Lockdown in pictures: a Cape Town photographer’s powerful record

The story of a city under Covid-19

| By

In Lavender Hill, Mark Nicholson, his wife Shireen and their team serve lunch at midday. But from just after 10am there are already more than 200 children sitting quietly on the field clutching their bakkies.

Cape Town photographer Jeffrey Abrahams has been recording life in Cape Town under Covid-19 lockdown since 1 April. His pictures tell a vivid story of how the city’s people adapted — or didn’t — to the new rules of living. Some usually crowded places were empty, in others, life went on as usual; for some people, life became even harder as parents struggled to feed their children, old people queued patiently for food, and a brief respite from gang violence ended with the death of a toddler. But there were also happy moments when fast food outlets opened again, domino games resumed, children played and people read their newspapers in the sun. From 1 July, GroundUp will publish Jeffrey’s record daily.

Day 6 Lockdown. It’s 1 April and day 6 of lockdown. While many of us are snug in our comfortable homes, others are not as fortunate. Luckily for the homeless people near the bypass in Bellville, there are those whose compassion is greater than their fear of contracting Covid-19. George Narkedien of the Haven shelter and other volunteers have taken it upon themselves to provide food daily.

Day 13 Lockdown. Essential service workers, suitably spaced, wait patiently at this bus terminus. They will risk being infected to provide the services we can’t do without.

Day 15 Lockdown: Today was one of the best Good Fridays I’ve had in a very long time. We shared, across denominations, a variety of recorded devotions in text, voice notes, interactive sessions, elaborate video productions and live tv, spaced throughout the day. Etched and painted on the walls of St Anne’s Catholic Church in Steenberg are a series of gorgeous murals depicting the life of Christ.

Day 17 Lockdown: This young man can’t have an easy life living on the streets of Cape Town, especially now. Yet when he saw me passing his face just lit up in this bright warm smile, as if inviting, or daring, me to snap his picture, which I did. Maybe he’s just happy that he wasn’t taken to the camp for the homeless which the City of Cape Town has set up in Strandfontein.

Day 18 Lockdown: In Lavender Hill, Mark Nicholson, his wife Shireen and their team serve lunch at midday. Mark and his team have dedicated themselves to this cause for which their home has been converted. All they do is prepare, cook, serve, clean, repeat. All day, every day. Without being paid one cent. Benefactors keep them going. In other blocks, others also do what they can, when they can. Government has announced millions in relief, with none of it so far reaching communities like this.

Day 19 Lockdown: Our favourite beach is still there but like the security guard, is looking rather forlorn.

Day 33 Lockdown: It’s a huge challenge keeping energetic children occupied and out of mischief, let alone safe, with no electronic distractions or comfortable living areas. A kind neighbour in St Edward Road, Seawinds, provides pages and material for Tatum Fortuin and her friends to spend some afternoons colouring in, even if it means being spaced out on the pavement.

Day 38 Lockdown: The change in the weather in the Cape provided a reminder that winter was approaching. Social media has been buzzing with comments about limits on exercise times, the right to walk our dogs, how stupid the lockdown regulations are generally, ‘no way in hell I’m risking my kids’ lives by sending them to school’. Meanwhile, for far too many voiceless people across our country, one day just blends into the next. Mostly the challenge is the same: to make it to the following day.

Day 45 Lockdown: Mother’s Day. Suzanne Daniels does her best for her family. Where they live, they are not the worst off. Their neat home at least has a small cooking section separate from their sleeping quarters. She has electricity, a stained cupboard, a sink, and other half-working items salvaged here and there. With her husband unable to work at the moment, the burden of sustaining the family falls squarely on her shoulders. She’s not complaining because fortunately, she has a job. The neighbourhood is supplied with portable toilets, which she services. On Fridays she receives her R480 wages for the week and is able to buy supplies for herself, her husband and their three boys. The food in the picture is pretty much what there is for the next five days, she has almost no money left to see them through till next Friday. Without the good Samaritans providing daily meals for the children things would be a lot worse.

Day 48 Lockdown: Today in Mbekweni, the Gift of the Givers handed out 1,250 food parcels at Desmond Mpilo Tutu High School. Pensioners and seniors were seated in several groups of 50, suitably spaced. They seemed to have dressed for the occasion. They waited quietly with dignified patience. One got the terrible impression that they were used to having to be patient. The stoic silence was only broken briefly when the woman from Gift of the Givers announced why they were there and that they had parcels for everyone. I felt shamed by the joyful applause for something so basic. Even sadder were the many who were outside, peering forlornly through the barbed wire. Tonight our president spoke again of the billions of rands in aid available to assist our people.

Day 54 Lockdown: Diana-Lea Waigh, on her couch, enjoys the sun outside their home. At most of these homes when you step outside the door you’re immediately in the street, or what passes for it. There is hardly any traffic so the street becomes the yard. It’s where the children play and the adults gather to chat, play dominoes or just bask in the sun.

Day 56 Lockdown: Tasneem Stevens and Shandre Pasqualie were walking down the street when they saw me. “Vat onse foto” they said, not really expecting me to, so when I lifted the camera they were caught off guard and burst out laughing.

Day 57 Lockdown: I’ve never liked the fist bump, but this elbow greeting is becoming second nature faster than the virus is spreading. You don’t have to rescue your hand from Hercules or shudder at the clammy pap snoek some offer. Friends Miriam Norman and Serita Adams live a few blocks apart in Seawinds and have not seen much of each other recently, so were happy at a chance encounter at the foot of Military Road. Miriam had been to the shops and Serita was on her way home. Any other time they would probably have hugged.

Day 58 Lockdown. For over a century Muslims have gathered at Three Anchor Bay each year for the sighting of the new moon, which will signal the end of Ramadan. This year the Muslim Judicial Council asked Muslims not to engage in the traditional ceremonies and practices of meeting for communal prayers and visiting cemeteries, relatives and friends. Apparently the only other time this happened was during the Second World War. The Crescent Observers Society, tasked with the sighting of the moon, and other members of the clergy were the only ones gathered at the beachfront.

Day 59 Lockdown: It’s not hard to find Abraham Waterloo. You simply go to the corner of St Peter Avenue, Seawinds and chances are you’ll see him there. He’ll be sitting on an upturned crate, his back to the wall, and he’ll be reading a newspaper. He’s reading his way through the lockdown. English, Afrikaans, on-day or old, it doesn’t matter.

Day 62 Lockdown. Today Parliament sat for the first time in the National Assembly since they “suspended operations” in March. Since then Parliament has been closed to the public and the number of staff on the premises has been reduced.

Day 65 Lockdown: Three families lived at number 11 Neville Riley Road, Vrygrond. The Van der Westhuizens lived in the main house and their son Peter lived in one of the two informal structures in the front yard. In the early hours of this morning Peter Paul van der Westhuizen and his partner Dominique van Wyk lost their lives when their home caught alight, the fire razing everything on the property. Just two weeks ago Peter celebrated his 22nd birthday, he had a casual job in Capricorn Business Park and his parents had high hopes for him. This afternoon, stunned neighbours stood around as his devastated father helped clear the rubble. His mother was still at the clinic where she had been taken to be treated for smoke inhalation. His sister was also in hospital for injuries sustained when she was pulled out of the house.

Day 67 Lockdown: The first day of Level 3 and Dr Zweli Mkhize was visiting the provinces to assess their readiness. Accompanied by premier Alan Winde, MEC for Health Nomafrench Mbombo and other high ranking departmental officials, his journey started in Cape Town at the Cape Town International Conference Centre Covid-19 field hospital. Row upon row of hospital beds, symmetrically spaced, clearly labelled, bedding neatly tucked in. It’s an impressive set-up, 862 beds with all the accompanying infrastructure and medical paraphernalia. And so eerily quiet I had to keep reminding myself there was no need to whisper. I tried to imagine what it would be like when filled to capacity, the now neat and empty beds occupied, healthcare professionals moving constantly between them. I tried not to think of the anguish that would fill the hall.

Day 68 Lockdown: We’ve all been looking forward to the return of things we’ve been deprived of these last few weeks. One of those things for me is the smiling face of the nutritionist who keeps me in the pink of health. Good nutrition is important when you’re trying to stare down a pandemic. Level 3 allows my favourite health food shop to open after being shut for more than two months. It was so good seeing our friendly dietitian’s face again, even if masked and screened. All the essential vitamins and minerals were accessible once more: slap chips, fried snoek and hake, parcels, calamari, burgers, viennas and samoosas. Or we could just combine most of it in that incredible multivitamin, the gatsby.

Day 70 Lockdown: 18-year-old Zethu Ngwenya can’t afford to do nothing. Every afternoon since the regulations allowed it, she starts a fire and braais chicken feet on the pavement outside her home in St Patrick Street, Seawinds, relying on passing trade mainly from those returning from work. Next to her is a small fruit stall, which also helps to attract customers. If times were different she would be able to sell meat or chicken, but right now everyone around her is struggling to get by and no-one would be able to afford that.

Day 74 Lockdown: With a few exceptions, finally, across the country, Grade 7s and 12s who are poor resumed their schooling. The rich of course have never stopped. The kids I spoke to were excited about being back. Long may that last.

Day 76 Lockdown: This place is called Overcome and I can’t help but think the name refers to what lies in store for its community before they can have anything resembling a decent life. When the rains came down today an already unpleasant place turned into a waterlogged nightmare.

Day 83 Lockdown: The start of the lockdown heralded a period of relative calm in areas usually plagued by gang and other violence. For a few glorious weeks, children were free to roam the streets and play in the parks. It was obvious they regarded Covid-19 to be far less of a risk than flying bullets. Then Level 3 arrived and shootings increased across the Cape Flats. This evening the grieving community of Hillview gathered in Cedarberg Road for a service in honour of little Liam Petersen. It appears his father was the target but three-year-old Liam was killed. They were shot in their home.

Day 84 Lockdown: The Seawinds Clinic at about lunch time. Patients who have appointments pass their cards through the gate. Then they wait (outside) until their names are called, and only then are they are allowed through the turnstile. Everyone has to stand on the pavement and await their turn, however long it takes. No seating, no ablutions, no shelter. I saw several people trying desperately to have their cards accepted, leading to much pushing to get to the front. Several women with small children were sitting on the kerb, looking tired.

Day 92 Lockdown: These kids near Mandela Park in Khayelitsha were just enjoying each other’s company: the older boys doing their thing on top of the pipes and the girls noisily playing touch below.

Day 93 Lockdown: As rain drenched Cape Town, Fransiena Louw in the Egoli informal settlement did what many were doing - she took her fire inside. There was no chimney, so the place was filled with smoke, but to her that was the lesser of the evils.

TOPICS:  Covid-19 Lockdown diary

Next:  “GBV is a pandemic. Do something about it!”

Previous:  Lockdown has worsened pressure on foster care system, says Social Development

© 2020 Jeffrey Abrahams. All rights reserved.

Please note that this is not published under GroundUp's usual licensing terms.