As South Africa enters the second phase of its efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, Sarah-Leah Pimentel reflects on the changing mood in the country. Optimism has given way to fear, which is manifesting in negative emotions. She offers some strategies that can help to diffuse the anger and frustration that many people are feeling.
The mood in South Africa has shifted noticeably over last couple of weeks.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown, South Africans — for the most part — applauded the government’s decision to do whatever it took to “flatten the curve.”
We accepted potential economic repercussions and seemed to agree that protecting human life was the top priority. We hunkered down and tried to adapt to life with the minimum of freedoms, determined to make the best of it.
The lockdown extension brought home the reality that the restriction to our civil freedoms and economic hardship were here to stay for some time. But the seemingly senseless ban on certain items, reports of police brutality, and arrests over petty disagreements between law enforcement and civilians, left us disappointed and less trusting of the authorities’ judgement.
Since moving to Level 4 restrictions, many have experienced worry, frustration and financial instability instead of the intended relief brought by the opening of some businesses and the ability to do some exercise outdoors.
Yet, none of these efforts have been enough to stop the pandemic and save jobs. SAA may have been on unsustainable life support for years, but the impending loss of 5,000 jobs is no less shocking. Similarly, Edcon literally closed shop, and at least two prominent publishing houses announced the closure of several magazines. Many small businesses – under resourced on a good day – are surely headed in the same direction. Everywhere, individuals are reaching out on social media, asking for help to buy food and pay the rent.
As people stand in 3km-long lines for their only meal of the day, suddenly the prospect of people starving seems very plausible. People are going to starve; and thousands more will join the unemployment and food lines. And while business rescue programs and social grants are bringing some relief, this must surely be unsustainable. Many people will fall through the cracks, unable to qualify for government assistance and unable to secure income to buy food and pay bills.
The optimism of the first few weeks that South Africa could somehow defy the odds has faded. In its place is a cold, gnawing, anxious fear. What will happen if I lose my job; if I cannot pay the rent or the home loan? Where will I go? What about my kids; will the school year be lost? Will my business survive this? How long can we stretch our finances? How long is this going to last? How long until I can see my loved ones again?
Fear gives way to anger
The uncertain future unsettles us. We imagine worst-case scenarios, knowing that they could very well become reality. We have no outlet for pent up frustration and fear. We are still locked in our houses, and if we’re fortunate enough to be among the few who have permission to work, we expose ourselves and our loved ones to sickness as we climb onto taxis, serve the public, and interact with our co-workers.
This fear needs a release and we’re seeing it manifest in different ways – mostly negative and filled with aggression and anger.
Social media is replete with angry posts that criticise the government or sow suspicion and distrust. Some of the criticism is deserved and on point, but rational arguments are dwindling. Instead we see conspiracy theories that conflate legitimate concerns with unsubstantiated claims and assumptions. For example, police brutality is evidence of poor discipline among the forces of order (a problem that existed long before lockdown), not a sure-fire sign that South Africa has become a communist dictatorship.
And in our anger, we want to prove that the government — from the President to the police officer — is the monster; a monster we need so that we can blame someone and feel better about our situation.
As responsible citizens, we have the right and duty to call government out when it has erred. But will government bother to listen if at every turn they are criticised for everything they do and say? We need to reserve our righteous anger where it is warranted.
We need to change the story. What strategies can we employ to harness these powerful emotions and convert them into a constructive response to the impending tragedy that faces us?
For a start, we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to recognise our emotions and acknowledge that we cannot do very much about the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we have the power to choose how we respond going forward.
The practice of the daily examen could be helpful in this regard. This Ignatian prayer technique allows us to review our day and how we responded to the joy and sufferings we experienced.
Where did I find peace today? When did I feel anxious and how did I react? Could I have responded differently? What events of today were completely beyond my control? Let them go. What circumstances was I able to do something about? What did I do? Can I tell the difference between what is within my power and what is not?
Where did I feel God calling me today – in a word, an image, a conversation, a situation? What is he trying to say to me? How does he want me to respond? What faces me tomorrow and what can I try to do differently?
Of course, this is not going to make the very real problems go away. What it does do is allow us to focus on life in bite-sized portions. We have no idea where we, the country, or the world will be six months or a year from now. We have no control over that. But we do have control in how we respond to each day. God is in today and he has a message and a purpose for each of us. We can only hear that message if we are open to the presence of the divine breaking into our temporal reality anew each day.Republish