Give a woman a fish

By Christi Kruger

In his book, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New ‘Politics of Distribution’ (2015), James Ferguson discusses the politics surrounding social grants in the Global South at length.

He argues that the big “development story” of the last twenty years is not, as many scholars would argue, the story of microfinance but rather of “the rise and rise of social protection,” (Roelen and Devereux, 2013:1 as quoted in Ferguson, 2015). In countries across Southern Africa, the last two decades have seen the “creation and expansion of extensive social welfare programs targeting the poor anchored in schemes that directly transfer small amounts of cash to large numbers of low-income people” (Ferguson, 2015: 1). South Africa has been on the forefront of this expansion with more than 17 million social assistance grants transferred on a monthly basis. The South African government’s move to implement economic relief measures through the already existing social assistance system during the Covid-19 pandemic was therefore not unexpected and followed calls by many to distribute cash to poor citizens in this way.

For some South Africans the additional cash they receive through their social grants will bring a small sense of economic relief during this time. In the case of many others though, the small top-up offered will simply not suffice. Recent news footage visually demonstrated the extent of extreme poverty, which is bound to only increase over the coming weeks and months. Aerial photos showed a queue, of more than 3 kilometres, of people waiting to receive food parcels in the informal settlements of Mooiplaas and Spruit in Centurion (Njilo, 2020). A few days later, similar images surfaced; this time in Olievenhoutbosch, where some people waited in line for several days to access food parcels (Seleka, 2020).

These two reported instances almost surely mirror scenes across South Africa. After a five-week lockdown, which saw the South African economy screech to a halt, the country’s already extraordinarily high poverty levels have been exacerbated, leading to increased calls for urgent interventions to address food poverty.

I’ve written previously on the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the economic collapse intensified by the Covid-19 virus.[1] The notion of poverty, I argued, is often tied closely to our ideas of who qualifies as the deserving poor (and is thus entitled to help) and those who make up the category of the undeserving poor. Women and children are often counted among the deserving poor, while younger men mostly count as the undeserving poor. These notions are easily picked out in most debates around welfare and social assistance, which have always been steeped in assumptions about poverty, meritocracy, and dependency due to the demands of capital for a moralising lens that can sift those who truly cannot engage in paid labour from those who must offer up their labour at any cost.

One would assume that a global pandemic, such as Covid-19, would disrupt these moral categories. It is difficult to maintain the categories of deserving-undeserving poor when “laziness” and “irresponsibility” cannot be used to explain the fact that large portions of populations across the globe are unable to work and earn an income. Yet, these ideas persist in various ways and continue to guide, albeit subtly and perhaps unintentionally, the way in which social assistance in South Africa is being structured during the various levels of lockdown.

In this piece, I further investigate the implications of the current socio-economic conditions for those citizens often collectively referred to as “the poor” by specifically reading the forthcoming forms of state social assistance through a gender-lens. I outline the various forms of social assistance, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 21 April 2020, but pay particular attention to the way in which the child support grant is being utilised to distribute additional cash to primary caretakers. Using this grant as an example, I argue that we ought to take seriously the ways in which gender-conceptualisation is mediated by, and through, child support grants. Women, mediated via this gender-conceptualisation, are imagined as responsible mothering figures who are worthy of additional support and are expected to embody tropes of female stoicism and selfless care. This expression of femininity, while establishing women as worthy of social assistance, serves to push aside individual women’s life histories and projects onto women their supposed “natural” role as caretakers.

An obvious point of critique to note is that the child support grant is not gendered in and of itself; it is therefore perfectly plausible for a man to receive a child support grant if he is his children’s or grandchildren’s primary carer. In reality, however, only two percent of child support grants are paid to male caregivers (Khan, 2018). The majority of these men, Khan (2018: 219) shows, are single fathers who are aware of the fact that they construct forms of masculinity that counter the more dominant forms of masculinity in South Africa. More important is the fact that, in the minds of many South Africans, the child support grant is aimed at women.

The Development of State Social Assistance

The child support grant is one of several offered as cash transfers in South Africa. In terms of the rise of social protection in the Global South, South Africa leads the way with state social assistance and cash transfers. While the beginnings of state social assistance in South Africa can be traced back to the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and growing fears surrounding white poverty in the late 1920s, it was the deracialisation (in 1993) shortly before the official democratisation of South Africa that truly marked the start of state assistance (Seekings, 2006: 30). Today, state social assistance in South Africa is unconditional and non-contributory. This means that any South African citizen, permanent resident, or refugee may apply for and receive social assistance providing that their annual income does not exceed the means test that is linked to social grants (South African Social Security Agency, 2015).

Since 1996 the state has expanded the social assistance system to reach almost a third of the population by 2015 (Ferguson, 2015: 5). In July 2015, approximately 16.7 million monthly social grants were distributed, a considerable rise from the estimated 3 million recipients in 1994 (Seekings, 2008: 31; South African Social Security Agency, 2015). This large increase is largely due to the introduction of the child support grant (CSG) in 1998, an unconditional monthly transfer of R100 for all qualifying children between from birth to age seven.  Eligibility was extended to the age of fourteen in 2005, and to the age of eighteen in 2009 (Neves et al, 2009; Schreiber, 2014: 268). In addition to child support grants, the bulk of social grants are paid to the elderly in the form of state old age grants, care dependency grants aimed at caregivers who permanently care for a child with severe and permanent disability, and disability grants for those persons who are permanently unable to work (South African Social Security Agency, 2015).

For the purposes of this discussion it is important to pay attention to the changing composition of what is now known as the child support grant. The child support grant was first introduced in 1998. Prior to this, poor mothers were paid a monthly grant consisting, by July 1996, of a R430 parent allowance and a R135 child support grant. Research showed that very few of these grants reached African families with the majority of grants being paid to Coloured and Indian families. Attempts to extend this form of support to more families, and make it more racially equitable, resulted in an increasing number of parents accessing grants combined with a significant decline in the monthly amount paid per family (Hassim, 2005). The notion of the parent allowance was scrapped when the child support grant was introduced and the monthly amount made significantly smaller.

Women and Covid-19 relief measures

The wide reach of the child support grant made it an obvious tool for distributing cash to those in financial need during the lockdown. While some other measures were also introduced, most prominently a slight increase in old age pensions and the introduction of a temporary relief grant of R350 for unemployed persons, we can assume that it is the increased child support grant that will offer relief to the largest number of households. To an extent the economic relief measures that are set to be implemented from May 2020 reflect something of the pre-1998 model of parental support as primary caregivers once again receive a small amount over and above their monthly child support grant. In his 21 April address, explaining the social and economic relief measures being rolled out, Ramaphosa (2020) set out the following:

“This means that child support grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R300 in May and from June to October they will receive an additional R500 each month. All other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 per month for the next six months. In addition, a special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant of R350 a month for the next 6 months will be paid to individuals who are currently unemployed and do not receive any other form of social grant or UIF payment.”

Ramaphosa’s announcement was initially met by some confusion. Many assumed that the R300 and R500, respectively, would be added to every single child included in support grants, as is the case with all other grants to be topped up. Government officials soon clarified, however, that the extra amount would be paid per adult beneficiary and not per qualifying child. It would therefore make no difference whether one has one child or six children in one’s care: the single amount of R300, and later R500, would be paid to the primary carer. An important difference is thus introduced between the child support grant and other grants. While it is obvious that most child support grants are received and administered by a child’s primary caregiver, the assumption is that the grant is used to care for the child. For many women across the country the cash that is transferred through child support grants is their sole source of income. We can therefore safely assume that many child support grants are used to provide for entire families rather than being restricted to children.

The issue here is not the fact that child support grants are used to support family members other than children. In a context where nuclear family structures are minimal and poverty levels high, it is almost a given that child support grants, along with old age pensions, are often stretched to support extended family networks. The problem however, is the twofold way that many of the stereotypes upholding gender inequality is perpetuated.

The first problem is that the top up of the grants is limited to one per caretaker rather than one per child. Most likely this was done as a way to give at least some extra support to all qualifying families instead of devising a whole new system to provide relief to households. In doing this, however, plenty is assumed about what South African families look like. In reality, nuclear families are in the minority here and grandparents, for example, often serve as primary caretakers to their grandchildren. A grandmother who is the primary carer for six of her grandchildren would, in terms of this mode of distribution, receive the same added income as a mother looking after only one child. While perhaps not explicitly intending to do so, this way of distributing relief grants has a moral undertone which suggests that women with more children ought to be implicitly punished in some or other way.

Debates about whether child support grants act as an incentive to have children have been around for as long as the grant itself has, and despite research showing it to be untrue, it is a narrative that recurs frequently. In the minds of many, a majority of young women have children as a means to access child support grants. A quick search on Twitter after the Covid-19 relief measures were announced showed a similar rhetoric being widely shared by social media users: young women were once again being rewarded for having children it was alleged. In a similar vein, shortly after the increase in grants was announced, the MEC for Social Development in Mpumalanga, Thandi Shongwe, was quoted saying: “We are calling on our people, especially young mothers, to make sure that they use the money announced by the president to buy food for their children, not any other things. You must not buy weaves or makeups, because we are on lockdown and we are comfortable with the way we look,” (Khoza, 2020). Shongwe’s statement not only displays a shockingly poor grasp of the socio-economic position of many women during this time, but also plays into stereotypical assumptions about women, particularly working class African women and the idea that women, firstly, are likely to spend any increase on themselves but, secondly, ought to not want to invest in themselves in any way.

The second problem with the way in which grants are being topped up is closely interwoven with the first. The idea that especially younger women will waste any extra money means that women are placed in a position where they have to display a certain kind of femininity before they even received any money. Especially in the instance of younger women, women have to prove that they are mothers – not only in a biological sense but in a socio-cultural sense. Ann Oakley (1980) described the “myth of motherhood” as resting on three beliefs: “that all women need to be mothers, that all mothers need their children and that all children need their mothers.” What is implied by what we might call motherhood ideology is that all women ought to be (potential) mothers and that a real mother will find ways to care for her family. It also implies the erasure of much of a women’s identity beyond that of “mother”; that is, the overarching idea becomes that motherhood ought to be the single focus in a women’s life. To spend money on oneself, however little it may be, is to confirm that one fails at being a real mother.

Motherhood ideologies are of course underpinned by patriarchy yet upheld and reproduced by both men and women, as can be seen with the current (insufficient) grant top-ups for women-as-mothers. On the one hand, it excludes men to a large extent. It has been made clear in no uncertain terms to men that they cannot be trusted to provide for their families. On social media, in newspapers, and in commentaries it was said that it was a good idea to channel the extra cash to women. Men, and especially unemployed black men, are considered too unfaithful to entrust with cash transfers. They would, it is believed by many, waste it on alcohol, cigarettes, and sex workers. Of course, there are many families where men would have access to child support grants, either through equal access to cash or by taking it forcefully, but that is not necessarily relevant here as much as prevailing social perceptions are. On the other hand, women are expected to confirm their social position as being the binary opposite of men. They are simultaneously perceived as natural carers who will make the most of the little money they have and as possibly irresponsible “girls” who will fall pregnant as a means to enrich themselves while passing on the burden of motherhood to grandmothers, aunts and older siblings.

These women have been set up to fail though. Although an extra R350 or R500 is sure to cover some of their families’ needs, there is no possible way that this money could be stretched to make a significant difference in the lives of a household of eight or 10 people. Added to this is the fact that qualifying women cannot apply for the Temporary Relief of Distress grant if they already receive a child support grant – the government has thus reduced the entirety of their lives to the role of mother. What we are doing, therefore, is to give women a false sense of agency. Social grants in the forms of cash transfers are often praised for having increased its recipients’ autonomy and agency. Cash, instead of vouchers or food items, provides them with the agency to decide and prioritise how they want to spend their money.

This argument only holds true if the cash that people receive is enough to cover their basic needs. For many South African women during the time of Covid-19, the idea that they have agency in terms of social grants is bound to be a flight of fantasy. They are set up to fail because the grants they receive in the first place are not enough to cover their own and their families’ basic needs. The motherhood gender ideology, however, compels many to believe that a real mother, a true women¸ should be able to magically stretch available funds to ensure that her family is fed and healthy. The choice is stark: suffer silently and stoically to be perceived as a good woman, or speak-up and demand more and be perceived as self-interested.


Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections of the New Politics of Distribution. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hassim, S. 2005. Gender, Welfare and the Developmental State in South Africa. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Khan, Z. 2018. “Men and the Child Support Grant: Gender, Care and Child Welfare.” Unpublished PhD thesis. Johannesburg: University of Johannesburg. Available at [Accessed on 23 April 2020].

Khosa, M. 2020. “Do not buy weaves, make-up with increased social relief grant,” MEC urges young moms. 23 April 2020. [Accessed 25 April 2020].

Ramaphosa, C. 2020. President Cyril Ramaphosa: Additional Coronavirus Covid-19 Economic and Social Relief Measures. 21 April 2020. [Accessed 28 April 2020].

Seleka, N. 2020. Thousands Cue for Food Parcels in Olievenhoutbosch, Centurion. 2 May 2020. Available at [Accessed on 5 May 2020].

South African Social Security Agency, 2013. “You and your New SASSA Payment Card”. Accessed on 12 August 2015.

South African Social Security Agency, 2014. “Annual Report 2013/14”, SASSA, Pretoria.

South African Social Security Agency, 2015. “You and your grants 2013/2014”. Accessed on 12 August 2016.



Ubuntu and solidarity in times of Covid-19: Challenges and contradictions as communities grapple with ways of being and doing during a pandemic

by Vuyisa Mamanzi

Vuyisa: Hello, mother sukuvulela’mntu apho endlini, icorona iyabulala…(Hello, mother, do not allow any visitors in the house, corona kills).

Mother: Ewe, bahambile. uDade kapriest ebesithi undigqibele kudala, ngoku ke ebezondi bona, uvelela namanye amalungu.  (Yes, they have left. It was the priest’s wife, she came to see me because she had not seen me in a while. She is checking up on other congregants as well).

The above quotation is from a phone conversation between my mother and myself after hearing that there were visitors at home.

This is after we spoke at length the previous night about not allowing any visitors in the house and the need to adhere to social distancing rules. Meaning she needed to be strict and firm in turning people away, as difficult as that may be, a regrettably new normal. My mother is a people’s person, I knew and understood the difficulty she was now confronted with in having to turn anyone away. It went against her beliefs and sense of Ubuntu. As challenging and difficult as it was, it had to be done, especially after receiving news that two people known to the family had passed away from Covid-19. If the threat at any point felt distant, it was now real and personal, it was at our doorstep. One of the individuals who succumbed to Covid-19 lived in Gugulethu, she was a neighbour and a friend. I handed over the phone to my sister, I listened as she pleaded with our mother not to let anyone in the house, the risk of contraction was just too high, and we couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Not so long ago there were reports of at least seven people residing at New Rest Gugulethu, not far away from our home, who tested positive and were roaming the streets; refusing to self-isolate or self-quarantine. There was growing fear in the community and a community leader expressed that “Our concern as residents is that people are not taken into quarantine. People who have tested positive are living among us”. The provincial health department, the police, as well as community leaders were now going to work together, to force positive people to isolate in their houses. Safe and comfortable facilities were going to be provided for those unable to self-isolate in their homes[1].

Fear of contracting Covid-19 runs rampant throughout South Africa.  A study conducted by Ask Africa has reported high levels of social distress and low levels of optimism among South Africans. Interestingly, the same study reported that participants older than 65 were comfortable and were less likely to experience depression. That the highest levels of fear, depression and discouragement were among young people (Grobler, 2020). Maybe my sister and I were projecting our fears onto our mother. Subsequent phone conversations have revealed her continued sense of contentment, as she lives her life close to normalcy as possible. Perhaps age has brought her some calmness, wisdom and acceptance.

Be that as it may, because daily activities that put bread on the table, like going to work or the shops, now pose a threat of contracting the virus, many South Africans are fearful of the risk faced by family members. And many people miss social interaction and long for engagement with friends and family (Grobler, 2020).

A Google search on Covid-19 precautionary and prevention measures, will take you directly to the World Health Organisation’s public service announcement, which reads STAY HOME. SAVE LIVES. Help stop coronavirus. Keep a safe distance, wash hands, cover your cough and seek medical attention, if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Many will argue that South Africa, similar to countries like Norway in enforcing strict measures (including quarantines for international travellers and the closure of educational institutions), acted swiftly to contain Covid-19. However, only with time and reflection will it be possible to ascertain whether the strategy has been successful (Eriksen, 2020).

Many experts have noted that Covid-19 presents enormous and unique challenges. Among them Paul Farmer, a Medical Anthropologist and physician, who works to strengthen health-care systems in Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda and other low and middle-income countries: “we do not know, we have experience yes, but we do not know the specifics”.

What does this mean for a country like South Africa?

I agree with Fiona Ross (2020) that we face Covid-19 with skepticism, faith and a lot of history, I will shed light on these further on in the essay. But I am not entirely certain if we have learned from the horrible mistakes during the height of the HIV pandemic, as she suggests. If South Africa had learned anything, we should have focused on improving the quality of health care and learned that, when we fail to do this, we drive people away or make them mistrust the medical system (Farmer, 2020).

South Africa is confronted with rising numbers of health care workers who are dying of Covid-19 complications (Fokazi, 2020). There is growing fear and lack of trust in the medical system among some communities. The Western Cape provincial health department recently reported that there are some people who gave incorrect information when they went to test, in an attempt to avoid being tracked and taken into self-isolation or quarantine. I watched a video circulating on social media of a woman in Dutywa, a town in the Eastern Cape, telling health care workers who were conducting screening in the community that she was afraid of them. This was after news reports of a positive Covid-19 case at the same clinic where these nurses work. These health care workers can be seen and heard on the video saying that they have been tested but are waiting for their results. The woman now sees these health care workers as potential carriers of Covid-19 and a threat, exposing herself and her family to risk of infection. She politely refuses to be screened by them and tells the nurses that she will not take herself to hell (referring to the clinic in Dutywa).

What this highlights is just an aspect of complex and nuanced explanations for the lack of community trust in, or fear of, our health care system. We saw this when Ebola treatment units [ETUs] in Sierra Leone were seen as death-traps, bringers of Ebola, and people fled them (Farmer, 2020).

The current Covid-19 crisis reminds me of James Baldwin’s words when he said: “All of us are living through some kind of turmoil which endangers all of our relationships. This turmoil is historical and it is personal. The aims of a society are and always must be, to inculcate in its citizens a certain level of security” (Baldwin, 2017, 7:45-7:58).

I wonder to what extent the state has inculcated a level of security and trust in its citizens, as we face this turmoil called Covid-19.

The cohesiveness of societies in crises is often tested, based on trust or fear. In societies that are confronted with constant crises and have huge inequalities; generalised trust is generally low (Eriksen, 2020). However, in South Africa, the response to Covid-19 has seen people across all sectors coming together on a large scale to mitigate the harm through relief funds for businesses, the setting up of shelters and food parcel schemes, as well as an increase in existing social grant provisions (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).  In addition, new forms of quick response have emerged; social media has been used as a platform and enabled networks of people to come together and mobilise assistance and care, alongside older institutions of care such as family, religious organisations, charities, stokvels (rotating credit associations) and burial associations. All of these are critical in everyday survival strategies (Ross, 2020). There has been a call for the acknowledgement of social action of this nature and to encourage us to realise that as South Africans, despite our differences, in unity and solidarity we can achieve significant impact (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).

So I argue that in South Africa the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the revitalisation of the values-based philosophy of African humanism, Ubuntu. Broadly defined as an ‘African worldview’ that places communal interests above those of the individual, and where human existence is dependent upon interaction with others, Ubuntu has a long tradition on the continent  (McDonald, 2010: 139).

Similar actions have been seen In Norway, in reference to the dugnad, which refers to unpaid, collective, and cooperative work where every member of a community is expected to participate, regardless of their social position. To Norwegians, the dugnad, is a symbol of egalitarianism and the kind of solidarity mythically associated with rural communities. Politicians have repeatedly invoked the term dugnad to mobilise their constituencies, in order to get out of the crisis (Eriksen, 2020). Njabulo Ndebele and Judy Sikuza (2020) reminds us that Covid-19 does not respect the borders of countries, and the wealthy and influential are not immune. Regardless of race, religion, class, or nationality, people across the world are gravely ill.

However, the revitalisation of Ubuntu in South Africa has not been without challenges, argues David McDonald. He suggests that to convince South Africans that market reforms are democratic and egalitarian, the South African state and capital must revitalise Ubuntu theory and language to defuse opposition to underlying neoliberal change. This observation is made in a context where the very poor are disproportionately at risk of contracting Covid-19 due to crowded living conditions, insufficient public sanitation amenities, and a burden of existing disease (Ndebele & Sikuza, 2020).  This is in part, some of the skepticism, faith and history with which many South Africans face Covid-19 (Ross, 2020). There are strong sentiments that from housing to health care, there has been a downloading of the fiscal and physical responsibility of post-apartheid work on the backs of low-income households in the name of ‘community’. “Meaning that the language and practice of contemporary Ubuntu is too compromised by market ideology and discourse to be revived for a socialist agenda” (MacDonald, 2010: 146).

In a period of crisis and upheaval, trust is paramount. Whether it be on the state or among the people with whom you share a space (Eriksen, 2020).  In this essay, I have narrated ways in which trust has been lost among neighbours, where people have had to depend on the government to protect them against suspicious people with whom they share a social space. The inverse has also been demonstrated, where people have lost trust in the government to provide them with adequate health care systems and provisions during this crisis. In a documentary titled ‘Whispering truth to power’ Thuli Madonsela reminds us that with enormous power comes enormous responsibility. It is important to remember that the idea of shared responsibility and the degree to which we share this responsibility is related to how much influence and power we have.

In conclusion, in the same way that there is a tension between my sister and I and our mother – for her Ubuntu overrides safety considerations – there is tension between citizen and state – contestations around trust, cynicism about motive, yet a desire to join hands, even temporarily, to defeat a common threat. Do we see the state as the concerned priest’s wife, or the unwanted intruder at the door?

‘It is in your our hands’


ENCA (2020). Western Cape police to track COVID-19 cases.

Baldwin, J. (2017). Baldwin Speech: Living and growing in a white world.

Eriksen, T. H (2020). Norway’s response to Covid-19 and the Janus face of Nordic trust.

Fokazi, S (2020). Two more nurses die of Covid-19 in the Western Cape.

Grobler, R (2020). Lockdown: One in three adults in SA goes to bed hungry, according to latest research.

McDonald, D. A (2010). Ubuntu bashing: the marketisation of ‘African values’ in South Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 37:124, 139-152, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2010.483902

Ndebele, N.S & Sikuza, J (2020). African foreign nationals are being ignored in the fight against Covid-19: where is our Ubuntu?

Ross, F.C (2020). Of soap and dignity in South Africa’s lockdown.

Silver, M (2020). ‘The Dread of Responsibility’ — Paul Farmer On The Pandemic And Poor Countries.




CSA&G statement on attacks directed at Prof Glenda Gray

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender is very concerned about the attacks that have been directed at Prof. Glenda Gray, head of the MRC. Prof. Gray was fearless in her fight for AIDS treatments, as well as her rejection of Virodene as a cure for AIDS. She should be respected in her views and opinions and able to exercise her right to freedom of speech. Attempts to discipline and silence her, and to call her character into question are the antithesis of a society underpinned by ethical conduct and a commitment to an informed and questioning response to the crises it confronts.

The Unwarranted, Unneeded and Unprovoked Side Effects of Covid-19 on the Black Community

By Relebohile Naledi Sekese

When initial reports of the newly discovered coronavirus, aka Covid-19, became public, I, like many others, was intrigued, almost fascinated.

Turning on various news channels and observing how one of China’s busiest cities suddenly becoming a ‘ghost town’ due to this supposed outbreak of Covid-19, was something completely foreign to me. A sickness likened to the common cold or ‘flu, holding thousands hostage and killing hundreds more, was a completely extraordinary occurrence, almost too hard to believe. Nonetheless, none of my business I thought, after all I wasn’t the one eating bats or exotic snakes right (courtesy of President Donald Trump’s declarations at various press briefings and national addresses)? Wrong. Covid-19 quickly became my business, it became everyone’s business, overnight.

On 23 March 2020 the leader of the Republic of South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that our beloved country would be entering a 21-day lockdown as of immediately. Life as we knew it was about to change forever. Within a matter of days of the commencement of the lockdown, it became disgustingly clear just how divided and unequal our nation is, as if we needed any reminder.

Twenty-five years into democracy and the rainbow nation dream of our late Nelson Mandela, the ever so stark contrast between white and black has not faded. One would assume we would’ve managed to uphold the principle of Ubuntu (togetherness) far greater than the sad reality we face today in this country. The various ways in which both black and white people are regarded whether by media, educational systems, or even the handling of criminal behaviour, could not be more different.

It is no secret that historically, our black and brown community has a sour and poor relationship with our police and defence forces. Several videos and images of our people being degraded, humiliated and beaten, or should I rather say, subjected to ‘skop n donner’, quickly circulated in social media. Witnessing large drones of army vehicles parading around townships while screaming at civilians to return to their houses became a new reality. Sadly, once again, black and brown communities were being made ridiculous examples of by authoritative powers such as news stations and police members, over something they had no part in creating or spreading. The virus originated offshore and was sadly brought in by members of a travel group who had contracted it in Italy. The group thereby unknowingly spread the virus to multiple people within their proximity, which resulted in the alarming situation we now face today.

Entrepreneurs, ranging from street vendors selling apples and onions, to hair salons operating on a walk-in basis, all quickly had to come to terms with the new world order. Thousands applying for unemployment, grants and credit extensions while more affluent communities being afforded the luxury of cleaning out shelves and stores to selfishly hoard essential items, was a heart-breaking actuality. One could liken it to watching a sick and twisted episode of Black Mirror.

The consequences of Covid-19 will long be felt, most especially by the already disenfranchised and marginalized. Factors like poverty, inequality, access to quality education and so forth have a larger influence over a person’s health status and health outcome, rather than individual habits. Housing, employment and basic healthcare are all areas which have been alarmingly put in the spotlight in the last few weeks. Before this pandemic most of us did not truly realize the importance of frontline workers such as cashiers, nurses etc.

We do know however, that structural racism is a key driving force of those social determinants mentioned earlier. The community you come from, your birth name and your educational background are examples of factors that can dramatically tip the scale regarding the luxuries and privileges you can be afforded in life. Our communities are in crisis and will require explicit and intentional effort to address these factors, long term and short term. Testing, support to community-based organizations, access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for essential workers and added financial support are just a small number of factors that need to be handled in order to get through the worst of this pandemic.

Of course, with that being said, these are just superficial efforts that will grant temporary ease or aid. The core of issues surrounding disenfranchised and poor groups goes far beyond a few masks or grants. A complete restructuring of governmental departments, employment systems and wealth distribution will need to be reanalysed by the necessary authoritative parties. This most certainly won’t be a simple or quick task, but extremely necessary if underprivileged groups are to stand a chance of surviving this phase of life.

Can we get through this (Covid-19)? Yes we can. A little battered and bruised might I say, but nonetheless, we will overcome. We are a resilient nation after all, so racially and socio-economically diverse. And as the pitori (common lingo or language spoken by residents of Pretoria) proverb goes, “We fall, we phakam, we move”, meaning we never stay down for long, we dust ourselves off and always keep going.

About the author

I am currently studying BCom Economics in my final year. I joined the CSA&G’s Just Leaders programme in 2019 out of interest after I had seen some marketing campaigns on campus and haven’t left since. I am part of the Befriender, Research and Community Engagement programmes. I was moved to write this piece as a way to communicate my feelings and thoughts regarding our current global situation

Gender equality and chores under Lockdown

By Monyana Thusi*

Trying to be a feminist and a champion for gender equality in an African Christian home is wearisome work, with no pay, especially if you are not male, and you don’t pay the bond, and you are just another child to the powers that be.

Feminism is a movement that advocates for women’s rights and the equality of the sexes. Gender equality refers to a state in which access to rights, privileges, benefits or opportunities and the distribution of duties, obligations or responsibilities are unaffected by or not based on gender – at all. Most days I want to go get Bab’Credo Mutwa and Dr Maimela, my African customary law lecturer, to come and explain to my family that African cultures are not inherently patriarchal, that in the olden days men did not sit around and wait for the women to bring them a tray of food, or did they? Am I being unfair for wanting to share chores equally at home between the adults that work and the children that don’t work but go to school (and take school very seriously for that matter), and between the males and the females of the house?

I thought the struggle for gender equality with the chores would be something to work on during this Lockdown. When the president (of the Republic of South Africa) announced the Lockdown I was very interested in how the chores would be redistributed here at home, and how it would all work out during this holiday with my family, since we were all going to be home all day, every day. I must admit I had dreams: I thought we’d all have an opportunity to contribute equally since no one is going to work and no one is doing any extraordinary work to pay the bills. I was expecting to see the men work a little more than usual at home chores. I thought they would take this time to learn how to cook: they don’t cook because they don’t know how to cook. I had dreams. I must say, there’s no real reason why we can’t share chores in this house but the reality is that we women are not only expected to cook but we place the burden of cooking and feeding other human beings on ourselves, simply because we are women, and the children wash the dishes simply because they are children.

I live with my sister, the husband and their three children. They are a relatively typical black African Christian family. They are relaxed with their values so I’m not really sure if patriarchy is sourced from the faith or culture since we’re not very strict adherents of either way of life. But you know patriarchy does not need solid statutes to assert itself. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold positions of authority and dominant position over women and children. It doesn’t creep up on you, it walks right up to you and asks you for tea simply because you are a woman. It is the ideology behind the notion that the man is the head of the house.

Some days I want to sit everyone down and conduct a gender equality lesson and say “listen, besides the idea that this could be our culture and that it was passed down to you, what exactly about this system makes sense to you?” A minute later, on those same days, it occurs to me that I could be overreacting: it’s just dishes, cooking and cleaning, and the dishes aren’t even that many, there’s only six of us – calm down.

So this is how the patriarchy operates in our lives: the women cook, my sister, myself and her oldest daughter; we are responsible for making the pots happen. We could say that the men, being my sister’s husband and the 14-year-old son, don’t cook because they can’t cook.  In the case of the son, he can’t cook because he does not want to cook, he has never had to cook, no one expects him to cook and no one will make the effort to teach him how to cook. I’ve tried teaching him how to make pancakes and suggesting that he be responsible for making it easier to prepare meals. Well, no one heard me. The dishes are washed by the children, so it’s me, the 19-year-old daughter and the 14 year-old son (at least he washes the dishes). The cleaning is done by myself, my sister, the 19-year-old daughter and the 14-year-old son. Additionally, my sister only washes her clothes, her husband’s clothes and the 4 year-old child’s clothes.

Now, also interestingly, the arrangement and allocation of chores does not come from the head of the family, my sister’s husband, but from my sister. Under her system of governance the chore or the required labour always either falls to the females or to the children, unless it is washing the cars or fixing something that requires a mechanical skill (although under normal circumstances the husband will always go hire someone to do it).

This is what typically happens at the dinner table: my sister’s husband will want water or a spoon or some salt. He never gets up to go get anything himself. He always finishes eating first and even in those cases where he is done eating and wants something, my sister will get up while she is still eating to go get whatever he has requested or he will send the son instead. It has never made sense to me and every day I shake my head when I see it. But I have learned to respect my sister’s household and shut my big mouth, to respect her family, their values and the system that they have chosen to raise their children under. As long as they respect that I will not be making my sister’s husband tea, or fetching him water or participating in any of the unnecessary labour that falls on us, either because we are women or because we are children. The funny thing is, I don’t think my sister’s husband has ever said he does not want to cook or clean or get his own water.

I do not know why I thought things would work differently during this Lockdown period. I have come to accept that my sister and her husband come from a different world to mine, where it is undisputed that the man is the head of the house and his roles are non-negotiable and that this is not going to be easily changed or challenged. Theirs is a world where the man is the head of the house, the woman is the neck or heart (depending on who is speaking) and the children are, well, the children.

A “good wife” is expected to care for, cook for and look after her husband – no one needs to explain that. The husband is expected to provide or build the house, or whatever, just as long as it’s clear from whatever he does that he is the head of the house – sometimes doing nothing fits the job description. The irony of it all is that my sister’s husband is an activist for workers’ rights where he works.

I have asked my friends how their families were working out the chores. One said that his sisters do all the work and that he helps out whenever he feels like it. How nice would it be if I had the liberty to decide when I wanted to cook? I’m happy for my friends who say that in their homes they share chores almost equally, and I’m even happier for those who say there are no men in their current home circumstances – those ones are living my real life. Otherwise, I have resolved that I’m growing a beard at the end of this Lockdown.

PS: I hope I’m not going to be homeless after this!

*Pseudonym (author is a Just Leaders volunteer)

SOCIAL DIS – EASE: A reflection

Excerpt from a forthcoming CSA&G monograph

by Mary Crewe

Folks, we either have a country or we don’t[1]

Earlier in 2020, Paul Simon recorded from isolation, American Tune for Til Further Notice 03/19/2020:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t know a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

or driven to its knees[2]


In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2003:5) makes the point that after WW1, there was the realisation of the ruin Europe had brought on itself. That is what we need to reflect about when we think about COVID-19, the lockdown, the destruction of the economy and surely the fracturing of society.[3] While the virus was a random event and circled the world very rapidly – the response – the shutting down of society and the economic and social consequences that will follow, were entirely the decision of our own and other governments, backed up by the hysteria and anxiety generated by WHO and the pandemic of panic that was created by the media. The early responses late 2019, set the scene for what was to follow. Mainstream media revelled in crisis and drama and rising hysteria and the South African media has largely followed suit. One notable exception is the news updated regularly by the Swiss Propaganda research group ( offering fully referenced facts about COVID-19, provided by experts in the field, to help readers make a realistic risk assessment.

We are in the nightmare of a random control trial of one. There is no control group, just the experiment. No placebo, just the untried drug.  The state is now invested and locked into lockdown orthodoxy. If it works and the epidemic is contained, those who imposed this will be heroes, if not they will be able to claim that they were acting on the best evidence available at the time. The bio medics and the epidemiologists will win either way.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) exhorts us to “play your part”’ in the fight against #COVID19.Follow the rules, and cooperate with healthcare professionals,” so too the politicians who will also have a greater arsenal of weapons for social control and further action.[4]  A phrase much-beloved of politicians is that they are “following the science”. Mostly however, this is being used “far more as a blame-deflecting tactic than as an acceptance of the disagreements, hypotheses, uncertainties, and traditions of rigorous questioning of actual science.”[5] The National Security Agency whistle blower Edward Snowden warned that governments are using the coronavirus to build an “architecture of oppression”.[6]

The world, said Edward Said is full of, “not so much intellectuals, but experts and professionals – and there is a great pressure on them to commodify their skills and expertise in a given field. And by virtue of that they then belong to a community of experts whose whole role is selling the wares to the establishment. That the principle goal in mind is not to tell the truth, or to say what the alternative to the present is, but rather to maintain the status quo, to satisfy the customer – to represent the ideas of power that rule the world in which we live.”[7]

What we have seen, are seeing with COVID-19 is the array of experts on our TV screens telling us what we ought to know, what we ought to do and how we ought to behave. The public health crisis has hastened the transition to autocracy, and there are serious doubts about the capacity of countries to effect a course correction once the threat from the virus abates. S. Y. Quraishi, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, writes that, “Joseph Cannataci, the UN special rapporteur on right to privacy, has rightly observed, ‘Dictatorship often starts in the face of a threat.’ Earlier it was the invisible and distant threat of terrorism that demanded obedience, now it is the threat of pandemic – a fear closer to home – that is pushing people to give away their rights.”[8] The question is for how long?

The imposition of any kind of emergency, formal or informal, without an expiry date, should be cause for deep anxiety – as is the case with the current Lockdown 4 where there is no sense of a time frame – just the implicit threat that one way or another it will depend on how we all behave.

This is political science, in other words, as opposed to empirical science.[9] As Lionel Shriver wrote, when this is all over we deserve an enquiry – conducted by independent scientists who’ve not attached reputations to any policy or prediction.[10] In years to come, we too will see that this was a plot against ourselves, or as in the world of sport the disastrous own goal.

Of course attempts to curtail epidemics raise – in the guise of public health – the most enduring political dilemma: how to reconcile the individual’s claim to autonomy and liberty with the community’s concern with safety.[11] How does the polity treat the patient who is both a citizen and a disease carrier? When does the citizen become merely a subject? And in the end what is most important, the rights of the infected or of the uninfected? Sometimes, as Sontag wrote, a disease is just a disease.[12] But, such is the power of fear, of the unknown, of infection, of epidemics, that diseases become powerful metaphors for social issues beyond the death and the pain that they cause.

From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have affected human history in myriad ways: demographically, culturally, politically, financially, and biologically. Humans have never known a time in history when epidemics did not loom large. This is as true today as it ever was. And, despite claims that we would defeat it we are still living with HIV, with the shadow of cholera, with TB, with the memories of Listeriosis. All of these it was claimed would change the world as we knew it. In the end, though, we have learned to live with them rather than be controlled by them.

In this way we, too have forgotten about them.

In 2018, a total of 63 000 people died of TB in South Africa and the WHO estimates that around 301 000 people fell ill. There is, however significant uncertainty about this estimate since there is a 95% chance that the real number lies between 215 000 and 400 000.[13] AVERT estimates that South Africa has the biggest and most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world, with an estimated 7.7 million people living with HIV in 2018. South Africa accounts for a third of all new HIV infections in Southern Africa. In 2018, there were 240,000 new HIV infections and 71,000 South Africans died from AIDS-related illnesses.[14] And let’s not forget that South Africa, in 2017, had the worst outbreak of Listeriosis in global history.

There are no daily mention of AIDS and TB in the news, no condolences to their families, no flags being flown at half mast, no saluting of the health care workers, and no social panic about drug resistant TB.[15] All these diseases have available treatments and yet, these figures are astoundingly high.

Bambi in the Headlights

It’s astounding how various Ministers can, without shame or irony, say that COVID-19 has shown us the inequalities in this country. The lack of water, of power, of roads and transport. How could they not know this intimately? Why have they not acted before with water tanks and mobile support units? It’s not as if we have a shortage of labour – far too many people available for such work. But it’s part of finding an external agent to blame. This is the result of Apartheid – correct – but that’s not a new insight. Close your eyes and you would think that you were back in Apartheid South Africa, ponderous ministers having interminable press conferences surrounded by compliant bureaucrats, and brooking no questions or dissent.

Growing up under Apartheid you were schooled on the irrationality of power. On the capriciousness of Ministers and politicians making things up on the hoof, deciding what was good for you and what was not. We listened to Apartheid Ministers saying why Black people should not have access to alcohol or good housing or education. We hear it again. Apartheid, of course set the pattern for how we live, but what is actually happening to change this?  In 25 years, many kilometres of piped water can be laid, many flushing toilets can be built at schools, many points of power can be connected, many panes of glass can be fixed in schools and chalkboards replaced. The fact that there have been gains in these things does not make the absence right, it makes the insult of poverty worse.

It cannot be that these terrible social inequalities are only now being exposed by COVID-19.

Hierarchies:  Necessary and essential?

How are the lockdown decisions made? There is the fiction of the collective but that is disingenuous. This is a modern Cabinet working in a modern, constitutional democracy. It is not an NGO governed by the collective. Who determines, during this time, what is necessary? Who decides that it is possible to buy a winter duvet but not a cotton duvet cover? That expensive bubble bath can be bought, but not short-sleeved shirts?  We have debated the cigarettes and alcohol and hot chicken endlessly and there are reasons that transcend public health at play. Smoking will not add to your risk of the virus (it is possible it may be protective) nor will alcohol.[16] The lockdown started as necessary to contain the virus and then morphed into moralising, irrationality, seeming indifference and a lack of care.

As they (and we) regard the pain of others the various politicians claim to care – but they don’t, not really. No, “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain. The failure of these politicians is one of imagination, of empathy – we do not hold the lived reality of people in mind.[17] Compassion, is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers.[18]

If they cared, they would take and use the money from the “sin” taxes, they would clarify and simplify the lockdown conditions, they would allow exercise all day and they would admit to failures of government.

This is why the rhetoric of “our only interest is our people’s health” feels no longer avuncular but tinged with something more sinister.[19] In the same way that Sontag asks who the “we” is – who is the “our” in this? In far too many of the comments made by people in power there is a sense of power, of patronage or patriarchy and the sense that the populace – we the people – have to be controlled, brought into line and shown the folly of our ways. Were there a real understanding of ‘our people’s health’ then there would be no ban on cigarettes, alcohol or hot food. The moralising that comes from some of the medical commentators about the costs of emergency services, and of the health benefits of not smoking or drinking, are simply fatuous in relation to COVID-19.

In addition, the threats and bullying made by some of the decision makers are simply markers of a profound disrespect for “our people”.

“For Minister Cele to treat the public as errant schoolchildren – if one of you misbehaves, none of you can play outside – is behaviour that is way beyond the scope of the [Disaster Management] Act. Indeed, it has no place in a constitutional democracy. To be sure, in an authoritarian state, or sadly the USA of President Trump, collective punishment is employed. But in a constitutional democracy, such threats should have no place.”[20]  People who deliver threats of this kind have no place in senior political positions. Listening to this kind of menacing paternalism are we really surprised at the levels of sexual and gender-based violence in our country?  What is our nation’s beleaguered identity in times of crisis?[21]

What is necessary?

By the same reason, what or who is essential? We are allegedly all equal but some are more “essential” than others, we have a new hierarchy. Those that are now regarded as “essential” are also those that society tends in “normal times” to neglect and abuse. Teachers, nurses, refuse removal workers, store cashiers and many, many more are now “essential”. We have never considered them that before – if we did we would have paid them “essential” wages. We would make sure that the disparity between the earnings of doctors and nurses was not so vast, or between civil servants and the people employed in the local and provincial authorities who actually do the work.

It’s easy to understand the cynicism. Please don’t blow the vuvuzelas at 7pm, clap on Thursdays, cite us in speeches when at all other times the people now regarded as “essential” rank very low in the employment hierarchy – and whose professions are dismissed with disdain by many middle-class people and so called “captains of industry”. It is also easy to understand their fear. Never respected, before but now you’re placed in the frontline as essential to the response.

Who is essential?

We have been here before

“In September 2005, Dr Nabarro, the WHO’s public health expert coordinating the response to avian influenza, told the Associated Press that a global avian influenza pandemic could kill 150 million people worldwide.”[22] “The overall human death toll was low — in the hundreds — but scientists and government officials feared that the virus could ignite a human pandemic reminiscent of the catastrophic 1918 Spanish flu. Emergency plans were drafted, experimental H5N1 vaccines were created and tested, antiviral drugs were stockpiled. And then … nothing happened.”[23]

In 2020, in his COVID-19 narratives, Nabarro claimed we would see explosive outbreaks in just 2-3 weeks, a pandemic that doubles in around 2-5 days, which means an 8-fold increase in a week, a 250-fold increase in three weeks and a 1000-fold increase in 4 weeks – the WHO was projecting terrifying levels of world deaths.[24] Bill Gates made the point that, “this is a nightmare scenario because human-to-human transmittal respiratory viruses can grow exponentially … [and] … that curve would never bend until you had the majority of the people infected and then a massive number seeking hospital care and lots of lots of deaths.”[25]

So who do we believe? Increasingly the bio medics – the “expert” virologists and epidemiologists are telling us that there is a great deal about this virus that we do not know or understand. That does not stop them, confidently, from speaking with authority. If they got it so wrong with avian flu, is there the possibility that they could be so wrong again. Dissenters are seldom listened to, and no one seems to be anxious that the Imperial College study (not peer reviewed and later admitted to be flawed) was the one that set the tone.[26]

At the start of the HIV and AIDS epidemics we were faced with similar reactions. There was social and political panic. There were calls for isolation and quarantine. In our country we faced calls for the criminalisation of infection, for AIDS to be a notifiable illness and for people not to consume alcohol as this would lead to a lowering of inhibitions, unsafe sex and infections. Early on there was the anxiety and fake news about touching, kissing, saliva, and sharing utensils. AIDS, we heard, would change the world as we knew it, destroy the country, the region. It would cripple industry and the bureaucracies. There were dreadful images of marauding bands of young people threatening our security and many apocryphal stories of deliberate HIV infections or horrifying acts that required prompt action.[27]   None of this came to be. The wild projections of the numbers that would be infected and die were wrong, over dramatised and in the end we live with AIDS.  Indeed we forget now about the daily toll that AIDS takes on the society.

People are now saying that we need to “learn” to live with this virus and not to be controlled by it. We need to understand it and manage it. This message is not the one that the stages of lockdown give us – that message is that we are controlled by and at the mercy of this virus.

This has led to discomforting “war talk”. Boris Johnson referred to COVID-19 as an “invisible mugger”.[28] President Ramaphosa has said that we will need to think “post war”.[29] Essential people are regarded as being on the frontlines, fighting “the war” in the trenches. The economy was “destroyed” by COVID-19, as if this virus has declared war on the economy.  In fact, being controlled by the virus rather than controlling it – a clear and rational decision was made that “we” would destroy the various economies of the world by shutting both them and populations down. Along with the war talk we have the exaggerated use of language.

We have seen all this before – James Baldwin may have been right when he claimed people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.[30]

Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country (or even one’s own) is a quintessential modern experience: “the cumulative offering of more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialised tourists, known as journalists. These journalists come together now with a new powerful force of bio medics and politicians.”[31]

In the end – a peasant that Inspector Salvo Montalbano met in the pursuit of solving a case said, “I don’t think, Mr ‘Nspecter. I don’t wanns think no more. The world’s become too evil.”[32]

It has, but if we are to try and understand the calamity that has taken place in our country – we need to remember that there must be criticism: “there must be a powerful critical consciousness if there are issues, problems, values – even lives – to be fought for.”[33]


[1] Osnos, Evan. How Greenwich Republicans Learned to Love Trump, 2020 [Accessed 5 May 2020]

[2] Thurschwell, Pamela. American Tunes for Coronaviral Times: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and John Prime, 2020 [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[3] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p5.

[4] This quote is the slogan being used by the NICD in reference to Covid-19.

[5] Cowper Andy. “Slippery Language and Defensive Politics Try to Hide the Real Problems,” The BMJ Opinion, 30 April2020. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[6] Swiss Research Propaganda. “Facts about Covid-19,” Swiss Propaganda Research, 2020. [Accessed 2 May 2020]

[7] Tariq Ali. Conversations with Edward Said.  (Seagull: New York, 2006), pp.110.

[8] Quraishi, S. Y. Across the World, the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Become an Invitation to Autocracy, 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[9]Cowper Andy. “Slippery Language and Defensive Politics Try to Hide the Real Problems,” The BMJ Opinion, 2020. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[10]Shriver, L. I have Herd Immunity, 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[11] Baldwin, Peter. Disease and Democracy. (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).p 3

[12] Sontag, Susan. AIDS and its Metaphors. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 1989), p10.

[13]Louw, Marcus. 63 000 TB Deaths in SA in 2018, 2019. [Accessed 3 May 2020].

[14]Avert. HIV and AIDS in South Africa, 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[15]The Western Cape premier suggested that flags should fly at half-mast in honour of people who have died from COVID 19.

[16] The Economist. Smokers Seem Less Likely Than Non-Smokers to Fall Ill with Covid-19, 2020.  [Accessed 3 May 2020].

[17] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p7.

[18] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p101.

[19] Singh, Kaveel. Tobacco Ban: Our Only Interest is Our People’s Health, Says Ramaphosa, 5 May 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[20] Professor Balthazar. Is This Truly Necessary? 5 May 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[21]Hattersley, Giles. The Judi Dench Interview: “Retirement? Wash Out Your Mouth” 4 May 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[22]Bonneux, Luc and Van Damme, Wim. “An Iatrogenic Pandemic of Panic,” BMJ, 332:786 (2006).

[23]Branswell, Helen. What Happened to Bird Flu? How a Major Threat to Human Health Faded From View. 13 February 2019. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[24] Nabarro, David. Get Ahead of Covid-19 NOW! 22 March 2020. [Accessed 4 May 2020].

[25]Wayland, Michael. Bill Gates Calls Coronavirus Pandemic a “Nightmare Scenario,” But Predicts Lower Death Toll Than Trump. 5 April 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[26]Medical Brief: Africa’s Medical Media Digest. Debates Rage Over “Severely Flawed Imperial Study Sparked UK Lockdown. 1 April 2020. That [Accessed 3 May 2020].

[27]Crewe, Mary. “AIDS, Democracy and the University,” Unpublished address. (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2004).

[28] Sharaitmadari, David.“Invisible Mugger”: How Boris Johnson’s Language Hints at His Thinking. 27 April 2020. [Accessed 5 May 2020].

[29] Erasmus, Des. Radical Economic Transformation Best for SA Post-Covid-19, Says Ramaphosa. 6 May 2020. [Accessed 6 May 2020].

[30]Crewe, Mary. AIDS, Democracy and the University. 2006. Unpublished address.

[31]Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Picador, 2003), p18.

[32]Camilleri, Andrea. Rounding the Mark. (London: Picador, 2006), p.111.

[33]Said, Edward. The World, the Text and the Critic. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 28.

When losing means everything and nothing

by Pierre Brouard

I have been having contradictory feelings about loss and Covid-19.

On the one hand there is a sense that the virus has caused so many losses. Not only the obvious loss of life, or the losses of economic and other forms of certainty (noting certainty is ephemeral anyway), or the loss of hope that we cling to in times of difficulty; but on the other hand there is a sense that people who have got nothing left to lose just don’t care. They don’t care if they get infected, they don’t care if they fall foul of the law and various lockdown restrictions (becoming ever more convoluted as we move into a “staged” lockdown process), and frankly they may not even care if they die. To be blunt, and hopefully not patronising, if you have nothing to lose, the pain of loss means nothing to you. It’s a luxury to entertain hope when hope has not brought the things you need to live a dignified life.

The losses, and their associated grieving processes around Covid-19, are by now well documented[1], and they include not only loss of life, income, normality and hope, they include anticipatory loss as one contemplates what might lie ahead.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed what has become orthodoxy around “stages” of loss[2]. More properly viewed as episodes or affective states which can occur in any order or even overlap, they include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, as responses to loss. And in recent times a sixth stage has been postulated, meaning, which refers to ways in which we integrate a loss experience into our belief system and world view.

As someone who has worked with these themes very productively over the years, including work I have done through the HIV epidemic, I find them a useful “hook” for clients (and partners and family) to understand how they are coping with the swirling emotions around losing someone or something which is dear. Sometimes counselling involves “psycho-education”, taking a client through explanations of psychological ideas. When I drew the “stages of loss” on a piece of paper for a client, this became a transitional object for her, something she could literally hold on to, to carry her through her daily journey of grieving.

I attended a loss workshop conducted by Kübler-Ross, in the early 1990s. It was a revelation. Participants were invited to sit next to Elisabeth and encouraged, as we all sat in a watchful circle, to go back to the very core of their loss, accompanied by what I can only describe as unearthly and haunting wails and sobs. It was a frightening and unsettling experience – needless to say, this much more private and restrained person did not make use of this technique, certainly not in front of all those people, but I shed a lot of tears anyway. It is impossible to be unmoved by so much grief, especially when it is as shockingly performative as it was in that workshop. One can debate the usefulness of these rituals – I am a believer in “getting feelings out” – but sometimes if it is uncontained or feels gratuitous, more harm can be done.

The workshop also revealed things about Kübler-Ross herself. She had an inner core of steel. I guess you had to, to manage that amount of raw pain, and some of her utterances felt chilling, reflecting an unyielding adherence to particular views about the “work” one had to do to process loss. In her Swiss-German accent, Kübler-Ross’s pronunciation of “work” came out at as “vurrk” – it felt like an instruction rather than a suggestion.

One anecdote she shared stays with me to this day.

She described her own mother as a very controlling person, unwilling and unable to accept and receive help. In her last months, her mother had had a stroke and was thus completely dependent on others. “This was her vurrk” said Elisabeth, somewhat ominously. Did I sense schadenfreude?

Ironically, she herself suffered a series of strokes in her old age and she reportedly expressed bitterness that her readiness to die was going unfulfilled.[3] While regarded as a pioneer in her work around death and dying, Kübler-Ross’s later years were also associated with increasing eccentricity: she became fascinated with near-death experiences and an advocate for people’s stories of seeing a shining light and familiar faces; and she fell under the spell of a psychic channeller in California. Subsequently she renounced the psychic, but had damaged her scientific reputation.

This essay is not an attempt to discredit Kübler-Ross: her own story is complex – her father was allegedly cruel as a parent, a visit to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland after the war left a lasting impression on her, and my recollection of her anecdote about her mother suggests unresolved feelings. In spite of, or because of, this history, she was able to humanise the dying person and her work contributed to the development of the hospice movement.

But it is worth considering if the unquestioned orthodoxy of Kübler-Ross’s stage theory offers an opportunity to revisit her ideas and suggests new ways of thinking about loss and our response to Covid-19.

An essay by Jesús Rodríguez Sánchez[4] offers some critique – this almost feels sacrilegious, but it is necessary: the loss stages are ubiquitous in Covid-19 analyses, which rely on popular notions which have become part of everyday language.

Firstly, while Kübler-Ross expanded her ideas over time and insisted the stages were not sequential, much of the early visual representation belied this. This speaks to a desire for explanatory order and patient classification: as a medical doctor and psychiatrist she would have absorbed some of the culture of biomedicine. And this order, once imposed on a patient, has clinical implications. I recall working in an HIV clinic in the late 1980s where a clinician said to me “this patient is in denial, you have to get him out of it today”. To him, the stages were mechanistic, inevitable and sequential. A person with HIV “in denial” was a danger to himself and others, and the counsellor was the mechanic of the brain who had to “fix” the problem.

As Sanchez’s essay notes, what this presents is the temptation to engineer the process of dying for patients: “our expectations become shaped by the progressivist philosophy in such way that the genuine experiences of dying are pre-empted by our sense of how people ought to die. The progressivist philosophy carries an implicit norm, such that we even feel an obligation to move the dying along – to get them through denial, anger, bargaining and depression to acceptance. We feel frustrated, cheated, or that we have failed if this does not happen. We become obsessed with the stages as normative protocol [and] we are treating dying as a technical problem.”

Furthermore, Sanchez’s essay notes the implicit valuing of the “good dying patient”, one who accepts death with serenity or calmness, as befits the stage of acceptance. There is neatness and an “aesthetics of death” which is favoured here: “a bias that makes [the] acceptance [stage] morally desirable, and places an obligation on health care professionals to realize it in their patients… the tranquil, accepting dying person causes no disturbances and is simple to manage.”

The aesthetic implications are thus: the model is an attempt at “tidiness”; to label and control the experience of the dying person. In the words of Larry Churchill (in Sanchez) “Far more important than any reservations we might have about the progressivist philosophy of dying or the achievement of an aesthetically pleasing death is the fact that the stages provide labels to place upon the dying person. The effect of the labels is to categorise and control – to manage not only the dying person (who is ‘out of control’ by Western technocratic standards), but to control the meaning of the experiences as well.”

Sanchez’s final critique is around scholarship – he notes seminal texts on dying which Kübler-Ross either did not know about or eschewed in favour of interviews with, and observations of, terminally ill people.[5] Of course rigorous in-depth observation is a powerful source of information and commonplace in qualitative research, but it is interesting that Kübler-Ross privileged her own observations over those of her predecessors.

As we sit today with the global Covid-19 phenomenon, observation is a key part of understanding not only the physiology of the virus but the social and political response to it. It is crucial to bolster these observations with other forms of evidence and enquiry: what do previous epidemics tell us, how do we understand regional and global variations, what do we know about human and social behaviour that can help us respond in ways which are helpful and tolerable?

We now think about loss, death and dying in orthodox ways, often neglecting to think about variables of belief system, age, race, culture, and historical period.  In the same way that Kübler-Ross’s work may have contributed to an aesthetics of dying – a “tranquil, accepting dying person causes no disturbances and is simple to manage” – I wonder if we are seeing the rise of a “Covid aesthetics”; the tranquil, accepting citizen who causes no disturbances and is simple to manage? The corollary of this is the restless, questioning citizen who is framed as “difficult”.

This good citizen accepts the loss of civil liberties and accepts the bona fides of the State, they go along with lockdown requirements, the orthodox view of an appropriate Covid response. I am not suggesting here that our response is the wrong one, but I am interested in the aesthetics of compliant citizenship. It would be an understatement to say that such compliance is breaking down. What if the excessive loss of life bred indifference, what if those who had nothing to lose feared short term starvation rather than a medium term and not inevitable death? What if we wanted a pleasing and ordered response from our citizenry to satisfy needs for control? What if this became an end in itself, morally desirable and normative? Anything else is unpatriotic, it might be said, not good for the collective.

In some ways the lockdown stages and our response to them (we are in denial that we have to go without for much longer; we are angry when we can buy winter pyjamas but not sleeping shorts; we try bargain with the state by saying “you can have your smokes but give us our alcohol”; we slump into the sofa when we realise nothing will ever be the same; and we reluctantly accept that there is nothing we can do against the power of the state) echo Kübler-Ross’s, they are a somewhat mechanistic view of a complex humanity. But they have failed to control the meanings we bring to this experience. It would be powerful, and I argue it is necessary, to deepen our understanding of these meanings.





[5] : K.R. Eissler, The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient; Herman Feifel, The Meaning of Death; Robert Fulton, Death and Identity; Barney G. Glasser and Anselm L. Strauss, Awareness of Dying; Edwin S. Shneidman, Essays In Self-Destruction, and David Sudnow, Passing On.

Locks Down and Quarantine Queens: Thoughts on Gender and Hair Fixation During a Global Pandemic

By Gabriela Pinheiro


Throughout the month of April 2020, a quick and random survey of various social media and online news platforms has revealed a curious trend. At this time, the rapid spreading of COVID-19 has resulted in a coronavirus pandemic, killing more than 100 000 people globally[1]. Most of the world’s citizens are now living in varying degrees of “lockdown” conditions, where there are stringent limitations to personal and social mobilities, and worldwide imperatives to #stay-at-home in order to #flatten-the-curve. Given these (somewhat-apocalyptic) circumstances, it has been interesting to observe that, alongside the aforementioned coronavirus-related hashtags, others are trending including: #quarantine-curls, #buzzcut-season, #home-haircut-fail, #don’t-try-this-at-home and #lockdown-before-and-after.

Explicit references to hair, and to hair-related anxieties specifically, have dominated online spaces and interactions during coronavirus quarantine. Especially considering the increasing number of daily virus-induced deaths, and the collective sense of uncertainty, fear and grief that people are experiencing, one questions the current fixation with hair. The significance of hair to human histories, identities, societies and relationships, however, means that its focalisation during times of crisis may reflect broader sociopolitical arrangements and patterns. In this paper, current hair fixations are explored in relation to wider connections between gender and other identity markers including race, class, age and geographical positioning; illustrating the centrality of human hair to everyday life. To facilitate the discussion, I offer brief analytic insights into a series of 15 Twitter posts (or ‘Tweets’) that feature language constructing relationships between hair and coronavirus conditions such as lockdown and/or quarantine[2].

A key feature of coronavirus lockdowns is the restriction of people’s movements, allowing the continued performance only of activities and services that have been deemed “essential”. In most countries, “essential” activities and services do not include routine visits to hair and beauty salons, and/or the consumption of some cosmetics products. However, in certain countries, like the United States of America (U.S.), higher-than-usual sales have recently been recorded for at-home hair dye because “in front of dimly-lit mirrors, people are shaving their heads or dyeing their hair” (Demopoulos, 2020). In New York City (one of the worst-affected cities in the world, where almost 20 000 people have died as a result of coronavirus infection[3]), some hair professionals have reported that their clients are expressing panic at not being able to have their regular hair treatments during the pandemic. According to journalists, some stylists are even resorting to making their clients’ colour formulas and delivering customised home-hair kits. These custom hair kits are reputed to cost as much as 75 U.S. Dollars (roughly 1400 South African Rand), and include step-by-step instructions with tutorials that are also being provided using virtual platforms such as FaceTime and YouTube (Landman, 2020). In this paper, I suggest that lockdown-induced fixations with hair are not random or coincidental, but reflective of broader hair politics that illustrate the social and psychological significance of hair in everyday life.

Hair Rules: The Social and Gendered Significance of Hair

For sociological and anthropological researchers (e.g. Alubafi, Ramphalile, & Rankoana, 2018; Lester, 2013; Synnott, 1987), the emotions and symbols that become attached to human hair (such as ‘panic’, for example) are indicative of the idea that hair, a seemingly-straightforward, biological attribute, is in fact laden with psychological, political and societal meaning. Hair is deeply-rooted (pun intended) in our personal and private sense of identity, but it is simultaneously a public, physical attribute that becomes imbued with connotations, stories, experiences and values. Hence, hair symbolism is complex and nuanced, and perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in gendered domains; where boundaries between personal and political spheres are contested and blurred: hair is private, but it is also exposed to public scrutiny. Moreover, whilst hair growth occurs all over the human body, particular hair ‘zones’ carry subtle ideological significance that appears to be based largely on Western heterosexual gendered stereotypes. The gendered politics of hair are organised and naturalised so that society’s expectations and scripts for male versus female hair are often opposite and contradictory (Synnott, 1987).

Culturally[4], heterosexual, binary definitions of masculinities and femininities suggest that men are generally less closely-identified with their hair, and perhaps more concerned with facial and chest hair as key markers of androgenic hormones and maleness. Typically, men are expected to keep their head hair short, uniform and ‘neat’. Norms prescribe that men should also have some facial hair, but they are generally not pressured to remove hair from other bodily zones[5]. Conversely, social expectations and standards are different for most women, who are generally socialised to identify more intimately with their head hair. Normatively, the worth that a woman encompasses seems to depend, to a considerable extent, on the length, texture and aesthetic quality of her head hair, but her value is also contingent on the absence of hair in other bodily zones such as the armpits, legs and pubis (Synnott, 1987). The immense social and gendered significance of hair is also supported by economic consumer patterns, where there is a considerable ‘grooming gap’ in the amount of time and money that women versus men spend on hair styling and products, and where the worth of the global haircare market is estimated at 90 billion U.S. Dollars (Isser, 2020). Feminist scholars and activists, including Audré Lorde and Germaine Greer, understand hair as a symbol of women’s gendered and sexual subjugation at the hands of patriarchal values. In relation to hair, Greer (1971) states:

I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of the Powder Room […] The rationale of depilation is crude. In the popular imagination hairiness is like furriness, an index of bestiality, and as such an indication of aggressive sexuality. Men cultivate it, just as they are encouraged to develop competitive and aggressive instincts, women suppress it, just as they suppress all the aspects of their vigour and libido. If they do not feel sufficient revulsion for their body hair themselves, others will direct them to depilate themselves. In extreme cases, women shave or pluck the pubic areas, so as to seem even more sexless and infantile. (pp. 38–61)

Greer (1971) constructs the patriarchal pressure for women to groom their head, face and body hair as unreasonable and uncomfortable. In the above statement, she highlights the manifestation of patriarchal gender codes in human hair practices, drawing clear parallels between norms for women’s sexualities and the hair prescriptions that are imposed by a codified, heterosexual society. Moreover, her words suggest that the routine hair grooming that she performs is not done because of personal choice and enjoyment. Masquerade, pretending, false and bought reinforce the sense of falsity and unnaturalness that she experiences when she engages in patriarchally-motivated hair practices, because these routines are invested in the gratification of external, societal pressure, and have little to do with her agency and personal choice as a woman. Greer (1971) also states that human hair is considered bestial, and that the qualities espoused by archetypal ‘beasts’ (aggression, acting on primal instincts and urges, assertiveness, action, etc.) are traditionally reserved for males only. These examples highlight the tension between private and public performances of hair and aesthetics, where many women feel obligated to express and present their bodies to the outer world in particular ways.

During the coronavirus pandemic, people on lockdown are spending considerable amounts of time in the privacy of their homes, as compared to their daily routines before the COVID-19 crisis began. On social media, many people’s posts have implied that the coronavirus lockdown/quarantine situation has provided a time to ‘let themselves go’ in terms of physical appearance and routine grooming practices. In line with what Greer (1971) and other feminist scholars have argued previously, this may be an indication of the idea that people (and women, in particular) adhere to traditional hair and grooming practices only because they are pressured to do so socially. In Tweet 1 (below), the Twitter user shows how dominant imaginings of human hair tend to associate its growth with bestiality, inhumanity, savagery, brutality and depravity. The user compares the ‘new’ presence and increased growth of people’s body hair (under lockdown conditions during the pandemic) to the untamed and non-anthropoid archetype of the werewolf. Interestingly, the increase in body hair is accompanied by changes to the size of people’s bodies in lockdown, illustrating how the presence of body hair is generally perceived as a symptom that someone has ‘let themselves go’ (and may therefore be ‘judged’) in physical appearance:

Tweet 1: @Roxi Horror (2020, April 7): when the quarantine ends, people may look a little different than they looked before. Remember not to judge anyone for the size of their body, any new body hair, the sharpness of their fangs, their new tail or how they howl when the moon comes out.

Other posts and interactions, illustrating the tension between private and public performances of gendered hair practices, have circulated widely on social media during the coronavirus pandemic. Aestheticians (especially in the U.S.) have reported that many female clients are anxious over growing body hair because they have to stay at home and cannot maintain their routine visits to beauty salons. In a recent news article (Demopoulos, 2020), one beauty professional stated: “We actually don’t recommend waxing at home, it’s potentially dangerous and the results will probably be disappointing. Why not go natural? It’s one less thing to deal with”. Particular aspects of this statement also support the sentiments expressed by Greer (1971). The beautician highlights the fact that when one is confined to the home (private) space, then it is more acceptable to ‘go natural’. The implication, in this instance, is that it would be unsightly and unpalatable to the public if a woman was to leave the home (private) space with normal body hair still visible. In the second portion of the statement, there is also evidence to suggest that, like Greer (1971), many women feel that routine beauty practices are burdening: something to ‘deal with’. It becomes clear that many of the beauty conventions and standards that we take for granted as normal and necessary are in fact societally-constructed and replete with sexist discourses about the way that a woman’s body should appear. During the coronavirus lockdown situation, we have been presented with a chance to reflect on the reasons why we engage in these conformist practices in the first place.

In Tweets 2, 3, 4 and 5 (below), the Twitter users show how societal rules for hair seem to be internalised so that the manipulation and control of our hair becomes more emblematic of gendered codes, and not so much a representation of personal choice. A series of analytic insights is offered below each of the posts:

Tweet 2: @readwithcindy (2020, April 8): when this quarantine is over I will be curious to see which hangs lower to the ground, my armpit hair or my saggy boobs.

In Tweet 2, the female user alludes to the fact that, because she is confined to the home space (‘quarantine’), she has been allowing her armpit hair to grow as it would naturally. Interestingly, the choice to let her armpit hair grow out is accompanied by a rejection of other gendered expectations that women encounter: in this case, the convention of wearing a bra. The implication is that her breasts will droop in the absence of their normative underwire support, and that they will hang down in the same vein as her newly-grown armpit hair. These transgressions of gendered hair norms are possible only because of ‘quarantine’ conditions, where remaining in the privacy of the home means that social expectations for hair need not be respected or fulfilled.

Tweet 3: @The Magnificent Cork (2020, April 7): I feel so sorry for women at the moment. Without their hair and nails done they actually look ridiculous. Honestly like, its lousy #lockdown.

In Tweet 3, the male user demonstrates patriarchal hair (and general grooming) expectations in action. He states that women ‘look ridiculous’ during the coronavirus lockdown because they are confined to their home spaces and thus cannot engage in routine beauty practices such as getting their ‘hair and nails done’. The user communicates his disapproval of women’s ungroomed and natural bodily states and condemns them with the word ‘lousy’. This post illustrates the patriarchal values that tend to underpin Western gendered hair norms and beauty standards: in order for women not to be ‘lousy’, or pitied by men, they should remain pristine in their physical condition at all times.

Tweet 4: @Maria Nabil (2020, April 8): Another good hair day wasted in quarantine…*blessing your timeline*.

Tweet 5: @clairequinn1352 (2020, April 13): My hair looks so good today and it is a travesty we are in quarantine.

In Tweets 4 and 5, the female users suggest that a ‘good hair day’ is ‘wasted’ in coronavirus ‘quarantine’, mainly because of the ‘travesty’ of having to stay inside without being able to show the public that their hair is groomed according to social standards and expectations. These sentiments suggest that what we do with our hair is not so much about personal choice, but about ensuring that we make good appearances in public and social realms of everyday life. These ideas are (re)articulated aptly by Juliet A. Williams, a gender studies professor from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who reiterates that the coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for people to think critically about their everyday conformity to gendered aesthetic expectations (Demopoulos, 2020):

For many people the crisis is the first time they’ve ever seriously considered [the question] ‘How would I choose to look if I didn’t have to worry about what other people think? You see a much wider spectrum of self-presentation. You see a rejection of gender stereotypes: long hair, short hair, grey hair. All of the things that we do to create the illusion that there is such a big difference in the way men and women look are being taken apart.

In Tweet 6 (below), the female user illustrates that coronavirus quarantine is a ‘no rules apply’ time for conventional gendered grooming and hair practices. She has to ‘hide’ the fact that she has chosen to go braless whilst engaging in the one-hour-long exercise/outside break that still applies in some countries on lockdown. The path is ‘well-populated’ and so she is forced to conceal the appearance and movement of her natural breasts in the absence of a bra. For her, coronavirus quarantine feels like a ‘no rules apply’ time. The rules to which she is referring are gendered, hence the references to her long hair and her decision to go braless (allowed only because it is quarantine). Tweet 6 thus reiterates the ideas expressed by Greer (1971) and Williams (2020), who suggest that the gendered codes for hair performance and expression are governed by patriarchal values, and that lockdown (a condition during which people do not venture out into the public eye) presents a unique historical moment for us to think critically about why we present our hair (and our bodies) in the ways that we do.

Tweet 6: @Fleurie (2020, April 8): using my hair to hide that I’m not wearing a bra was going well until I hit a strong headwind on a very well-populated walking path LOL why does quarantine feel like a general “no rules apply” time?

Connections between Gendered and Racial Identities in Global Hair Hierarchies

Gendered hair politics are further complicated by their intersections with geopolitical, racial and classed ideologies and positionings. Modern hair hierarchies are configured largely according to the systematic hegemony of conservative, white supremacist patriarchy (Alubafi et al., 2018). In the West, ideas from popular culture dictate that long, straight and shiny hair is irrefutably feminine, sexy and valuable. These hair standards are typified in the stereotypical performances of Caucasian femininity that abound in Western popular culture and media, which are replete with gendered hair mythologies including Rapunzel, Mary Magdalene and Lady Godiva. Gendered and racialised tropes that involve hair are also popular, including the all-too-familiar Dumb Blonde woman and the Tall, Dark and Handsome man. The Dumb Blonde trope is particularly visible in the collective consciousness of white, patriarchal Americans: innocent, passive, void of intellect, seductive, air-headed, youthful (but sexually experienced and experimental) and coquettish, the Dumb Blonde trope is epitomised in both fictional and non-fictional figures like Marylin Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elle Woods and Britney Spears (Horn, 1979, as cited in Synnott, 1987). In contemporary hair politics, the rise of tropes like the ‘Karen’ (Can I Speak to the Manager?) haircut also illustrate some of the ways in which white, middle-aged women who do not have long and ‘youthful’ air are constructed as slightly ‘butch’ and as ‘ball-busters’ (Rennex, 2019).

The connections between hair, gender and politics are becoming ever-clearer during the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., Ainsley Erhardt (a talk show host on U.S. President Donald Trump’s favourite conservative-leaning morning show, Fox and Friends) expressed concern about how women in America were going to get their hair and nails done in the context of social distancing and lockdowns: “All my friends are saying, you know, this is not a priority — people are dying and I realize that…but they can’t get their nails done,” she said. Shortly thereafter, social media users responded with critiques that her statement and the concerns she was expressing presented as a “perfect distillation of Trump Republicanism” and “rich white lady problems”. At the time of writing, the U.S. had more than 76 000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and a total of 849 recorded deaths, which begged the question: how legitimate are concerns about our physical appearance given our current circumstances and especially the knowledge that people are dying daily? (The News, 2020). Perhaps hair fixation by politicians and popular media figures illustrates the West’s tendency to focalise ‘rich white lady problems’ at the expense of devoting attention to issues of substance and urgency.

The same anti-feminist, conservative patriarchy is internalised by other anti-feminist women: Marabel Morgan (1975, p. 114, as cited in Synnott, 1987), for example, offered the following advice on how a woman should greet her husband on his return from work (the assumption being that she does not work outside of the house): “Greet him at the door with your hair shining, your beautifully made-up face radiant, your outfit sharp and snappy…. Take a few moments for that bubble-bath…. Remove all prickly hairs and be squeaky-clean from head to toe. Be touchable and kissable”.

Owing to their dominance of global hair hierarchies, and because they find their roots in decades of racist and oppressive histories, hegemonic ideas about hair are entangled intimately with the privileges afforded by Western white patriarchy (historically and contemporarily). Hence, it is possible to view hair as a corporeal artefact that (re)produces derogatory discourses about blackness, and about black women in particular. The politics of gender, hair and race have been shaped by the early (and enduring) racist influences of colonialism and slavery. As systematic forms of oppression and exploitation, colonialism and slavery catalysed the erasure of positive ideas about natural African hair, predominantly through the exportation of Africans to the West in the slave trade. In colonial America, white slave owners characterised African hair textures as “woolly” and favoured black women with straighter hair and lighter skin for ‘employment’ as personal house slaves; whilst those black women with kinkier hair and darker complexions were confined to work in the cotton fields (Nyamnjoh & Fuh, 2014, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018). Chigumadzi (2016) found that black people living in Brazil and the Caribbean have shared hair stories, because in the American experience, a woman with ‘good hair’ is a woman with long, shiny and straight hair. In the neo-colonial period, where white patriarchy and cultural imperialism persist, many ideas about black people’s hair continue to be informed largely by two colonial misconceptions in particular: that natural black hair is dirty or unsanitary, and that natural black hair does not grow. To elaborate on the ways in which these gendered and colonial rules continue to play out in modern hair hierarchies, Mokoena (2016, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018) notes that:

Many black women who wear weaves and relax their hair will explain their choice by either saying that their natural hair is unmanageable or that natural hair is dirty. This is one of the most enduring stereotypes about black hair. People will even cite the anecdotal evidence that Bob Marley’s dreads had 47 different types of lice when he died. These are urban legends of the worst kind because they perpetuate the stereotype that only black hair attracts lice, and other vermin, which is scientifically untrue.

In South Africa, with its history of colonial rule, apartheid machinery employed the same discursive strategies and racist tactics to divide people on the basis of particular aesthetic features and supposed ‘biological’ differences. In this context, hair was one of the most visible and public indicators of race, second only to skin colour. It is no secret that, in the name of ‘science’ (eugenics), the apartheid government institutionalised invalid and racist measures such as the ‘pencil hair test’ in order to classify South Africans as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ (black, mixed race or Indian) (Chigumadzi, 2016). Black women’s hair thus became (and remains presently) one of the most highly-contested aesthetic practices in the South African imagination (Alubafi et al., 2016; Chigumadzi, 2016). Racial slurs to describe African versus Caucasian hair textures were (and are still) propagated through polarising vocabularies such as kroes-hare (meaning ‘kinky’ hair) versus lekker-hare (meaning ‘nice’ hair). These vocabularies illustrate how “distinctions of aesthetic value – beautiful and ugly – have always been central to the way racism divides the world into binary oppositions in its application of human worth” (Mercer, 1987, p. 35). In the post-apartheid era, hair politics and his(hair)stories continue to exert a profound influence in shaping many black women’s perceptions of themselves and also their relationships with their bodies; especially in relation to an ostensibly superior (and ‘more beautiful’) white other (Alubafi et al., 2018).

The interconnections between hair and race are also evident in the biologising and totalising racist discourses that continue to (re)appear in everyday talk and interaction around black women’s hair. In a recent study by Alubafi et al (2018), black women living in Tshwane (Pretoria) noted that ‘good hair’ is still largely understood to mean ‘white hair’ (sleek, long and straight).  Moreover, many black women express feelings of frustration and humiliation when white people ask if it would be okay to touch their afros; that these requests from white people are inappropriate and serve only to reproduce racist ideas about which types of head hair are (ab)normal (Gassam, 2020). In these everyday interactions, a particular kind of relational and power dynamic (re)emerges, where whiteness has voyeuristic privilege, and blackness is exhibited purely to satiate white consumption, fascination, entertainment and pleasure.

One is reminded in this instance of historical figures such as Saartjie Baartman (see, e.g. Catanese, 2010). However, one also need not look very far in order to encounter contemporary illustrations of the same corporeal violences (central to which are questions relating to human hair). In the sphere of modern sport, for example, racist/sexist hair politics manifest in the ‘scientific’ (read: humiliating and discriminatory) measures that are sometimes used to evaluate women athletes; especially those who are not white. Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete who identifies as a woman, but she was recently suspected of having high levels of androgens (male hormones) and was thus subjected to a series of ‘sex verification tests’: one of which entailed the measuring of her pubic hair; the length of which was then recorded and graded according to a five-grade scale (Padawer, 2016). Similar procedures were conducted on the body of South African athlete, Caster Semenya, whose case demonstrates another example of intersectional identity discrimination (along gendered and racial axes) at the hands of conservative white patriarchy in the sporting arena (North, 2019).

Moreover, South Africa’s current education system also reveals how historical racism and sexism endure in contemporary hair politics: a case in point is exemplified by the August 2016 incident at Pretoria High School for Girls, where administration insisted that black female learners straighten their hair in order for it to adhere to the school’s code of conduct (which stipulated that girls’ hair should be ‘neat’ and ‘tidy’). These examples reflect how human hair remains fundamental to the maintenance of historical racist/misogynistic policies, and how the complex image of black hair is fraught with historic emblems of black people’s purported inferiority (Alubafi et al., 2018). Whilst many white women endure (re)articulations of sexist oppression in patriarchal matrices, it seems that “the racial implications of hair texture [and hair in general] take on added significance for black women, given the central role accorded to hair in racialized constructions of femininity and female beauty” (Caldwell, 2003, p. 18).

In Tweet 7 (below), the male Twitter user makes references to black women and the hair and grooming practices to which they must normally conform. The reference to race is made explicit through his use of the word ‘nigga’. This word is a variant of the word ‘nigger’, which has a particular history that finds its origins as a racist slur used by white people against black people in the mid-1800s. However, the term, and black people’s use of the term, have evolved to take on new meanings. One new way in which black people employ the term ‘nigga’ is colloquial, to refer to other black people in casual conversation and as a reclamation of the term as part of a positive and collective identity (see, e.g. Rahman, 2012). In Tweet 7, the black male user is referring to the ‘niggas’ (boyfriends or partners) of black women, whom he references through the word ‘ladies’ and the inclusion of a photo of a stylish black woman. In the Tweet, he suggests that quarantine is a time where black women are unable to adhere to conventional beauty standards, implying that as soon as the coronavirus pandemic is over, these women will hurry back to beauty salons to receive their usual beauty treatments. He also suggests that, in order to have sex with (or ‘give it up’ to) their ‘niggas’ (from whom they have been separated because of coronavirus lockdown), these women will need to first make sure that they adhere to gendered codes for grooming: they should be ‘fully waxed’, their nails should be done and their head hair should also be properly groomed:

Tweet 7: @B. (2020, April 8): Ladies first day out of quarantine on the way to their nigga house fully waxed, nails & hair done and ready to give it UP [photograph of stylish black woman].

Gender, Age and Hair in the Western Imagination: to Go Grey or to Die?

In Western aesthetics, there is also a clear interplay between hair, gender and the identity marker of age; where Western standards of beauty show an obsessive reverence towards youth and its preservation, and a complementary devaluing of age and elderliness. Synnott (1987) notes that grey hair is often one of the first physical and public signs of human mortality, and that grey hairs (and ageing) are often concealed through conventional dyeing practices. However, where grey hair and ageing are concerned, there is also a (gendered) double standard in most youth-focused, Western settings: for women, greying hair is generally perceived negatively, as a sign of aging: there is a loss of youthful characteristics (including women’s ‘crowning glory’) that make femininity intelligible and seductive to patriarchal masculinities.

For most Western men, however, greying hair is often regarded as ‘distinguished’; hence, the old adage: men age like fine wine, but women age like milk. The metaphorical ‘souring’ of women as they age, common in Western framings of beauty and gender, alludes to the double standards characterising gender codifications and aesthetic rules. The constraining effects of these rules featured prominently in a 1983 scandal, where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration admitted that hair dye may cause cancer, and many female consumers of Clairol’s hair dye said that they would rather die than ‘turn grey’ (Banner, 1983, as cited in Synnott, 1987). In Tweet 8 (below), it is evident that coronavirus conditions, such as ‘self-quarantine’ mean that people (and women, in particular) can get away with foregoing their usual beauty and hair colouring routines because they are not going to be seen by anybody. The female Twitter user places ‘without a bra or makeup’ next to ‘growing out your grey hair’ and this syntax shows that gender rules for hair have become somewhat relaxed whilst women are confined to their homes during a period of time when public appearances do not matter to the same degree as they would normally:

Tweet 8: @paget_brewster (2020, April 8): maybe during self-quarantine, you do a little touch up on interior house painting, without a bra or makeup, while growing out your grey hair…

Re/rou(o)ting His(hair)stories: Hair as Resistance

Human hair is very often the site of interwoven discriminatory politics, but it is also a battleground for people’s resistance to societal conventions: hence, it is far from neutral, but rather highly-ambivalent and contested. Historically, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of 1950s-60s America were underpinned by aesthetic ideologies and practices that encouraged black people to reclaim their natural styles, and the afro was glorified with the slogan Black is Beautiful (Synnott, 1987). As a parallel to these bodily and hair-related modes of resistance, the influence of the Black Consciousness Movement in apartheid South Africa meant that black people started to reject the primacy of white beauty rules, drawing attention instead to political blackness, and to black power, through their hair choices: as a key part of their rebellion against racial and gendered configurations, many black South Africans wore afros and other natural styles in order to symbolise a return to themselves, and a collective reframing of negative ideas about black physicality and black bodies (Biko, 2004, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018). Furthermore, some black women in the recent study by Alubafi et al (2018) expressed that their hair still serves as a contested, ambivalent and dynamic part of their daily aesthetic lives and routines, including the resistance of pre-1994 hair imagery: importantly, they emphasised that South African black women who straighten their hair, or wear wigs and extensions, are not simply imitating their white counterparts, but that the free adoption of different styles (some of which were previously thought to be owned and worn exclusively by white women) forms a core part of the liberation of black people and black hair.

In the present era of hair and gender, the continued and gradual dismantling of dominant hair hierarchies is evident. Through their hair adornment and style choices, many black women in South Africa are gradually disrupting racist and sexist his(hair)stories, as was especially publicised and highlighted in the protest by Pretoria High School for Girls learners following the 2016 incident at their school (Alubafi et al., 2018; Chigumadzi, 2016). It is also positive to see that people’s questioning of normative hair conventions is occurring in creative domains, through film and other media. In 2020, for example, Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love was awarded an Oscar upon being recognised as the best animated short film of the season. The film has been hailed as a celebration of representation, and of a young black girl’s journey of self (and hair) acceptance (McKenzie, 2020). These forms of resistance allude to the subtle, but powerful capacities for hair to tackle and neutralise aesthetic and socio-political hegemonies in the context of global race/gender arrangements.

Other forms of hair protest include those witnessed in social movements such as the Hippie and Punk movements (Synnott, 1987), and in the growing refusal by many women to remove their body hair and/or to keep their head hair long. Within LGBTQIA+[6] and drag scenes, performance artists such as Conchita Wurst (who wears a beard) have also made significant contributions to hair resistance (Tallie, 2014). The increasing prevalence of women’s unshaven armpits, and the growing popularity of women’s buzzcuts, show how feminine shame has started to become feminist (‘crowning’) glory (Lester, 2013). During coronavirus conditions, such as lockdown and quarantine, more and more people seem to be questioning the hair practices in which they engage on a daily basis. One might argue, then, that the global pandemic has offered an opportunity for critical thought and reflection around mainstream hair norms (in relation to gender, race and other identity markers) and that the ‘letting go’ of convention might alter and (re)shape the ways in which we think about aesthetics in the post-coronavirus era.

The Psychosomatics of Hair: Loss, Locks and Life Transitions

Psychosomatically, the gendered nuances of hair are also visible, straddling both private and public spaces: In one study (Synnott, 1987, p. 383), the following was expressed by a woman who had lost all of her hair through radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer: “When you lose your hair, you feel like you have nothing to live for […] a girl just isn’t a girl without her hair”. Her sentiments and ‘feelings’ allude to the centrality of hair as a core part of her sense of self as a legitimate and worthy woman in society. Moreover, the level of pain that she experiences in relation to the loss of her hair is comparable to the grief and emptiness that is typically associated with death and mourning. According to some psychologists (see, e.g. Radin, 2019), the urge to cut one’s hair during periods of grief can be likened to shedding a layer of skin; a way to rid the Self physically of difficult emotions and experiences.

The gendered connections between grief and hair are observable across numerous cultures, where head hair among Punjabi women, for example, symbolises life and vitality and is thus left dishevelled and unwashed during the mourning of husbands (Herschman, 1974, as cited in Hirschman, n.d.). The female Twitter user who posted Tweet 9 (below) uses a simile device to show how coronavirus quarantine compares to the feelings associated with a breakup. The loss of normalcy and routine that happens during quarantine is likened to the loss of an intimate partner, and feelings including ‘sadness’ and longings for ‘revenge’ are expressed. Interestingly, the ‘revenge bod’ is polarised with the image of being ‘sad as shit and eating everything you can find, binge watching shit tv’, which shows how people’s personal and private aesthetic performances are different in private and public domains. The ‘revenge bod’ is usually created for the purpose of showing one’s ex what they are missing, and so again this communicates the idea that gendered bodily practices are largely maintained by external pressures that women feel. This is the case both during quarantine and during a breakup. The ‘chopping’ of this user’s hair is mentioned in relation to the feelings of loss, sadness and yearning for normalcy that characterise periods of grief and mourning:

Tweet 9: @Kristen Leanne (2020, April 6): Quarantine is like a breakup: one day you’re fucking sad as shit and eating everything you can find, binge watching shit tv. Next day you wanna work out and get that revenge bod…then you wanna chop your hair off and colour it [crying emoji].

Many women who have experienced other types of trauma also express desires to cut their hair or even to shave it off entirely. In popular culture, examples of this are represented in film and other media. In the 1988 film, The Accused, the protagonist decides to cut her hair into a very short style after she is gangraped and discovers that her rapists have not been found guilty (Radin, 2019). This is also evident in Tweet 10 (below), where the female Twitter user constructs cutting one’s hair during quarantine as something inevitable (‘when you cut your own hair’). The cutting of the hair is cathartic because the experience of being in quarantine is traumatic. This is likened to the gendered tropes that are common in films and other media:

Tweet 10: @CamGurrrl (2020, April 13): When you cut your own hair in quarantine pretend to be a female character who’s gone through a significant and/or traumatic event, and now has her spontaneous, tearful, cathartic haircutting scene scored by rousing music.

Another, highly-publicised and notorious example can be identified in the case of Britney Spears, who, in 2007, (in)famously shaved her own head whilst in the midst of personal trauma involving a war with the American media, a divorce, substance abuse and mental health difficulties. After years of alienation and torment as a puppet of American popular culture and media, Spears later explained that the notorious head-shave symbolised a reclamation of her personal identity and individuality, but also a physical way in which to handle the emotional pain that she was experiencing. Having been sexualised from a very young age Britney used the buzzcut moment as a mode of defiance and resistance against stigmas surrounding gender and mental health (Morrish, 2017):

She seemed to be trying, with befuddled brilliance, to tell the truth. She recoiled from celebrity culture by mortifying her own flesh. She stripped herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She presented herself as grotesque. Her mortification of the flesh at 25 is just the latest example of how bizarrely-troubling American society finds the female body.

Coronavirus lockdown/quarantine periods are also periods of transition and change, involving considerable stress and anxiety for many people. The psychological and affectual impact of this situation may be expressed through people’s decisions to change their hair or modify their physical appearance in other ways. For the remainder of the tweets (below), brief analytic comments are provided that illustrate this.

Tweet 11: @Krestamir (2020, April 6): new piercings and hair color after this quarantine [tongue emoji]

There is the implication of a transitory period for the user. She is going to have these bodily procedures performed after quarantine, showing that she will be coming out of a difficult time in her life. The tongue emoji is a performative way of communicating a particular message or emotion.

Tweet 12: @Jo (2020, Apr 8): The worst part about this quarantine is that I can’t dispel my manic energy in negative ways. No tattoos/piercings, no dyeing my hair, no impulse buying, no going to the Pub and ordering everyone shots of Jameson. What am I supposed to do? Hike? Read? Meditate? Fucksakes.

Dyeing one’s hair is constructed as a way to ‘dispel [her] manic energy’. This female user is manic because of the quarantine. Other maladaptive or destructive (‘negative’) activities or coping mechanisms are mentioned, symbolizing that cutting one’s hair is something that we often do when we are not coping. This suggests that quarantine and coronavirus pandemic are difficult to handle. There is also the polarization of healthy coping mechanisms with unhealthy ones…in society’s view, drinking, dyeing your hair, buying things impulsively and getting body modifications like piercings or tattoos are considered unhealthy. The healthy mechanisms involve hiking, reading and meditating. ‘Fucksakes’ expresses anger and exasperation.

Tweet 13: @kj (2020, April 6): btw I dyed my hair like…the 2nd day of quarantine I am not stable lmao.

Tweet 14: @emo_mom (2020, April 6): this quarantine put y’all in the same mental state you were in when you were 13, that’s why you’re listening to your “emo throwbacks” playlist and dyeing your hair

Tweet 15: @Tallulah (2020, April 4): quarantine made me do it. Instead of having a meltdown, I dyed my hair.

Evidently, hair is laden with psychology and affect: one makes changes (like cutting and/or dyeing) the hair during times of ‘instability’ (like coronavirus lockdown/quarantine conditions). In Tweet 13, the ‘lmao’ stands for ‘laughing my ass off’ and could signal the idea that the female user finds the quarantine situation absurd. In Tweet 14, the female user refers to the ‘emo’ trope, which is known to emphasise emotional expression and is usually typified by reverse mullet and jet-black or rainbow-hued hairstyles. The reference to this trope suggests that quarantine has initiated a ‘mental state’ that is highly emotional. Finally, in Tweet 15, these sentiments and ideas are reinforced: the female user cites ‘quarantine’ as the reason for a ‘meltdown’ (emotional instability) and goes on to mention changes that she has made to her hair instead.


In this paper, a series of tweets (posted during the month of April 2020, in the context of coronavirus lockdown/quarantine conditions during the global pandemic) was analysed thematically, and the analytic insights were connected to broader theory around hair politics to show that hair is significant to people in ways that are personal, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, historical, political, economical and sexual. The ideological effects of hair are particularly evident during the global pandemic, which has presented us with an opportunity to reflect critically on the reasons, values and ideas that underpin our daily adherence to (mainly Western) aesthetic conventions. Expressed through social media platforms such as Twitter, quarantine-related hair fixations and anxieties reveal the affectual and political intricacies with which hair is imbued.


Alubafi, M. F., Ramphalile, M., & Rankoana, A. S. (2018). The shifting image of black women’s hair in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa. Cogent Social Sciences, 4(1).

Caldwell, K. L. (2003). “Look at her hair”: The body politics of black womanhood in Brazil. Transforming Anthropology, 11(2), 18–29. doi: 10.1525/tran.2003.11.issue-2.

Catanese, B. W. (2010). Remembering Saartjie Baartman. Atlantic Studies, 7(1), 47–62.

Chigumadzi, P. (2016, October 5). White schools versus black hair in post-apartheid South Africa. The New York Times.

Demopoulos, A. (2020, April 4). Shave it, dye it, or grow it out: there are no rules for quarantine hair. Daily Blast.

Foley, K.E. (2017, June 11). It’s totally normal—and maybe even useful—to cut off

all your hair to deal with loss. Quartz.

Fox News sparks a firestorm by talking hair, nails during global pandemic. (2020, April 8). The News. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from:

Gassam, J. (2020, January 8). Stop asking black people if you can touch their hair. Forbes.

Greer, G. (1971). The Female Eunuch. Paladin Books.

Hirschman, E. C. (n.d.). Hair as Attribute, Hair as Symbol, Hair as Self. 13.

Isser, M. (2020, January 5). The grooming gap: What “looking the part” costs women.

Landman, B. (2020, March 20). People are freaking out about having bad hair during coronavirus quarantine. NY Post.

Lester, N. A. (2013). The Why and the Where of Hair. The Lion and the Unicorn, 37(2), v–xvi.

McKenzie, J.P. (2020, February 10). Watch Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning short film Hair Love: it made history on Kickstarter. The Oprah Magazine.

Mercer, K. (1987). Black hairstyle politics. New Formations, 3, 33–54.

Morrish, L. (2017, February 17). What Britney’s head shave can teach us about mental health 10 years on. Konbini.

North, A. (2019, May 3). “I am a woman and I am fast”: What Caster Semenya’s story says about gender and race in sports. Vox.

Padawer, R. (2016, July 15). Indian Dutee Chand, set to run in the Olympics, has been humiliated by sex-testing. New York Times.

Plantive, C. (2020, April 8). To cut or not to cut? in U.S., quarantine slows everything but hair growth. South Cape Forum.

Radin, S. (2019, March 26). We asked a psychologist and hairdresser why haircuts are so emotional. Dazed Digital.

Rahman, J. (2012). The N Word: Its History and Use in the African American Community. Journal of English Linguistics – J ENGL LINGUIST, 40, 137–171.

Rennex, M. (2019, December 16). Junk Explained: Who And What Is A “Karen”? Junkee.

Synnott, A. (1987). Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair. The British Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 381.

Tallie, T.J. (2014, May 19). Hirsute Phoenix: Conchita Wurst, Beards, and the Politics of Sexuality. Notches.

Waldstein, A. (2016). Studying the Body in Rastafari Rituals: Spirituality, Embodiment and Ethnographic Knowledge. Journal for the Study of Religious Experience, 2(71).

About the author

Gabriela Pinheiro is a critical social and psychological researcher. Gabriela joined the CSA&G in 2020 where she manages the Gender Justice Project in collaboration with the Irish Embassy and is also involved with other ongoing work in the CSA&G. She completed her Master’s in Research Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and interned at the UNISA Institute for Social and Health Sciences. Her research background includes work in the South African Higher Education sector and community engagement. She has particular interest in the study of critical social psychologies, genders and sexualities, and student health/wellbeing.


[1] At the time of writing. For updated statistics and further information, visit:

[2] These Tweets were selected randomly. Using the Twitter application, the recent Tweets were filtered to show those from April 2020, before typing the following keywords into the search bar: coronavirus hair, quarantine hair and lockdown hair. This is just a small collection of Tweets related to coronavirus and hair, and an array of others can be viewed on Twitter:

[3] At the time of writing. For updated statistics and further information, visit:

[4] I refer in this instance to hegemonic Western standards and cultures of beauty. It is important to recognise the heterogeneity and plurality within and between different cultures when contemplating the politics of hair and beauty. In Rastafarian culture, for example, many men choose to wear their head hair long (and/or in dreadlock styles) because they believe that this is where their strength lies. This example alludes to the dynamic nature of hair politics across and within different cultural groupings (see, e.g. Waldstein, 2016). Gendered hair norms are also contested and resisted – this is discussed in later sections of this paper.

[5] There are exceptions to this uniformity, even within dominant Western beauty cultures. If we think about sport, for example, many male athletes choose to remove body hair because the practice is perceived to enhance physical performance. This alludes, again, to the plurality of hair expression by different people, even when they are see as falling within a particular group or culture.

[6] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and allies

Social distancing and privilege – looking at Covid-19 through an intersectional lens

by Vickashnee Nair

I sit alone on my couch in the quiet and warm flat that I share with my partner.

The roads are quiet, except for the occasional truck that delivers goods to the shopping complex adjacent to where we live. Sometimes a car darts by and the sound of rain patters down to remind me that Mother Nature continues to do her work. Otherwise, this small suburb in Randburg is still.

As I sit and ponder this, I am aware of how many privileges and luxuries this illuminates. There is food in my fridge, we are able to afford this flat, I can live with my partner, and we both have cars in order to get food or healthcare if we need to. We both have enough space to work, we both have working Wi-Fi and laptops, and we have the means to see this out through steady incomes, which we get from jobs that allow us to work from home. Also we have social support through our families, friends and colleagues, and I am able to afford Zoom sessions with my psychologist every week.

Yet these privileges are often not thought of consciously as they lie beneath the surface of many people’s lives. Because these are our lived experiences and realities, we can purport to know them. But when it comes to the realities of other people, people who are not as privileged, people who are oppressed even, we can be out of touch. To get in touch we need to imagine, to be mindful, and to empathize.

As news reports flood in of other areas, especially in what are termed ‘townships’, I have noticed the narratives and images that have emerged. How some are not able to social distance due to lack of space in their homes, lines outsides offices to collect grants, people loitering in the streets, clashes with police and the SANDF, and limited or no access to finances as many rely on unsteady or unreliable employment.

Not just townships feature in these narratives, but Johannesburg city spaces too, where the familiar white, blue and gold of police vehicles features in videos uploaded to social media and the news. Images and videos of violence between citizens and police flash past my eyes and I find myself unnerved by this.

All of these news reports have made it plainly clear to me the disparities between communities’ experiences of this global pandemic. I have seen people stockpile their trollies and empty shelves, disobey orders to go jogging or walk their dogs, and work from office spaces with multiple monitors,  visiting well stocked fridges and making bread from recipes on Instagram. These speak to those in more affluent and privileged communities. The lockdown has had some effect there, but many are still able to function in relative comfort.

However, I think of those who live in small spaces with large families, who won’t get any income this month besides the grant of an elderly member. I think of how hand sanitizer is something you have seen before as a luxury not a necessity, and how you are only able to buy a basket of groceries from bare shelves to sustain you and your family throughout the next month.

The pandemic affects everyone, but not in the same way.

I refer here to intersectionality. This is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to explain the varying identities that exist within one person. She highlights how an individual might experience forms of oppression or privilege based on these varying identities (Dhamoon, 2011). These identity factors include race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender, and many others.

So one individual might simultaneously experience privilege and oppression. For example, I am an Indian, female, middle class, tertiary educated, queer, and cisgender individual. Now on some of those identity markers I am privileged, through being middle class, tertiary educated, and cisgender. On others markers I experience oppression or lack of privilege, through being a woman, Indian, and queer. These aspects have historically brought oppression, discrimination and sometimes even violence. So privilege and oppression work together in complex ways, ways which are unique to each person.

As a result of this, each of us experiences and views this pandemic differently and in such multifaceted ways: intersectionality is a lens through which others see us and a lens through which we see the world. It would thus be counterintuitive to generalize about communities and make assumptions about people based on what one is able to discern on the surface. Even I am guilty of this, as what I write is based on what I have discerned through news reports and articles on different communities. My lenses not only inform which article I choose to draw on, but which articles I even see. We are all guilty of this; we reveal our “positionality”. Of course we try to unlearn what society has molded us to be and we think (or should think!) about our lives, positions and biases every day. This unlearning process is painful and hard. We have to challenge our misconceptions and our lack of self-awareness every day and in every interaction.

This is so telling now when we are surrounded and engulfed by fake news, WhatsApp messages, viral videos, and news reports around Covid-19 and its impact upon humans. We need to be mindful and aware. But this is not enough, we need to channel this into action. We need to reflect, speak about and discuss this, we need to challenge, mindfully. We should be respectful of others, not make assumptions, and share with others and not stockpile for ourselves.

It is within our own intersectional selves that we find such complexities; humans are nuanced and tricky, and yet this is what makes us fascinating.

It is in these discrepancies, privileges and oppressions that we find tensions. We cannot assume a lack of information or education means people act in a particular way; there are always other factors at play, such as communal and cultural factors. From my outsider experiences of townships, they seem to be hubs of social activity, entrepreneurship, bonding, togetherness, sense of community, philanthropy, kindness, and liveliness. There are taxis, cars and people everywhere, filling the roads and streets with life. This is the everyday experience of South Africans and when a nationwide lockdown is announced, of course this will make the transition incredibly difficult for many.

That is what has made this entire process difficult. We have had to go from a communal, social and bustling society, to a completely quiet, ghostly country, where we can only exist in the smaller spaces of our homes. This has been a dramatic and painful shift. For everyone in different ways. Even for those who have to work, their lives have been impacted in drastic ways. They have to work harder and more carefully, they live with anxieties of leaving their homes and with possibly being infected.

There is an unease as well as an eerie calm in the country. But this does not mean that we should play into and fall prey to it. We need to be proactive and reflective. It is not enough to simply acknowledge difference, but we need to build awareness of the consequences of difference, and make this part of our everyday lives.


Dhamoon, R.K., 2011. Considerations on mainstreaming intersectionality. Political Research Quarterly64(1), pp.230-243.

My name is Vickashnee Nair and I am a 26-year-old Indian female originally born in Lenasia. I joined CSA&G as a researcher for the Just Leadership Programme in 2020. I have completed my Masters in Community Based Counselling Psychology through the University of Witwatersrand and I am working towards becoming a registered Counselling Psychologist. My interests include sexualities, gender, mental health, community and health psychology, and race. I have had experiences working in therapy and assessment in various communities, including the student population.

Shame on you, shame on me: a pandemic of shame

by Pierre Brouard

More than ever, as we grapple with a virus which is causing so much fear, shame is a key tool for social control, and an often dangerous one.

This was certainly true for the Polish professor with Covid-19, Wojciech Rokita.[1] Rumours had spread – both online and in local media – that 54-year-old Rokita had not complied with his quarantine and had visited a car showroom after being diagnosed. A lawyer representing Rokita’s family said the professor had not violated his quarantine, and had taken his own life as a result of the “wave of hate” he faced online. In a similar vein, there have been reports of increased suicides in France, of people scared of Covid-19 but also scared that they had infected others.

Shame is a social dance. The shamed and the shamer are bound together in an interlocking rhythm: to experience shame you must know that, one way or another, you have transgressed the social order. To shame another you must be a vigilant observer of that very same social order, and of the transgressor. They need each for the dance to stay in rhythm.

Shame is highly emotive: whether you are the shamed or the shamer you can be sure that you will experience an intense flush of emotion: humiliation in the shamed, hubris in the shamer.

The Dutch sociologist, Johan Goudsblom,[2] notes how shame has almost universal manifestation in human beings: “involuntary bodily changes – the most spectacular of which is blushing – and a number of behavioural reactions such as hiding one’s face behind one’s hand, or bowing one’s head down, which may be highly spontaneous, but which are also susceptible to learning, controlling, ritualising.” [3]

More of shame as ritual later.

Not only have we all been there, “in shameland” as Goudsblom calls it, but we will carry the memories of it as long as we live. Sometimes a memory of shame can evoke the same feelings of many years ago. Every now and again I recall an experience where I, then a young gay man, was humiliated by two older gay male academics who were evaluating a research proposal of mine: the mere recollection can induce heart palpitations, sweating, rage and helplessness. I had revenge fantasies for years! Some people take their revenge in other ways, they kill themselves when they cannot endure the shame visited upon them.

An intriguing aspect of the manifestations of shame is that while they signal a desire to be small, invisible, unnoticed, unseen perhaps, they are very successful in drawing attention to the self: they are conspicuous. A blush says “look at me, don’t look at me” suggests Goudsblom.

This desire to be seen and yet not seen is one I will come back to later. But for now I want to suggest that this is also a possible motivation in the shamer – when we shame other people we want to signal something about ourselves, and to ourselves: that we are virtuous, that we “know better”, or even that we occupy a morally higher ground. Even when we anonymously report those who, for example, disobey a lockdown order, our intention is that they are seen and punished: our shaming of others must manifest in some form of visible sanction.

The idea that shaming and being shamed are inextricably linked is further explored by Goudsblom. For humans to survive they must resolve, or live with, the tension between solidarity and hierarchy, dimensions of social groups, the groups we need to learn to be human. Hierarchy is on a continuum from respect to contempt, while solidarity is seen on a continuum from affection to enmity.

Shame occurs when ties of solidarity and hierarchy are impaired: we have broken the rules of the powerful (the president as stern father, for example) and we have distanced ourselves from emotional ties (our connections to our fellow lockdown-ees). Shame is both a personal and social injury, even death, or at least it feels that way. It is always unpleasant, and painful. The social body has been damaged as much as the psyche.

Social pain, says Goudsblom, “involves a two-way traffic. In the act of shaming, messages of pain are exchanged. When others catch someone in the act of doing something unseemly, they may actively ‘shame’ that person. Victims realise that they have harmed their own position; they are in danger of humiliation and expulsion, and let it be known to the others that they acknowledge this. The inner awareness is as it were the ‘domestic policy’ of shame, the outward display its ‘foreign policy’ aspect.”

So social pain is social in two ways: “it is inflicted socially by the people who ‘shame’ (as punishment) and it is demonstrated socially by the person who is ashamed (as atonement).” Perhaps punishment and atonement need each other to be meaningful.

One of the key intentions, it would appear, in Covid-19 shaming is the desire to defend a particular status quo, to protect the social body from harm, and to shore up the defences against an “invader”, a physical virus which can kill. This is the “noble” in Covid-19 shaming: an act often praised, and indeed seen as a social good. I take no particular issue with this view: to shame the lockdown transgressors is to defend against the shattering of a group, a society, literally a defence against physical disintegration. Whether this achieves this aim is debatable: there is evidence sometimes to suggest otherwise.

Dr June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University, and author of Shame and Guilt, doubts shaming will prevent poor pandemic behaviour. “By shaming people, we’re actually encouraging the opposite,” she says. “When people feel shamed, they tend to get very defensive, they tend to blame other people, they’re disinclined to take responsibility, and they’re not any more likely to change their behaviour.”[4]

What I wish to add here to this issue is the question of fantasy in shaming, the fantasy of not only of defending the social, but defending the self, through the invocation of defence mechanisms. The key defences against psychological (not social) disintegration are the mechanisms of splitting and projection.

In an essay on defence mechanisms, Joseph Burgoin[5] describes splitting as a mental process that enables us to makes distinctions: to take an undifferentiated, confusing mass of experience or information and divide it into categories that have meaning.  Without splitting, nothing would make sense to us.  We wouldn’t be able to understand the world around us because we couldn’t divide the mass of sensory input into meaningful categories.

But splitting can also do the opposite: it can remove meaning by separating parts of a whole that actually belong together. “This is where it becomes a defence mechanism and is used to ward off unbearable feelings and emotions,” says Burgoin. “Let’s say that I have a hard time bearing my anger and aggressive feelings. In truth, I’m a nice and also a not-so-nice person, with a mixture of loving and hating impulses; when the anger and hatred can’t be tolerated, however, I will split them off: the loving and socially acceptable feelings – those are me – and the hostile aggressive ones are not me.  Thus I have split myself (more accurately, my awareness of myself) into parts and disowned one of them, which almost always goes hand-in-hand with projecting it outside.”

So splitting and projection are defences (against the awareness of unpleasant parts of the self) which work together. When we split off a part of our experience (the undesirable quality) and “project” it onto another person we “see” in them what we are unwilling or unable to see in ourselves, often leading to misperceptions of other people, and perhaps the self. It can be argued that another function part of the projection

There is an irony here: splitting and projection, I have argued, are defences against psychological disintegration because they protect and maintain a vision of the self one can tolerate. Yet being able to tolerate one’s good and bad, dark and light, is also a sign of psychological integration, an ability to cope with ambivalence and ambiguity.

One of the consequences of excessive or splitting is rigid (either/or) thinking: people who break lockdowns are bad, not capable of good. As a person who obeys the lockdown, I am good, not capable of bad. Shaming others serves the purpose, then, of reinforcing the good of the self, denying the bad and antisocial, seeing it embodied in others. In some cases, excessive splitting and projection is accompanied by grandiosity, and self importance: I have done the right thing, without my action people would died.

It can also be argued that in shaming others we assuage the guilt we may feel: either we have done the very thing we accuse others of, but were not caught; or we know that given different circumstances we may have been tempted to, for example, break the requirements of lockdown. This guilt has to be disowned and placed on others, for self respect to be maintained.

In Covid-19 shaming, then, the shamer and the shamed are joined in a ritual of splitting and projection. The shamer sees the shamed as bad, and the shamed must internalise this badness to meet the requirements of atonement. The rituals of atonement are all too familiar to us. Sincere “sorrys”, chastened cadences, embarrassed explanations must meet the required standard. And even when they do, forgiveness may be withheld, the enjoyment of moral power must be not be denied just yet.

A key consequence of lockdown shaming is to deny the full humanity of the shamed. They are villains, the repository of our collective projected rage, and in a sense we cannot see their humanity. And it is much easier to shame individuals or categories of people who are powerless to challenge the labels we use to other them, than to see that lockdown violations may have more complex roots. These can be psychological, but often they are sociological: people on the margins have little to lose.

The South African state has perfected the art of shaming in this lockdown. People who want alcohol are bad, smokers are irresponsible, people wanting cooked food are “spreaders”, a word that is naked in its blaming and othering. There are also implicit suggestions of patriotism or treason – it’s for the good of the nation, for the safety of the people – so you need to obey. If you do not, you are not only a “spreader” but also a betrayer of the nation state.

The best weapon against shame is empathy says psychology writer Melissa Kirk[6]. I would argue this not just the empathy of looking into the eyes of the homeless teenager on your street corner and feeling his  pain and desperation – lockdowns are not kind to people who live with the precarity of daily begging – but the empathy that says this inequality is shameful, how can we tolerate a society that tolerates this?

Through Covid-19 we have an opportunity to learn that shame and shaming ennoble no one, and they don’t advance our responses to the pandemic.



[3] Casimir and Schnegg note that while what is considered shameful may be context specific, data across 135 cultures shows that the phenomenon of blushing in shameful situations is a panhuman one. See