Eastern Cape. He said many of his church friends had died from the coronavirus. Five of his six sons lost their jobs and were no longer able to support him and his wife. “It was tough for me, but even tougher for my sons, shame,” he said.
Gugulethu-based long-distance truck driver and father of two, Onke Khusa, 30, and his five siblings all lost their jobs during lockdown. “I’m holding piece jobs so I can leave for Cofimvaba in December, though,” said Khusa.
For others who lost their jobs this year, there is no way to afford the trip home. Bonelele Mbilini, 34, a resident of the Lingelethu shack settlement near Motherwell in Port Elizabeth lost her job as a farm worker, packing oranges. “I can’t visit my family in Tsomo because I have no money. This coming holiday, I won’t do umcimbi [traditional function] at all because my husband and I don’t have jobs,” she said.
Mandlenkosi Mazonda, 58, of Kamvelihle in Port Elizabeth, works as a driver. “Sometimes I argue with my wife when I only bring R150 from work, because since this Covid-19 virus I sometimes worked two or three days a week. All my earnings went into deductions. I want to go home in December but I have no money. There will be many events such as weddings and initiation ceremonies. In December, we will sit here and look at each other in the eyes,” he said.
Lungisa Dyasi, 42, from Zwide in Port Elizabeth lived and worked in Cape Town for 19 years. But after the coronavirus outbreak, he built a stand to sell fruit and vegetables and made “bank stools” (wooden chairs) and dog kennels. “Here at home, we are a family of seven and depend on our parent’s social grant to survive, which is not enough. Now I’m not sure how to plan for December holidays because the institutions I supplied have closed down, therefore there’s no way I can afford to travel,” he said.
A number of small Eastern Cape villages and rural towns were not badly affected by the coronavirus this year, helped by the isolated nature of these areas and social distancing. Some pensioners across the province, even in the busy townships of KwaNobuhle and Mdantsane isolated themselves with signs on their doors stating “Please, no visitors”.
“Not many people lost their lives in Xolorha village, and because the houses are built far apart, we are not scared of immediate infections. I haven’t heard of people close who have succumbed to the disease,” said Nombulelo Mbotho, 50, who owns a spaza shop in the village.
Festive season plans
However, celebratory gatherings such as traditional functions where dozens of people cook and eat close to one another have barely taken place in lockdown. But they are a large part of the festive season. December traditional functions are also an important part of local economies. Many village-based farmers aim to make enough money to support their extended families over the coming year by selling cattle and sheep to those arriving from the major cities.
Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha, the spokesperson for Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane, said there is an “emerging surge” of coronavirus cases in the province. “One of the activities for this season are cultural and family events. For these, too, we urge restraint and alert,” he said.
Sicwetsha said the provincial government wanted all universities in the province to put lockdowns in place on their campuses until the end of the academic year at the first sign of a Covid-19 outbreak. The Eastern Cape government has also set up 100 rapid response teams trained to combat “the possible second wave” in the 100 municipal wards that experienced high numbers of coronavirus cases during the first wave of the pandemic.
He said the government is aware that more “superspreader” events may emerge. Last month, 125 University of Fort Hare students tested positive within three weeks in one of the “superspreader” incidents. They were taken to the Bisho hospital isolation site while 423 other students had to be tested and self-isolate.
Sicwetsha said that while ulwaluko (traditional circumcision) was prohibited across South Africa, the provincial executive council would be asking the national government “to allow ulwaluko for the December season”.
But signalling a major change in the traditional practice of circumcision camps being under the sole management of the ikhankatha, who is in charge of the camp for the initiates, Sicwetsha said that if ulwaluko was allowed “each family of a young boy that will undergo ulwaluko will be responsible for the wellbeing of their child by ensuring wearing of masks, regular washing of hands with soap and water, and limiting numbers of people in each ibhoma to enforce social distancing”.
The government is banking on people continuing to wear masks and physically distance throughout their stay in the rural areas.
But in the village of Qunu, two grade 11 students say they feel that traditional functions must be postponed until December 2021. “Because as soon as people get drunk, wearing of masks and social distancing won’t be practised. In fact, we should rather postpone all events this year. The elders need to apologise to ancestors for the promises they could not keep,” said Aluve Zenani, 21.
His friend, Luvumo Kwatsha, 19, agreed, saying “all those people who want to celebrate this December should wait for next year at least. Life is more important than imicimbi”.
But their classmate, Khaya Mahlabedlula, 21, said, “Customs and traditions are part of our lives. We are obliged to do them as Africans. If we don’t do the ceremonies, some of us will be sick.
“In some situations, traditional healers are called to communicate with the ancestors. We can still do the events as long as we practise social distancing, wash our hands regularly and wear masks, and maintain the limit of people attending the event.”