Photo Essay | The year of the pandemic

South Africa was plunged abruptly into fear, hunger, social isolation and uncertainty a year ago as Covid-19 infections started to rise. New Frame photographers captured life from this moment.

It’s been just over a year since a terrible global pandemic arrived in South Africa. Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize announced the first official case of Covid-19 in the country on 5 March last year. President Cyril Ramaphosa swiftly declared a state of national disaster, and imposed a 21-day initial lockdown that started on 26 March.

By then, 402 Covid-19 cases had been reported and the lockdown was an attempt to “flatten the curve” – that is, slow the spread of infection. South Africans had never experienced such a lockdown and did not know what to expect. It was a difficult adjustment made worse by the heavy police and military presence on the streets, especially townships and shack settlements. Within the first three weeks of the lockdown, the police and soldiers had killed 10 people, all of whom came from working-class backgrounds. 

Now, in late March 2021, more than 52 000 South Africans have died from the coronavirus, thousands have lost their livelihoods and we’re settling into a new kind of grim and austere reality. In the year that South Africa slowly came to terms with a new way of life determined by Covid-19, New Frame photographers were there to witness it.

27 March 2020: A lone pedestrian crosses the bridge between Sandton and Alexandra in Johannesburg on the first day of the lockdown, which the South African government instituted in the hope of curbing the spread of Covid-19. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
27 March 2020: Residents in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, gather at their windows and on stairwells to watch as the police and army patrol the city on the first day of the lockdown. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
30 March 2020: Police officers arrest a man at a bar in Hillbrow for not keeping to the government’s Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. (Photograph by James Oatway)
21 April 2020: Metro police officers engage residents of the Lakeview shack settlement near Lawley, south of Johannesburg, with rubber bullets. The officers cornered and arrested several residents in this house for resisting their demolition attempts at a time when there was a moratorium on evictions because of the pandemic. (Photograph by James Oatway)
29 April 2020: Lucia Khumalo runs a business selling traditional headwear and pillows that she makes from old mattresses. She started sewing face masks when the pandemic hit to supply her community at the Bekezela shack settlement in Newtown, Johannesburg. (Photograph by James Puttick)
1 May 2020: Melville’s 7th Street looks like a ghost town. Usually populated with crowds of people and cars, particularly on weekends, many restaurants, bars and nightclubs closed because of the government’s strict physical distancing and stay-at-home regulations. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)
6 May 2020: Mike Ndlovu wears a face shield as he makes his way to a taxi rank in Soweto in the early hours of the morning. He was among essential workers allowed back to work at level four of the lockdown. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
8 June 2020: Grade 12 learners from Thulani Secondary School in Snake Park, Soweto, on their first day back after schools reopened. There were about 37 schoolchildren per classroom, but only 16 were allowed because of the pandemic. Despite good attendance, some learners stayed away for safety reasons. (Photograph by Oupa Nkosi)
10 June 2020: Natalie Collins, 59, has been living on the street in Observatory, Cape Town, for 12 years. She and others slept under the Station Road bridge through the wet winter as Covid-19 spread. (Photograph by Barry Christianson)
30 July 2020: A boy half-rollerblades past a pile of burning furniture. Residents of Phola Park in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni, chased out their migrant neighbours and burned their belongings, saying they were ‘spring cleaning’ and ‘sanitising’ their township. (Photograph by James Oatway)
31 July 2020: Mourners gather around a grave as a funeral is conducted late at night at Avalon Cemetery on the border between Lenasia and Soweto in Johannesburg. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
24 October 2020: Esihle Xelo, 25, from Upper Ngqwara in Mqanduli, Eastern Cape, sits on Durham Street outside the Mthatha post office waiting for her special Covid-19 social grant. Like many others from vulnerable backgrounds, she travelled more than 40km by taxi to collect the R350 that the Department of Social Development allocated to jobless citizens during the pandemic. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)
11 January 2021: A patient arrives at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria. Many of the province’s hospitals were full at the beginning of the year, during the second wave of Covid-19 infections in South Africa. (Photograph by James Oatway)
15 January 2021: Members of the Tshwane Special Infectious Unit on Covid-19 wear personal protective equipment to pick up a suspected Covid-19 patient in Pretoria. The unit’s ambulance is equipped with an isolation chamber that has a negative pressure filtration system. (Photograph by Alet Pretorius)
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