The Covid-19 pandemic: Re/making common knowledges and common spaces

Text by Tinashe Mawere

Banter(ing) the Lockdown and gender scripts

Gender scripts and gendered identities are always evident in the everyday. Butler (1988) argues that gendered meanings are made practical and visible through performances of the everyday. Rather than re/locating gender discourses as abstract and located in a world farfetched, it is important that we get realistic and focus on our everyday lives by reflecting on the current Coronavirus, Covid-19-induced lockdown. A quick and random survey of WhatsApp media related to the call to stay at home, circulating in groups that have Zimbabweans living in South Africa, reveals some performances of gender and ways in which toxic knowledges and practices about gender are re/produced and transported. The unrolling lockdown period to stop the spreading of Covid-19 in South Africa and Zimbabwe illustrates how a number of banters or jokes have imagined masculinities as struggling within the domestic space. Simultaneously, the female figure, whose position in domestic spaces has been normalised, has been depicted as having no issues with staying at home. This polarisation buttresses dominant and naturalised knowledge that positions particular spaces or locations as suitable for men and others as suitable for women, making gender and social hierarchies sensible.

Homes, masculinities and femininities

In addition to a clear depiction of the family and homes in heterosexual normativity as prescribed by global dominant knowledges (Peterson 2000), the current Coronavirus, Covid-19 lockdown banters also invite us to unpack the notion of home and the complexities of space and gendered identities. The historical and cultural privileging and naturalization of male power is implicated and acted out through notions of family and the distinctions between domestic/private and public/political spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016; Nyambi 2012; Lewis 2002; McClintock 1993). In narrating the situation at home during the lockdown, most banters position the family in the traditional and dominant sense of heterosexuality, with the wife and husband belonging to clearly-opposite sexual categories. This presentation silences non-heterosexual sexualities and supposes a hierarchy of sexualities where heteronormative sexualities are normalized while non-heteronormative sexualities are unspeakable. In the current national lockdown, it is important to problematize the effects of positioning only heteronormative families where multiple sexualities and sexual relations exist and are acknowledged especially in a ‘democracy’ like South Africa. In many ways, therefore, the lockdown is a microcosm of what happens daily in gendered South Africa. In addition to that, this particular familial notion brings in the complex issue of space and location, where space is polarized as domestic/private and public, and associated with distinct sexualities. This continues the existing discourse of specific roles for each named gender (Mawere 2016; Eisenstein 2000; Peterson 2000; McClintock 1993).

While women are portrayed as nurtured to, natural to and fitting neatly within the ‘imprisonment’ of the home, banters related to the national lockdown portray men as misfits in the domestic space and therefore excuse them from what are regarded as marginal spaces, occupations and identities. Men are shown struggling to survive inside the home – in confinement, implying and naturalizing the public and unbound as the space for men. This links to images of men as active, assertive, wild, agentive and dominant in public spaces. Where men are shown to be adapting to some of the characteristics of the domestic space (like child care, kitchen chores and having limited freedom), they are positioned as caricatures of an inverse and unnatural order of the world.

Confining men to the domestic space is tantamount to reducing them to mere boys; and emasculating them since real men cannot be boxed. This is why some of the circulating jokes during the lockdown show men playing with toys and also playing children’s games. While this locates care in femininity, it also locates care and femininity as marginal, since men are involved only because they have nothing else to do after their removal from their ‘serious’ occupations and spaces. In addition, the home is shown as marginal through its association with care and femininity, hence naturalizing and normalizing male power and locating it outside of domesticity.

Media, real or dramatized, that show men defying the lockdown should be understood in the context of men seeking to escape the emasculating aspects of space; and attempts to gain and prove their manhood. At the same time, the press-ups, frog-jumps, ground-rolling and skop ‘n donner, skiet and donner meted on the men who escape by the military is to censor such masculinities that are now challenging the state, the presidency and putting the nation in danger. President Ramaphosa said, “Staying at home, avoiding public places and cancelling all social activities is the preferred best defence against the virus.” This reveals how epidemics like Covid-19 triggered the surveillance of citizens and how self-surveillance and self-discipling of bodies have become markers of good and responsible citizenship.

No images of struggling women have dominated social media, reinforcing the normalcy and naturalness of their location in the domestic space, hence confirming women’s gendered role of nurturing and care. Thus, limiting women to domestic spaces becomes sensible, hence the circulating media related to the lockdown is re/producing the sensible. In many ways, this “normalises the inferior status of women, and asserts the superiority of men and the necessity for control” (Mawere 2019:34).

Historically, women have been denied space in public arenas, with their activity limited to the traditional private and domestic spheres. The collusion of African traditional leaders with the colonial administration during colonialism to curb the movement of African women in urban spaces (Barnes 1992) is important evidence to support this. In Zimbabwe, this is evidenced by the 1980s random raids of women stigmatised as prostitutes and vagrants in what the government called ‘Operation Clean-up’ (Ranchod-Nilsson 2006).

In Zimbabwe, South Africa and elsewhere, women who have attempted to go beyond their domestic spaces or acceptable limitations have been monitored by patriarchal spectacles, and framed as unreasonable. Moreover, efforts have been made to normalize them or to humiliate and crush them. Women in the entertainment industries, like Bev Sibanda and Chiwoniso Maraire (Zimbabwe), and those in politics like Joice Mujuru, Grace Mugabe and Thokozani Khupe (Zimbabwe), Winnie Mandela, Nkosazana Zuma (South Africa) and Joyce Banda (Malawi), in various ways, attempted to break the boundaries of domesticity which made them conflict with the patriarchal order (Mawere 2019, 2016).

The perceived absurdity of women’s occupation of the public space is a global phenomenon, as shown by the 1997 presentation of British women parliamentarians as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘babes’ rather than as serious and independent deployees and the aggressive sexualisation of Sarah Palin, in the 2008 US Presidential elections (O’Neill et al. 2016, Perks & Johnson 2014, Harmer & Wring 2013) and the demonisation of Hillary Clinton in 2016 US elections (Ritchie 2013). During Zimbabwe’s national elections in 2018, after criticising wives of Zanu-PF politicians for breaking their boundaries and sneaking into public spaces through politics, Nelson Chamisa, the MDC presidential candidate, asserted his power, authority and competency for national presidency. He bragged about “his ability to keep his wife in the right space, i.e. in the domestic sphere. For him, failure to understand properly roles and responsibilities and to act accordingly accounted for Zimbabwe’s failure to grow and flourish” (Mawere 2019:63-64).

In many ways, the home is marginalised and this consequently naturalises social hierarchies based on women’s subordination (Mawere 2016; Yuval-Davies, 1997). Through the silencing of women’s experiences during the lockdown, the home is regarded as commonplace for femininities. Where women characters are shown, they are rather portrayed in a jovial mood since they are made extensions of the environment or as satirising the ‘locked down’ or captured men or rather making men’s lives unbearable by giving them ‘domestic’ chores like cleaning and laughing at them for being locked down. This speaks to what Gaidzanwa (1985) describes as the depiction of women as witches, which is characteristic of many literary texts. These negative images position women as vindictive and evil, substantiating the evil-woman motif which has largely been used as the basis for women elimination and exclusion from particular spheres of life that are deemed essential.

This is also supported by the Madonna-Whore complex where women either saint or sinner, but not both. Literature has shown that women are eliminated and excluded because of the negative images used to characterise them (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985). Naturalising and normalising home as a space for women is a way of trivialising women and deterring them from participating in the public or in what are naturalised and normalised as male spaces (O’Neill, Savigny and Cann 2016). This accounts for the lack of cultural, structural and ideological support for women to occupy public spaces and provides reason for the policing of women’s bodies by patriarchy.

The home is associated with the private and is never thought of as the place for men. Addressing the nation, Ramaphosa directed, “From midnight on Thursday 26 March until midnight on Thursday 16 April, all South Africans will have to stay at home.” Staying at home metaphorically implies the emasculation of men. Most men who defied the lockdown did so to subvert their feminisation by the disease, by the threat of a foreigner, an intruder (especially in the context where the Coronavirus, Covid-19 has been associated with foreignness and whiteness, as articulated by Zimbabwe’s defence minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri who publicly said that coronavirus is God’s punishment for Western countries[1]). Breaking the imposed boundaries and going into the public and expansive spaces is therefore a reassertion of masculinities.

A number of videos trending on social media show men disobeying the presidential directive to stay at home, marking disobedience as manly and obedience as cowardice and unmanly. Because of the association of cowardice with femininity, a lot of men have taken risks in life in order to prove their manhood. Disobeying the lockdown directive, especially through an irrational occupation of public spaces was a performance of manhood, which however, challenged the masculinities of the state.

Flattening the curve: Responsible masculinities and responsible citizenship

The South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa situates national defence and the nation’s survival in the imperatives of national unity, singleness of purpose, obedience and responsible citizenship. To ensure that this is done, through the use of the war metaphor, the state embarks on authoritarian nationalism as it brings the military on the streets to survey citizens and enforce the lockdown. In his speech, Ramaphosa articulates that those fighting to defeat the virus, and therefore to save the nation of South Africa from the threat of extinction should be responsible and actively participate to break the virus. This responsibility lies in flattening the curve of the virus or stopping its spread by staying at home. In this case, the defence of the nation, or the war front is located in one’s personal responsibility in stopping the spreading of the virus.

The home therefore, which has been marginalised in dominant literature and associated with femininities becomes central to the survival of the nation of South Africa. As a nation with both sick and healthy citizens and with the sick having to be cared for and healed and the healthy protected, the home is central. The care for the sick and protection for the healthy is located within home/private and within families rather than public spaces. It is therefore important to re/think our dominant perceptions of home, of our notions of defending nations, of masculinities and of nationhood. While the industrial, technological, mechanical and economical world has given us ‘comfort’ and a false sense that we can live and survival away from home and humanity, Covid-19 has forced us back to re/negotiate genders, masculinities, nationhood and citizenship.

Re/thinking home and nationhood

Banters associated with the lockdown and men’s non-compliance with presidential directives are spectacles, performances and re/productions of patriarchal cultures. At the same time, the lockdown measures that centralise South Africa’s defence and national survival at home offer a subversive text that urges us to re/think the notion of home and nationhood. It has taken a pandemic to teach us that there is an important space called home where toxic viruses, genders and lives are ‘flattened’. Subversively, Covid-19 has challenged us to re/think ‘marginal’ spaces and their potential to be spaces of life and our survival.


This article was first published by the CSA&G’s Gender Justice Project.

Tinashe Mawere is currently a researcher at CSA&G. He is working in the Gender Justice Project (Irish Aid) based at the University of Pretoria



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[1] Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri says coronavirus is God’s punishment

Theorising in the thrall of a pandemic

by Pierre Brouard

Is it possible to have theory in an epidemic? Paula Treichler asked in the early years of AIDS.

In an essay, AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification, Treichler argued that “AIDS is not merely an invented label, provided to us by science and scientific naming practices, for a clear-cut disease entity caused by a virus. Rather, the very nature of AIDS is constructed through language and in particular through the discourses of medicine and science; this construction is ‘true’ or ‘real’ only in certain specific ways – for example, insofar as it successfully guides research or facilitates clinical control over the illness.”

Not only was Treichler alerting us to the power of language to frame disease responses, she is suggesting that the words we use to name diseases are themselves reliant on specific social, political, cultural and global moments: through the naming we “make” and “remake” the disease, we “construct” its meaning and our response to it.

Her question about theory was, as I see it, both academic and moral. It is a valid academic duty because it is necessary to think even when we are held in thrall to a new disease – how we think can affect how we respond in the midst of the drama and panic.

And it is moral because there is a suggestion, even now as we deal with Covid-19, that to theorise is to be frivolous, an unnecessary, and even dangerous, displacement activity when so many systems have to be set up and lives in peril saved.

Someone else who brought theory to AIDS was Susan Sontag. As a 1989 review of her book AIDS and its Metaphors by Paul Robinson in the New York Times notes[1], “Susan Sontag’s purpose in ‘AIDS and its Metaphors’ is to show how the way we talk and think about AIDS makes the disease even worse than it actually is. The metaphorical packaging of AIDS, she argues, increases the suffering of the afflicted while creating unneeded anxiety among the population at large.”

Yes Covid-19 is contagious in ways which HIV is not, but it is worth asking if our response so far has managed or exacerbated the epidemic of anxiety we are now seeing, and enabled agency in individuals, families, communities and countries.

Sontag was building on her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor, in which she noted how language could distort perceptions of diseases and, in some instances, prevent patients from acting rationally. With AIDS she saw how certain metaphors, invoked in describing the disease, were employed with varying effects.

One metaphor was the botanical or zoological one: the disease has stages (from being infected with HIV to having “full blown AIDS”), the stages have a biological inevitability (one will die). As Robinson notes, “it is an invitation to despair, causing much misery in its own right and also diverting victims from a sensible medical attitude toward their condition.”

Sontag was trying here to combat some of the fatalism which can come from notions of inevitability. If the disease progresses in ways which seem unstoppable, or indeed if a country is seen to go through “stages” (a virus arrives and spreads, takes hold, picks off the weak and the elderly, then containment and testing follow, resulting in a situation where hospitals struggle to deal with the numbers, ending perhaps with “herd” immunity), a sense of anxiety and panic is manifest, and may even be created.

Other scholars have written about the challenges (and to be fair, opportunities) of military metaphors (we are said to be waging a “war” against the virus). When we use these metaphors of course we can talk about casualties in casual ways (Gauteng was said to be “leading the pack” in Covid-19 infections, according to a recent news report), about collateral damage in dispassionate terms, and even view those with the virus as the enemy, to be managed in ways which deny civil liberties and some key human rights.

And words which incite fear, words like “dread” and “terror” and “horror” are used quite casually in news stories. Recently our minister of health sought to challenge complacency about our relatively low number of (known) infections, warning of what was to come ahead of the upcoming flu season.

“This will flood our hospitals and clinics and create a fertile ground for the coronavirus to spread or to be masked in its presentation. This means with this small growth in numbers we may be experiencing the calm before the devastating storm. We need to be aware that there may not be many further warnings before the pounding descends…”

The words “devastating, pounding, flood, fertile ground” are profoundly emotive. Do they create panic, do they help us to feel ready, or do they induce further helplessness? Their invocation of natural disasters, acts of God if you like, carry the weight of Old Testament predictions of doom.

A second metaphor Sontag explored was the idea of AIDS as a ”plague” (in contrast to an ”epidemic,” the term she preferred).

In her view, virus as plague invoked questions of punishment, not only of the sick person but society at large. In the case of HIV, the punishment was for the moral “weakness” of those infected (not surprising since most of the early known infections were in socially marginalised gay men, sex workers and drug users), and perhaps even a sign of moral “decay” in the broader society. Many conservative religious leaders saw AIDS as God’s punishment for societal ills, including anything that strayed from the heternorm, abortion, contraception, etc.

In South Africa we have already seen examples of how communities have rounded on those identified with Covid-19, wishing to drive them out in Salem-like witch hunts. We have also seen questions of blaming and othering. Mark Gevisser, in a recent New York Times piece, speaks of how black South Africans have called this new virus a “white-man’s disease”; callers to radio stations say “white people are obeying the lockdown but not black South Africans”, implying greater moral and patriotic fibre in the former community.

Like the biological stage metaphor, the plague metaphor contributes to the aura of inevitability: ”The plague metaphor is an essential vehicle of the most pessimistic reading of the epidemiological prospects. From classic fiction to the latest journalism, the standard plague story is of inexorability, inescapability,” says Robinson.

The pessimism evident in parts of South Africa, some of the languaging in news reports here and beyond our shores (references to a “deadly” disease or “killer bug”), and the awareness that it is poorer and marginalised South Africans who are likely to be most at risk, all may lead to feelings of inevitability, and fatalism. Fatalism which can be helpful – as a coping mechanism it is a way of avoiding emotional overload – or a hindrance – in some instances it can lead to behaviour which disregards the risks to self and other.

Contrary to the depictions of some of her contemporaries, Sontag challenged the idea that AIDS was dehumanizing or degrading, even though early images of people with HIV were of men in their prime looking haggard and disfigured. We could debate this, because it is awful to imagine the inner anguish of some of the early HIV patients, but what is interesting, in the context of Covid-19, is our current media interest in images and stories which convey the idea that the social body has become degraded. Desperate patients on ventilators, field hospitals which look efficient but are often quite basic, stories of cruise ship holidaymakers trapped in their cabins as their ship sails ineffectually from port to port, awaiting permission to land, tell a story of a globe gone bad.

Of course, as Sontag said, ”one cannot think without metaphors,” so we may ask which metaphors are useful, or problematic, or at least we should be open to seeing how our metaphors may hinder or help our response. Metaphors can be well or poorly chosen. They would be poorly chosen if they misrepresented the disease, contributed to its victims’ pain or lowered the threshold for risk behaviour. They may be well chosen if they tell a story which neither diminishes individuals with a “feared” virus nor engenders panic, anxiety, helplessness and “anti-social” behaviour.

This article was first published on Gender Justice


“Stay in the house and shag” and other bits of useless Covid-19 advice

Text by Pierre Brouard

Just “stay in the house and shag” said UK comedian Guz Khan when asked how he was coping with Covid-19.

That’s all very well I thought when I read the interview on the Guardian online, but what if you don’t really have a house that’s conducive to sex at any time of the day; or you live alone (I guess masturbation counts as being sexual, I will concede, but then a friend I was chatting to said he was “seeing how long I can go without masturbating” – but why? I thought); or your partner is abusing you; or you are so exhausted from 24 hour parenting and schooling sex is the last thing on your mind; or you have to go to work because you work in an essential service.

I also wonder if sex in an epidemic is the same as sex when life is “normal”? Beyond the advice columns about whether sex can be as safe as it was BC (before Covid) – in sum the experts say it’s ok to do what you want if you are Covid free, you should avoid each other completely if one of you has it, and you could switch to technology if you live alone or apart from your partner (video sex, sexting and the dreaded Zoom of course) – what do epidemics of fear do to our sex drives?

A Google search found this fascinating chapter from War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa by Joshua S. Goldstein. These are my take home messages, with a Covid twist.

We can become obsessed by sex

When we think we might die, we can become obsessed with sex as there is a sense of urgency about having one last intimate experience of life, or possibly the sex is a distraction from our deepest fear, death.

“Soldiers show an ‘almost universal preoccupation with sex’ – an ‘obsession with sex in a community of men…deprived of usual social and emotional outlets.’ A British officer in World War I concluded that ‘[m]ost soldiers were ready to have sexual intercourse with almost any woman whenever they could.’”[1]

Here in Gauteng a man was arrested in a road block for trying to go and visit his girlfriend, not visit his dying granny as he initially claimed. Perhaps he was just going to have tea with her, who knows?

These obsessions don’t occur in a vacuum

US and British military culture in World War II promoted this preoccupation with sex. As Goldstein notes, over 5 million copies of Life magazine’s 1941 photo of Rita Hayworth (captioned the “Goddess of Love”) were sent out to US soldiers. They were published not only in men’s magazines but in service publications like Stars and Stripes (or for Britain, Reveille).

Obviously this is a heteronormative take on war-time sexuality but it speaks to the idea that sex can become a preoccupation when we are deprived of it, and that military systems found a way to channel this: it was in their interest to entertain the preoccupation, given the horrors of war.

In South Africa, the idea that sex might be a need in a time of Covid would be regarded as frivolous by some and the regulations around staying at home, on the surface a key part of the “flatten the curve” strategy, dovetail very neatly with our generally conservative morality. But like HIV, Covid has been a revealer of our sexuality: sexologist Dr Eve on a Radio 702 show shared how many infidelities were being exposed through this lockdown!

Social norms can become disrupted

Another consequence of war is the disruption of social norms, especially if soldiers operate far from home, with new sexual opportunities and motives. “The disruption of normal sexual patterns was noted empirically by a New Orleans ‘madam’ whose business increased when America entered World War I: ‘I’ve noticed it before, the way the idea of war and dying makes a man raunchy. It wasn’t really pleasure at times, but a kind of nervous breakdown that could only be treated with a girl and a set to.’”[2]

Men saw sex workers, with and without military blessing, and sometimes formed relationships with local women (whose own relationships may also have been disrupted). “A US soldier in France in World War II wrote to his father that he planned to ‘get my fun where I can get it while I’m still alive. And to hell with tomorrow – it may never come.’ And apparently US airmen in England “who beat the odds by surviving could have sex after a mission, consistent with the testosterone boost produced by a ‘win’”.[3] Who were they having sex with, at such short notice? I wonder.

We could debate whether seeing a sex worker is a disruption of a social norm, but the words of that brothel owner are rather poignant – the men were having a “a kind of nervous breakdown”. I would venture that this is what a protracted lockdown can produce: will this change the way we have sex during and after “the time of the virus”?

Being at the front or the back mattered

In wartime the areas of greatest violence – the front lines – had far less sexual activity than the more peaceful areas behind the lines. “The ordinary soldier found that ‘[i]n the trenches there was no place for sexual life, at least not for a normal one…. According to Hirschfeld, soldiers in the trenches had few outlets for sexual energy and suffered ‘sex hunger’ on a massive scale – an ‘oppressive sex starvation.’ Sex hunger was compounded in World War I by the close quarters of men at the front, which often made even masturbation impractical. In World War II, by contrast, one soldier was more often alone in a foxhole, although a great stigma still attached to masturbation.”[4]

Behind the lines, by contrast, sex flourished in World War II. “By one calculation, the average US soldier who served in Europe from D-Day through the end of the war had sex with 25 women. The peak was reached after the surrender of Germany in 1945. Condoms had to be rationed at four per man per month and medical officers considered this ‘entirely inadequate.’”[5]

This is a fascinating observation: the imminence of death and sex urgency seems implied in the words of the “madam” above, and in the letter of the US soldier to his father, but perhaps it is the anticipation of death rather than the proximity of it which is more provocative? I think here of the frontline medical staff dealing with Covid – I would imagine they are too exhausted and afraid to think of sex, whereas the rest of us in a panicked lockdown might be more inclined to sexual abandon or risk (or not, as I suggest below).

“Normality” seems broken

“Hirschfeld claims that bestiality provided another substitute outlet created by the sexual starvation of the war”, said Goldstein [6]and “a military physician posted with a division of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Italian front reportedly thought that at least 10 percent of the men had sex with animals (usually their horses).”

And, not surprisingly, psychological problems after the war often included sexual dysfunction, such as inability to maintain an erection, well after returning to civilian life.

Depression, anxiety, job insecurity, all of these are likely in our current climate, and they are the enemy of a relaxed and comfortable sexual life. What we are going through as a country is not normal by any stretch of the imagination.

“Just stay in the house and shag” seems suddenly so bourgeois, so lacking in insight. We are living in the middle of a massive social experiment. Like my friend who has quit masturbating for a while, it’s one which may not have a happy ending.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.