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The Year That Changed Everything

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2020. Unexpected. Unprecedented. The year a virus tore through the core of our being and assailed our health systems and the wellbeing of our economies. Its effects ricocheted through every street, every alley of South Africa. FORBES AFRICA trained its lens on the new reality the year is leaving behind.

Photographs and Words by Motlabana Monnakgotla & Chanel Retief

The Last Mile

When Kagiso Ramphela (above) started Ramphela Funerals, a funeral parlor, just before Covid-19 struck South Africa, he never anticipated what was in store. Deemed essential services during the pandemic, his business, in a bizarre twist of fate, picked up.

“I don’t want to say business is booming, because it sounds like I am saying for business to boom, people must die. But what I will say is I think things have been fair to us,” Ramphela says, scratching his head, when we meet him at his office in Soweto, Johannesburg.

In this business, he always expects the unexpected, and this could mean calls in the middle of the night, from harried relatives requesting caskets for their loved ones. Ramphela needs to also ensure his staff is protected and safe from the virus at all times, whilst providing support to grieving families.

Coping With Loss

“There’s no closure,” says Charlie Mpogeng (above) standing by his brother’s grave at Westpark Cemetery in Emmarentia, west of Johannesburg. On the morning of July 17, he lost his 37-year-old brother, Herman Motlhabane, to Covid-19. “Everyone loved and respected him,” remembers Mpogeng.

“We were dressed in PPE gear to go see his body at the funeral home. We had to come out, take off the PPE, and get sanitized. And then immediately I had to get on to a call with the undertaker. There was no time to sit down and be like, ‘oh, snap I just lost my brother’.”

At the funeral, those in attendance had to observe social distancing and the ceremony only lasted a little over an hour. This is a familiar story for most who have lost a loved one to the pandemic this year. As of mid-November, South Africa recorded over 20,000 Covid- related deaths.

A Brake On Business

With most of the country reverting to a new Work-From- Home reality in the wake of Covid-19, South Africa’s taxi industry took a hard knock. In June, taxi associations across Johannesburg announced that they would be increasing their fares from a minimum of R11 to R30 ($1) a trip, also lamenting the lack of adequate government relief.

New regulations stipulate that public vehicles are only allowed to carry 70% of their maximum capacity and to mandatorily practice social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand sanitizing.

Public taxis are a popular mode of transport for daily wage earners and office commuters, especially in South Africa’s sprawling townships. Another business that braked to a screeching stop? The neighborhood car-wash facility.

Unemployment Woes

According to the National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, approximately three million South Africans have lost their jobs due to covid-19. Disgruntled unions came together in a nationwide protest (as in this image taken in the central business district of Johannesburg) on October 7 against unemployment, wage disputes, and job losses. Some demands were related to Covid-19 corruption, the failing economy, and the fact that due to a setback in the government’s wage agreement, workers may not receive salary increases in the next financial year. 

Off-Track

The pandemic also derailed the rail industry, with a reported surge in cable theft at railway stations. Reuters reported that during the lockdown – implemented in various stages in South Africa since march – organized, sometimes armed, criminal gangs stole valuable copper from the railway lines. As part of his economic recovery plan, President Cyril Ramaphosa has proposed the privatization of some of South Africa’s key train routes in a bid to improve transport access to millions of South Africans.

Butt Seriously

One of the most controversial lockdown regulations in South Africa was the banning of the sale of cigarettes. This forced many to either resort to more expensive, often ‘illegal ways’ to source their smoking stock, or quit altogether.

The Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products, based at the University of Cape Town, and the South African Medical Research Council’s Dr Catherine Egbe, found that nearly a million people quit smoking during the lockdown.

On the other hand, British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) released a media statement in July saying that research shows 11 million smokers in South Africa are still able to purchase cigarettes from illicit suppliers. “These illicit suppliers are not suddenly going to become compliant and start obeying the law and paying taxes when the ban is eventually lifted. They evaded taxes before the lockdown, they’ve made billions tax-free during the ban and they will evade taxes after the ban,” said BATSA’s Head of External Affairs Johnny Moloto in July.

Something to Wine About

Another point of contention was the back and forth regarding the ban on alcohol during the lockdown. This impasse specifically had a negative impact on the country’s bars and restaurant businesses.

The Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) CEO Wendy Alberts says the hard lockdown put a strain on several restaurants that have had to permanently close their doors.

RASA ran a survey in which 23,000 restaurants across South Africa participated (during alert level two of the lockdown). Of that, 30% stated they have shut down while 50% said they do not know if they will be able to reopen due to massive overheads and debt.

“I am very heartsore for those restaurants that have lost their businesses and staff that have lost their jobs. So although this appears to be a win, there is no win in this space because people have lost, and people have been hurt,” says Alberts.

With lockdown restrictions now eased, the restaurants and bars are slowly returning to life. In this image, taken at SOD in Soweto, the South African summer seems to have revived conviviality in outdoor spaces.

Art Of The Matter

A child rides past a mural painted in August by South African artist Graham Mckuur, known as ‘Dimms’, on Kremetart Street in Eldorado Park Ext 3. The work is in tribute to Nathaniel Julius, a 16-year- old allegedly shot and killed by police in Johannesburg’s Eldorado Park.

The teenager had Down Syndrome, which sent shockwaves on social media. According to BBC Africa, the family said Julius was shot for not answering police officers’ questions. News reports say that three officers have been arrested on charges of murder.

Room For Change

2020 definitely changed the way we work. the hard lockdown in level one of the pandemic saw emptying office spaces, until around alert level three when most companies gradually had staff trickling in to work. But with Covid-19 still a sore reality, most office-goers have slipped into the work-from-home mode for longer, or indefinitely.

This has also amplified digitalization and the need for companies to quickly streamline technology to enable better workflow processes. The International Labour organization has also been reporting on the rise of the flexible workforce’. The final word on the future workplace is still being scripted.

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