Examining what it means to be human in times of contagion – Fellows’ seminar by Irikidzayi Manase, Robert Muponde, Thabisani Ndlovu and Cheryl Stobie

24 November 2020

“Partly prompted by and responding to COVID-19, our project takes a long-shot view of text, contagion and ideas of the rights-bearing human over time,” said Thabisani Ndlovu of the Department of Arts at Walter Sisulu University. “We focus on contagion not only for its topicality but also its endurance in the Humanities as it continues to pose difficult questions about being human in situations where widespread physical contagion of bodies becomes a more virulent pandemic of fear and anxiety, prompting a proliferation of texts that attempt to comprehend human interconnectedness and the desire to affirm, deny, suspend or end it.”

STIAS Visiting Scholars Irikidzayi Manase, Cheryl Stobie and Thabisani Ndlovu

The group will examine wide-ranging texts from personal narratives, newspaper articles and government documents to literature and social media, including community WhatsApp groups formed during the pandemic.

“We argue that contagion is both literal and metaphoric, as indicated by the realisation that the virality of texts outstrips the virology of SARS-Cov-2 to create an infodemic that attempts to make sense of precarity and trauma,” continued Ndlovu. “We use biological contagion as an additional lens to complicate and rethink humanness under the far-reaching and evolving effects of attempts to contain COVID-19. Through this prism, we also investigate how new forms of cultural life are emerging, while old ones are being discarded or modified.”

Ndlovu started by briefly outlining the history of pandemics globally and in South Africa, their characteristics and legacies.

“Pandemics are affected by historic processes and influence the world in various ways,” he said. “They can be dramatic and momentous marked by panic and fear, and decimation of whole populations. They are usually linked to conspiracies and scapegoating, and exacerbate existing divisions of race, class, ethnicity and gender. Historically, they have been linked to abuses like forced removals. They can alter a population’s demographics creating enduring psychosocial challenges, and they can also lead to reconfiguration of some religious faiths.”

“The net effect is often human rights roll backs – the unravelling of identity in inhumane ways – like in the USA today.”

“Pandemics influence the ideas and performances of being human, revealing underlying ideas of self and others, and challenge what being human means,” he continued. “If we follow a human-rights reading we accept that we have rights because we are human but humanness has always been and continues to be contested with some having to fight for it or beg to be human – Black Lives Matter is a case in point. This approach makes us engage with being human by asking pertinent questions during moments of contagion such as, who has been accorded humanness, when, how and why, and whose humanity has been suspended or denied? Ultimately we ask, what and whose rights are impacted, what rights are left and for whom?”

Changing perspectives

During pandemics humans tend to consume texts in various forms to make sense of the world in which they find themselves. Novels about pandemics hold up a mirror to give us a way to understand our own societies in times of crisis.

Cheryl Stobie of the School of Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal used the example of the novel Afterland by Lauren Beukes to examine the role of fiction in a world of changing perspectives.

Although written before COVID-19, this dystopian novel depicts a world that has changed dramatically due to a pandemic causing the death of most people with prostates.

“I’m using this to ask more generally how people interpret texts creatively, emotionally, intellectually and structurally in such times,” said Stobie.

From a human-rights perspective the book also allows readers to imagine a new world in which gender functions differently, particularly through the lens of imagining transgender.

“The novel has generally had a good response,” she explained, “but there has been criticism of the depiction of lesbian and transgender characters, bringing into question the human rights of such traditionally marginalised groups.”

“There have been huge shifts in public perceptions regarding LGBTQ people – a recent 23-country study indicated growing support for transgender rights globally. The tide of history is turning, perspectives are shifting, constituting a challenge to perceived omissions or negative portrayals.”

Stobie added: “For readers of speculative fiction about pandemics, paying attention to ways in which marginal or at-risk groups are represented has a bearing on social attitudes. Fiction can either reinforce a conservative reading of the gender status quo or reconfigure it in a more progressive direction”.

Spatial divisions

Irikidzayi Manase of the Department of English at the University of the Free State is approaching this work through an analysis of government texts – specifically the Disaster Management Act as published in the Government Gazette, as well as media articles to try and understand the changing spatial divisions in Cape Town during COVID-19.

“History confirms that attempts to contain, quarantine and isolate in the absence of a vaccine is the right approach. However, in Cape Town this created an image of a hard city – one of inflexible spaces, absence, emptiness and of cut-off, bounded lives.”

“Restrictions affected mobility, social gathering, choice, consumption and economic livelihoods. It also created hugely oppositional experiences with overcrowded townships and empty city centres. Inequality and absence vs. plenty was largely dependent on class.”

“Geographies of fear accentuated many features already present, entrenching social spatial divisions and strengthening separation in line with colonialism and apartheid,” he added. “Thus replicating fear and prejudices.”

He is interested in understanding how people react when their rights are taken away and pointed to examples – the establishment of a new settlement – named the COVID-19 settlement near Mfuleni which he described as an “attempt to deal with the legacies of the past and present, a desire for recognition and a post-COVID vision that the government will provide services and make the area liveable” as well as the occupation of a Camps Bay house by a group of queer black women which represents “collective activism, an attempt to make meaning within the crisis, as well as an appeal for social and economic security after a history of violence and discrimination”. “Both groups are literally asking: Where is the space for us?” he added.

“I believe the pandemic threatens the traditional and threatens the norm. It demands that we look at the ecosystem and think about how we live together and survive together no matter the unease this causes.”

New global consciousness

Robert Muponde of the Postgraduate Affairs Department at the University of the Witwatersrand is examining the language of lockdown and practices adopted as resistance to enduring forms of repression in Zimbabwe.

“In Zimbabwe lockdown has been about the continuation of the cycle of violence from the colonial times up to the present day,’ he said.  “We have experienced ongoing lockdowns imposed on the economy and social life by the ruling junta, but this current one is ‘legitimised’ because it’s considered to be following World Health Organization guidelines which are observed in the rest of the world. Human rights abuses have been intensified ostensibly to enforce observance of the health emergency.”

But he pointed to the futility of closing borders and imposing curfews – because ideas, information, activism and social media continued to flow through other means.

He highlighted the novel This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and is a depiction of the challenges facing women in Zimbabwe. He explained how the novel has transitioned in this period from a one-voice protest to represent the ideas of the Zimbabwe Lives Matter movement via the arrest of the author and the resulting massive global, social-media campaign.

“Dangarembga appeared as a lone voice of reason in a world awash with brutality and violence,” he said. “The text speaks to a new order of consciousness as a new world order shapes up. The ‘Mournable Body’ is now the nation of Zimbabwe. This probably wouldn’t have happened without lockdown. The novel calls global attention to the attrition of human dignity and the attenuation of positive human expression in a country that has violently squandered its people’s hope.”

“I believe being locked in and facing a contagion offers a gateway to new global consciousness.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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