Guest contribution from Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: the sporting question

Runners in the Comrades Marathon

June 9. From the Thornveld: I had expected that lockdown might provide us with blessed relief from pollution, litter, noise – and professional sport. That was naïve. The airwaves and newspaper pages remained saturated with the clichéd thoughts of players, endless speculation about the completion of leagues and resumption of ‘normality’, and truckloads of utter trivia.

Sebastian Coe, head of global athletics, recently spoke of ‘frustration’ that ‘top events’ had no firm dates for resumption and said that athletics might act unilaterally and without approval. His attitude was deplorable; but also self-defeating because national health authorities make the decisions he appears to want to arrogate to himself and they are backed by legislation. But he demonstrates a blatant example of sports hubris fuelled by popular adulation and millions of dollars. And it is the last factor that is behind the agitation for leagues and competitions to resume as soon as possible: big money deals.

Here in KwaZulu-Natal it was not until 8 May that the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) accepted there would be no race this year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Given that it has been blindingly obvious for months that a (perhaps the) main cause of viral infection is human proximity and density, clearly the CMA has been living on another, apparently Covid-19-free, planet. The very essence of the ultra-marathon is mass: the numbers of runners, the packed nature of the start, the race culture of group running, and the exuberant involvement and sociability of spectators (see the photograph above near the end of the 2019 race in Pietermaritzburg). Some of the classic moments of this gruelling race involve runners physically assisting others, particularly at the finish. There’s a very high chance that there will be no race in 2021, the centenary year, either.

One problem according to the CMA was that T-shirts had been printed and goody bags prepared. Sponsors had already coughed up funds, so yet again it all comes back to money. But it goes beyond financing to issues of entitlement and continued refusal to recognise that professional sport is simply a business. Indeed, many critics persuasively argue that it is just another arm of global capital.

Lockdown has cut a swathe of destruction across economies and societies. Many businesses will disappear without trace and hundreds of thousands of people will never work again in the formal sector. Why should professional sport think it is owed any favours; any more than, say, theatres, opera houses or concert halls? Commodified sport produces nothing of lasting value, material or intellectual.

But perhaps the virus and its lockdown will produce a positive outcome. Vast sums of money are locked up in sport courtesy of sponsorship and broadcast rights. In some sports people who have minimal skills beyond dealing with a ball earn enormous salaries and perks. Teams fly endlessly around the world impressing a gigantic carbon footprint. We are told the world will never be the same again. If so, maybe a great deal of this will end and international sport will be cut down to more appropriate dimensions and influence.

From the Thornveld is a site that provides access to writing by Christopher Merrett, a former academic librarian, university administrator and journalist based in Pietermaritzburg. He has written on a wide range of topics – specialising in the past on human rights issues in South Africa, particularly censorship and freedom of expression, and on the politics of sport.

From David in York: Soweto Day. June 16th

June 16 th – Soweto Day. Forty-four years ago today in Soweto, at five to nine in the morning, a South African Policeman opened fire on a crowd of black South African schoolchildren singing freedom songs on a peaceful protest march. Hector Peterson was killed and the Soweto revolt was triggered. Forty-four years ago today, at five to nine in the morning, our eldest child, Anthony, was born.
So June 16 th is a memorable day. The photograph of the dying Hector Peterson, being carried away from that shooting by an anguished Mbuyisa Makhubo, seared itself into the memory of innumerable newspaper readers around the world, even as it enraged so many of us in South Africa. There have been very few iconic photographs in my lifetime that have managed to encapsulate an important historical moment so vividly and memorably. The two others that come to mind are the photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the naked Vietnamese child fleeing her napalmed village during the Vietnam War, and that of the drowned body of three year-old Alan Kurdi lying on the Mediterranean beach in 2015. They were all images that captured
the anguish and pathos of a dire situation that encompassed a great many people beyond the subjects of those individual photographs.
So Anthony’s 44 years have carried him through the stormy death-throes of
apartheid all the way to the becalmed waters of Covid-19 lockdown in York. When he was a child I used to tell him that one day his birthday would be public holiday and he would never have to work on it. Now it is, indeed, a public holiday in South Africa – now designated as Youth Day rather than Soweto Day – but he is no longer there to enjoy it, so he has to work on his birthday after all.
The children in Soweto were protesting against the imposition on them of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their schools, in a situation in which neither they nor their teachers had much, if any, facility in Afrikaans, which would in most cases have been the children’s third or fourth language. No one government ever has a monopoly on stupidity. The Soweto revolt spread countrywide, with hundreds of black casualties, was greeted with international revulsion, and was one of the milestones on the long road to freedom. But it is good that the public holiday was renamed Youth Day: both in recognition of the role played more widely along that
road by young people all over South Africa, and by way of signalling hope for the future.
Today is not recognised as Youth Day in UK but it brings cause for celebrating youth. After a weekend in which large, ethnically-mixed, crowds of mainly young people came together to assert their belief that Black Lives Matter, braving the attentions of cohorts of right-wing racist thugs (and, potentially more rashly, Covid-19) in the process, Marcus Rashford has more or less single-handedly forced a government U-
turn on free summer lunch-vouchers for economically disadvantaged schoolchildren.
It may not be too much to hope that the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few weeks could, like the Soweto protests, be a milestone on the long road to genuine racial equality in this country. In the meantime Anthony’s birthday appears to be heralding a shifting of the order of the generations: whereas it was always we who took our children out for special dinners on their birthdays, tonight Anthony is bringing a take-away dinner to us from Mumbai Lounge, arguably the best of the many curry restaurants in York. So the old
order changes.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A tale of two delusions

3rd June

I’m beginning to think that I am destined to live much of my life under the shadow of irredeemably deluded governments.  

The first half of my life was ruled over by South Africa’s apartheid government, which deluded itself on the basis of an assumption of racial superiority that it could, in perpetuity, brutally ‘dominate’ – to use a Trumpism – the vastly more numerous black population of the country.  They were happy to go it alone in this inevitably futile endeavour in the face of almost universal hostility from the rest of the world, partly because they had managed to develop a Theology that helped them to believe that their God was entirely supportive of their project.   Even when they managed to decipher the writing on the wall, they embarked on the negotiations to end apartheid under the delusion that their racial superiority would ensure that they could run rings around the African National Congress representatives during those negotiations and would end up still effectively in charge.  Wrong again.

Our current ‘UK’ government, exclusively populated as it is by English nationalist Brexiteers, is equally deluded, and many of the signs of that delusion are not at all unlike the symptoms presented by the apartheid government.  Instead of straight racial superiority, this lot appear to be informed by an overweening sense of national superiority.  Any multilateral or bilateral trade agreement for which they are not exclusively responsible, and over which they do not have exclusive jurisdiction, is seen as a potential threat to a mythical ‘sovereignty’, elevated so high that it appears to have become the equivalent of the Afrikaners’ deity.  Our English cabinet’s sense of superiority over the Scots the Welsh and the Irish makes a mockery of a ‘United’ Kingdom as they go it alone with their lethally inept response to the present pandemic.

Much of that response demonstrates all too clearly just how badly a sense of national superiority gets in the way of rational government.  The UK had weeks in which to watch other countries responding to the spread of Covid-19, to learn the lessons and to make suitable preparations.   But when you are the best in the world at everything there isn’t anything anyone can teach you, and following the good example set by any other country might be seen to undermine the sacred ‘sovereignty’ of your independence.  So why bother to notice that New Zealand, which has handled the pandemic better than almost anyone, imposed its entry restrictions and quarantine as soon as the pandemic struck, not three months later once tens of thousands of people had already been allowed to die?  

Boris claiming to be proud of his government’s handling of Covid-19, and boasting that his risible testing and tracking system is ‘world beating’, is on a par with a six-year old child, who hasn’t even learnt how to brush his hair yet, jumping up and down on a tub in the playground chanting “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!” at the rest of the world.  Part of Boris’s problem is, of course, that much of the rest of the world is not as impressed by kings as it once was, and is no longer prepared to accept being relegated to inferior status.  

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Time to show up

Rural community in Northern KwazuluNatal, South Africa

20 May. My son, Ian, lives in South Africa, inland from Durban on the East Coast in the province of KwaZulu Natal. It is a spectacular part of the country which is rich in beautiful landscapes. It has many conservation areas, game parks and nature reserves which are visited by people from all over the world – or used to be, at least. Like other countries, South Africa has been in lock-down and there is certainly no tourism. South Africa had 67 million international visitors in 2018 and their contribution to GDP was estimated at 8.5% and growing.

It is not difficult to imagine what this has done to the people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods – no more real than in rural communities far away from cities and adjacent to the wildlife reserves that serve as employers to the local communities and through which tourists used to pass.

Last week Ian, a part time expedition member with the Kingsley Holgate Foundation, joined Kingsley and several others who have started a movement called “Feeding the Wildlife Communities”( to deliver 4.5 tonnes of food to communities in very remote areas who are suffering terribly under the COVID lockdown conditions that currently grip South Africa.

The 3 tonnes was purchased from the Potchefstroom Chamber of Commerce and the remaining 1.5 tonnes generously donated by the DO MORE foundation (part of RCL foods). 

The journey was a 1200 km round trip that took them up to northern KwaZulu, Natal, right on the border of Mozambique and Swaziland distributing food along the way. When Ian told me about it, I have to say I was beside myself with anxiety. I remembered a time when there was a horrendous flood in the province and my sons were teenagers and volunteered with the Red Cross to collect and distribute clothes and food – and had to be accompanied by armed soldiers. The thought of a few Land Rovers laden with food destroyed my sleep for the weekend.

Coolest kid ever

I should have known better. These are not amateurs. The team had already done two initial runs and set up a system through local indunas (elders in a tribe and in positions of authority). They were expecting the convoy and were prepped ahead of time so that when the convoy arrived, the local induna who received the parcels did so accompanied by five witnesses, and distribution was an orderly exercise. Everyone wore masks – and just as well in more ways than one. Ian said he was overcome by the levels of poverty and sheer despair.

School house – without a roof

It turned out that it wasn’t only food that was a problem. Right near the distribution point was a school: walls, windows, floors, roof beams – but no roof! A tornado had torn it off and much that was inside as well as the schooling was thrown into disarray. Ian is passionate about early learning (ages 0-6) and his company, Barrows, are much engaged in printing and distributing educational materials into this space.

Ian went straight into fund-raising mode.

Readers who are interested need to put ‘SCHOOL ROOF’ in the narrative box (and the Rand exchange rate is at an all-time high – so a little goes a long way). I was so pleased to at least do something.

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Presidential Leadership

14 May. The Presidential leadership in SA is now being compared to Churchill. That has to be in comparison to his predecessors Zuma and including the Mbeki Presidency where paranoia and fear of conspiracy typified decision-making driven amongst other figments by the loss of SA sovereignty to the IMF, the World Bank or some such Western bogeyman. Dealing with the COVID19 virus was initially impaled on the horns of a dilemma of “doing too little too late and doing too much too soon”. Social media, as well as mainstream media with few exceptions, basing some of the more dire mortality scenarios on flimsy evidence and so-called models, scared decision-makers and panicked citizens at scale. Decision-makers at a national presidential level should have their eyes set on a 20 to 25 planning time horizon as that is how long it takes for policy and decision at that level to prove itself right or wrong aka Elliott Jaques’ “time span of discretion”. This principle is one of the few scientific facts in the so-called management sciences.

The lockdown decision in SA was taken with very little consideration for how the unlock would be achieved. This lack of looking beyond the immediate is also real for schools and many of the other institutions directly in the path of lockdown. The presidency is now once again in reactive mode attempting to deal with another dilemma between saving lives with lockdown and saving lives impacted by economic destruction with unlocking the lockdown. Only a government genuinely committed to centralised command politics could have any faith that once it was ready the decision to restart the economy would actually start the complex interconnected web, which is an economic system. The so-called Command Council an extra-parliamentary body to lead the campaign against the COVID19 viral attack is now itself under attack and its local constitutional standing in question. In the background, the IMF offers low-interest loans to economies in difficulty in these times of widespread global economic distress. Public servants who bear no risk of organisational failure have insisted on generous, higher than inflation salary increases modelled on the private sector.

In SA critics are finally questioning whether “Saving lives from COVID19  is more important than 5 million joining the unemployed?” So far, the decision has been lopsided in the direction of preserving lives at the cost of between 3 and 5 million people losing their jobs. The enterprises employing them will either go bankrupt or be forced to scale down significantly. Politicians may categorise this cost as an unintended consequence or some such. Two consequences come to mind:

-widespread hunger and potential loss of livelihoods and lives from an imploding economy, and

-patients with cancer and other dread diseases taken out of hospitals and ICUs to make room for incoming COVID19 patients.

President Ramphosa’s presidential decision to lock down is now being labelled as “Nongqause II”. Nongqause I is indelibly etched in the history of the AmaXhosa. It was where the infamous, self-inflicted cattle-killing amongst the Xhosa in the mid 19th century resulted in catastrophic famine and death. It took the Xhosa decades to recover from the widespread hunger and starvation brought about by Nongqause I. On may 5th in Durban the president blamed COVID19 for dealing the economy “a heavy blow.” This statement is not true or balanced. This government has lauded itself for following the best scientific advice. The question now is if it ever considered the scientific basis for recovering the collapsed economy and the impact of trampling on freedom during lockdown would do to the dignity, livelihood and well-being of the population.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Cleaning and other forms of saintly behaviour

28 April: One of my sisters has always been very house-proud, even before she had domestic help. With lock-down in South Africa being as fierce as it is, she is without help, elderly and has multiple health problems to boot. Keeping up is proving too much for her.   I reminded her of the American comedian, Erma Bombeck’s theory on housework: “if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?” She was not amused.

I actually prefer another of Bombeck’s sayings: “I can’t see the point of housework,” she said. “You clean everything and then six months later, you have to do it all over again.” I certainly didn’t expect to have to involve myself quite so much in the cleaning side of things until Covid-19 took away the option. When my cleaner sent a text yesterday suggesting that we go to the park for an hour or so while she cleaned, I cracked. We agreed elaborate hand-over procedures and next week I am at least partially free again. I reckon it is possible that, for me at least, housework could be more depressing than lock-down. Three laps of the park will do me fine while she works away.

One of the many things that used to distinguish Nelson Mandela from other important guests at big functions was that he would always ask to see the cleaners and the kitchen staff and personally thank them for their part in making the function a successful one. When you are locked up all those years as he was (27 to be precise) and you have to undertake all the menial but necessary tasks that keep your life orderly, you don’t take them for granted.

I saw this in action the first time I met Mandela. He was relatively newly released from prison and came to Durban to address the first ever combined meeting of the two big student associations in South Africa, one representing black students and the other representing white students. The Vice Chancellor’s residence was judged to be a secure enough place for him to have lunch and a rest before the meeting – and I was lucky enough to be his host.

We had a very lively and relaxed lunch and he regaled me with all sorts of stories about his life on the run. His staff had told me that, with his busy schedule, he simply had to have a 30 minute rest after lunch. So at 2pm I told him that he couldn’t imagine what his staff would do to me if I didn’t make sure he had a rest. “Ah!” he sighed. “I have gone from one prison to another.” And then, before he took a rest, he went into the kitchen to thank the staff hovering there and hoping for a glimpse of the great man.

P.S. His message to the students was “study hard and pass your exams. We need qualified people in our country.”


from Louis in Johannesburg: South Africa – first lockdown …

19 April. South Africa has passed through the first lock-down tranche of 21 days. In light of infection numbers not being fully arrested a further tranche of 20 days has been declared by President Ramaphosa and his most visible advisor Dr Zweli Mkhize now Minister of health. Today registered the highest jump of 251 new infection of a total base pf 3,304.  Mkhize has clearly learn from his experience with HIV and AIDS where he stared down Past President Mbeki and his cookie ideas. From behind this political face of the pandemic has surfaced the authoritative Professor Salim Abdool Karim, affectionately called “Slim”, immunologist, infectious disease specialist from Uni of Kwazulu-Natal. Also an activist during the apartheid era. He cautions: its not over yet, SA has all the conditions for an explosion in infection levels. The data are not there to yet be sure of the actual levels of infection let alone the growth of infections in hot spots. He also cautions against lifting the lockdown prematurely.

Another virus seems to have migrated from the apartheid era into specific ministers and members of the SAPS. Police brutality persists within pockets of a generally helpful SA Police Service. The Minister of police forbids couples to kiss, huh? The social media has roundly ridiculed this. The so-called Red Ants have selectively demolished shacks in Khayelitsha. Thankfully the Gift of the Givers has erected a shelter for these now homeless people. Pitiful tales are now emerging from informal settlements reporting children who have not had a meal in three and more days. Protests and looting have broken out in numerous parts of SA with the root cause, hunger. These incidents have been exacerbated by the Politicians in the ANC doing their selfish selective distribution to party members first. There seems to be a general lack of capacity to distribute food to those in need. Bureaucracy also delays and politicises food distribution.

On a more positive note a “Centre for Analytics and Behaviour Change” CABC at Uni of Cape Town to report on trends in the above incidents but also to cement positive change as it emerges.  Renewed efforts to supply water to townships via newly-built trucking systems free of corruption and price gouging dependent, poor residents. There are calls for the unity that existed across communities during the apartheid era, aka Ubuntu. The CABC is focussing on solutions to the emerging post Covid19 dynamics suggesting basic income grants UIF funding efficiency and more. Their espoused aim is to track and counter mis- and disinformation, fake news and divisive polarising rhetoric that undermines social cohesion, democratic integrity and stability. A positive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is there is a growing realisation that we have not delivered the promises of 1994. The constant reminder of the desperate plight of the poor, homeless and unemployed, exposed by the pandemic remind us of this. Some say the Coronavirus provides us with a new beginning. The emergence of the CABC is a start to ensuring this trend continues.

from Anne in Adelaide: now more than ever …

12 April Image from The Economist

12 April. I have been spending too much time scanning the news streaming in over the internet, TV and radio. The information is staggering. You don’t know what to think, who to believe, which version of the future to hang on to. One moment there are signs of hope and the next you read the account from an emergency worker in New York who is facing the horror of people dying from Covid-19 in their homes and his team feels helpless. Meanwhile, I remain in self-isolation in Australia waiting … for what?

Then we have the Whatsapp groups that have been set up to keep us in the loop: neighbourhood groups, family groups, and friendship groups. Memes and jokes abound, making light of being holed up at home – drinking too much, eating too much and being frustrated. It’s all a joke. Then there are the more serious messages trying to understand the beast that is Covid-19. There are many wonderful musical items spread around too – some home efforts and some professional. You could watch all day: every time your phone goes ‘ting’ to alert you to another comment, another theory, another cute kid singing for your comfort.

Now more than ever, I believe we need to concentrate on getting news from reputable sources. I cannot count the number of times I have had to alert friends to scams and fake news and threats that go around the world and that people forward without checking on (No! your phone will NOT be trashed by the ‘Dance of the Pope’ video that you might receive via Whatsapp. That hoax has been going for 5 years in various forms.)

No harm done with that one, but what does harm are the quasi-news-investigative reports that come around – from such sources as Epoch Times. An hour-long report was sent to us purportedly exploring the source of the Covid-19 virus and after a lot of interviews clothing the theory in valid reports it comes to the conclusion that Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese military facility and is an ENGINEERED virus – biological warfare. Frightening. Persuasive. Dammed the Chinese …

I didn’t know much about the Epoch Times so I looked them up.  They are not a reputable balanced media source. They are financed by Chinese Americans with ties to the Falun Gong. Very Anti-China Govt. and Pro-Trump (Wikipedia: ‘Facebook banned The Epoch Times from advertising on its platform, after finding that the newspaper broke Facebook’s political transparency rules by publishing 1.5 million USD pro-Trump subscription ads through sockpuppet pages (a page using deception).)

The Epoch Times have supported conspiracy theories like the qAnon (conspiracy theory of a deep state plot against the DT) and the dangers of vaccinations for kids …

So, I come back to: Now more than ever – let us read reputable sources. When I was a child living in East Africa my father listened to the BBC news on a short-wave radio and he continued to listen to the BBC throughout his life. For the years we lived in South Africa we also listened to the BBC – you could not trust the SABC, the South Africa Broadcasting Corp, they were the mouthpiece of the National Party, the party of Apartheid – a perfector of lies.

And … there comes a time when you don’t want to waste this time by being glued to the news broadcasts screaming for your attention. The media has it made – what a subject! Our newspapers have Covid-19 pages filled with stories.

Of course, it comes down to the question: what is a reputable source of news: the BBC, the Economist? The Washington Post? Scientific American? The Financial Times in the UK? Do these choices show my bias – of course they do. But if The Economist tells me that Covid-19 came from a military lab near Wuhan, I am more inclined to believe them than the Epoch Times.

And I am trying not to leap up when my phone goes ‘ting’.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Memories of Contagion

1919. My grandmother, Catherine Smithyman, and 4 of her 7 children. My father, Mervyn Smithyman is on the left.

1961. I was a thirteen-year-old travelling by bus from Florence to Venice as my father shared his story of the Spanish Influenza of 1919. I can still see in my mind’s eye the flat Italian landscape with little stone villages passing by as he told me how his mother had ministered to her seven small children while she herself was sick and unable to walk. His father had not yet returned home from the war in German East Africa where the British South African forces were mopping up after the guerrilla battles against the famous General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Schutztruppe . My father wept as he told the story. I had never before seen my father weep.

Over thirty years later, I taped an interview with my father and my uncle about their memories of the Spanish flu.

In 1919 the family were living in Bloemfontein, South Africa.  My father was the third child and 8 years old.

Uncle Harold: ‘At the end of the war, before Dad got back, the Spanish Influenza arrived. I was a Wolf Cub and we were sent to the Market Square where they had clothes boiling in a huge cauldron. These do-gooders had a big billycan to take from door from door and people went in and cleaned out and I waited outside. I wore a little packet of garlic round my neck and this went on till Mum said, ‘No! I had to stop!’ I was then sent out to Tempe Park School to get away from the infection.’

My father: ‘One by one the rest of the family got sick except Mum and me. Then she got sick and I can remember she was telling me how to go to the kitchen to get soup. People came to the door to help but she said that she would not accept charity. She told me from her sick bed to go to the kitchen to get soup.

That was all fine for a little while and then I said, ‘Mum I have a headache!’

Now she had to get up, otherwise there was no way we were going to survive. But she got up. She could not stand so she crawled to the kitchen. I remember she gave us some soup to bring back. Every one of us survived the influenza. The carts were passing the door with the corpses of hundreds of people. There were more people killed with the Spanish Influenza than in the Great War.’

I think we need to look back on such personal memories: to remember what our mothers and grandmothers did to care for us. That we are here, that we have survived so long, is a daily blessing for us.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Face Mask making in South Africa

My daughter in law is a very creative and enterprising person. She trained as a fashion designer and has always been very successful. From working for one of the top clothing chains in South Africa, she moved on to establish her own company (with two partners), downsized a couple of years ago (prescient) and now has a small business, designing and manufacturing women’s clothes. Guess what? As South Africa went into lockdown, every single order (many of them already made up) was cancelled. Who needs a Spring Collection now. Ruthless business.

Being the person she is – and desperate to keep her staff – she quickly turned her mind and capacity to making face masks. Designed some samples, constructed a website, organised her “essential services” certificate, and started making phone calls – and posting on Whatsapp. She had an order of 2000 from the neighbourhood where she lives, got an order of 50,000 within days and an hour after that a guy from a pharmaceutical company called and asked for 1 million. She had to turn him down. It seems that medical services and pharmacies in South Africa have little to nothing. And, of course, the need enormous.

The UK government has come to recognise that small businesses are a category of the economy that need special help at this time and have set aside funds accordingly. No such help will come from the South African government which is already dealing with a shaky economy. But, help or no help, businesses (small and big) will be looking hard at their business plans and strategies and realising that short, medium and long term plans are out the window. When catastrophe strikes, all previous assumptions are redundant. Life will not be the same after the dust settles.