JONATHAN JANSEN | 'Twenty Plenty' my foot. Or was it? Maybe this year wasn't all bad

Got two Covid funerals on Sunday. Not sure I can go. Comorbidities. I did not know that word until this year.

24 December 2020 - 06:00
A 2020 success story. Zimbabwean Triphin Mudzvengi with her proud father Polate Mudzvengi and Ian Jandrell, head of the faculty of engineering and the built environment at Wits University. Mudzvengi overcame huge odds, with the help of ordinary South Africans, to enrol as an engineering student at Wits, where she excelled with marks almost unheard of in the discipline.
A 2020 success story. Zimbabwean Triphin Mudzvengi with her proud father Polate Mudzvengi and Ian Jandrell, head of the faculty of engineering and the built environment at Wits University. Mudzvengi overcame huge odds, with the help of ordinary South Africans, to enrol as an engineering student at Wits, where she excelled with marks almost unheard of in the discipline.
Image: Supplied

Christmas is tomorrow. Good tidings. Great joy. Peace on earth. Goodwill to all men and women. Yikes. It does not feel that way.

Got two Covid funerals on Sunday. Yes, two on a single day: one a friend, the other family. Not sure I can go. Comorbidities. I did not know that word until this year. Culture, not science, propels people like me towards paying last respects at this most human of rituals. But it is risky. People want to hug. Aunties want to kiss. Congregants want to sing Rock of Ages.

Our very first pandemic Christmas. “Twenty Plenty” my foot. Annus horribilis sounds more like it. Or was it?

I took to social media and asked friends and strangers alike for the one positive thing to come out of 2020 for them. Truly inspiring things were shared. Maybe the year was not that bad after all.

'All protocols observed' now means something lifesaving and not simply the tired joke of a boring MC

We got to spend meaningful time with family during the lockdown. I learnt how to be patient. People showed up from everywhere to help children with meals at the poorer schools or caring for the elderly stuck at home. “All protocols observed” now means something life saving and not simply the tired joke of a boring MC at the start of one or other function.

Everywhere, people witnessed kindness on a grand scale. Most citizens are good people after all; when the chips are down, we stand up for and we stand in for the least among us. Covid revealed that about us.

Teachers tell me they learnt technological skills they would not have acquired otherwise. The older teachers struggled with the new technology platforms but eventually most of the country’s educators came on board. Schools are institutions which means change comes slowly if at all. But Covid forced a worldwide change in teaching and learning. Education will never be the same again, and that is a good thing.

It took a pandemic to make us aware of the deep inequalities in our society. Schooling was uninterrupted for the privileged and non-existent for the poor. Social distancing, it turns out, is a middle-class concept that means nothing if you live in a crowded shack. That is why so many gave more than R3bn to the Solidarity Fund.

That was the right word for standing together in a crisis: solidarity.

Nobody will look at nurses, doctors and other health workers in the same way again. When our country started to burn, they ran towards the fire. Real-life heroes, some of whom fell in the fight, taking the virus for us when we did not know much about therapeutics and when vaccines were still a pipe dream. We saw unbelievable courage. A 10th medical school will reopen in SA next year at Nelson Mandela University. I have no doubt they will be oversubscribed with the next generation of health-care specialists. They too will run towards future pandemic fires.

Teachers, principals and other education staff are also front-line heroes. We lost too many of them, more than 1,500. These teachers taught because they loved their children. Despite their anxieties, they returned to school to fulfil their vocation. Parents who did some version of home schooling during the hard lockdown would come to appreciate the labour of teachers; it is hard work.

Even teachers saw an upside to the pandemic as they eased back into school. For the first time they could teach smaller classes and spend more time with each child. Until now, small classes were only a reality in the well-off schools. Now you could really teach, said a seasoned educator.

Most of all, our children learnt resilience in the face of great challenges, even the leaking of the mathematics and science papers for matriculants. Millions of students will come out of this once-in-a-lifetime struggle as independent learners who relied less on teachers than before.

And then there is Triphin Mudzvengi, the Zimbabwean student from the North West who had eight distinctions but no money to pursue civil engineering at Wits University. When I learnt of her story, I called on you, ordinary South Africans, to contribute to a crowdfunding account set up for her. Wits admitted the young woman and this week she sent me her year-end results. In all 10 first-year engineering subjects, Triphin scored an A symbol, with most of those marks in the upper 80s or 90s. This is truly unbelievable for a field like engineering.

Triphin is the Christmas story. We embraced the stranger. We made room in the inn. We brought her our gifts. And we all share in her success.

Happy Christmas, everyone. It's been a good year after all.


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