From quarantine to stranded: How the coronavirus has changed the lives of South Africans

22 March 2020 - 00:00
By Sunday Times
Gary Sweidan tested positive for the coronavirus.
Image: Supplied Gary Sweidan tested positive for the coronavirus.

Sunday Times asked ordinary people how the coronavirus was changing their lives. This is what they said:


The best thing about day 12 of quarantine is seeing your “parole officer”, a technician who checks for viral load in the bloodstream.

The worst thing is you have to go back into quarantine no matter the result, because you need two negative tests to be set free.

So says the Johannesburg businessman who was among the first South Africans to test positive for Covid-19 two weeks ago.

Since then he has been holed up in his home office, receiving food on a “drop-off” table outside the door.

“If there’s anything I need I call downstairs and they [family members] put it onto the table. I mask up and collect it. The table is wiped down about 500 times a day.”

He was relieved to be able to make work calls on Thursday. “That was a great help – to put myself back into my company and in a sense to feel like I can contribute to society again.”

Western Cape premier Alan Winde.
Image: Supplied Western Cape premier Alan Winde.


Western Cape premier Alan Winde likes to lead from the front, except when he is on his beloved bicycle.

The energetic politician this week became SA’s first “virtual” premier when he set up office at home, prompted partly by a coronavirus scare in his cabinet.

Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo was tested after exposure to someone with Covid-19. Although she was negative, Winde says it is time to be extra cautious.

“I undertook to start working from home from Wednesday afternoon and was able to get through a full day of meetings on Thursday, including my daily cabinet briefing, using my phone and my laptop and sitting at a table in my home,” Winde said.

“For the past few weeks, we have had hand sanitisers available at the entrance to my office, and I’ve started practising social distancing more — so no handshakes, which is quite difficult in my line of work.

“My big appeal is to businesses and employers who can allow their staff to work from home to do so.”

Ernest Nkosi.
Image: Supplied Ernest Nkosi.


Nkosi spent four years and his own money to make a movie about the car-spinning craze in South African townships.

He took An Ordinary People to Utah’s prestigious Slamdance festival for independent films, where it received a standing ovation and invitations to another four film festivals.

The future for Nkosi and An Ordinary People looked golden — until countries began shutting their borders to try to halt the spread of Covid-19. “The season had just started,” said Nkosi, “and we got invitations to a few more festivals.”

Then the cancellations started rolling in. Not only would people not get to see the film, it would also be almost impossible to get a distribution deal.

“Now we’re sitting with a film — our blood, sweat and tears for four years — and the window is closing for that film to get out,” he said.

But he was philosophical. “I will still have a film when this is over. It’s also doing wonders for the climate. This is Earth’s way of resetting itself.”

Jamie Jupiter.
Image: Supplied Jamie Jupiter.


Social distancing is anathema to musician Jamie Jupiter, a regular on Cape Town’s live-music circuit who has had to cancel several gigs.

But the livewire performer says now is the time to turn inward and focus on his family and other aspects of his life and art.

He says the new routine at the Muizenberg home he shares with his wife and two teenage daughters is “kind of surreal ... and a time to think about what is important”.

From a career standpoint, the enforced change means more time composing songs as opposed to performing them. It is also a chance to focus on perennially neglected aspects of the artist’s life — the admin and marketing, everything from web maintenance to tracking down royalty payments.

Brian Qamata.
Image: Supplied Brian Qamata.


Brian Qamata used to be a chess coach and activist in the bustling streets of Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Now he sits in reluctant semi-isolation, thankful when friends drop by to set up his chess board.

“It is not the time to be engaging with kids,” said Qamata, who used to coach a team at a nearby library. “Some players do come to my house for some friendly games but at the moment it [coaching] is over. I think it is better when people are in isolation.”

Qamata has also had to stop his work for the NGO Activate! Change Drivers, and spends time with his parents.

“People are concerned that they don’t know much about the virus and how much it will cost the country,” he said. “People are stressing that we are millions of people in South Africa and if you count the number of beds in hospitals it is not enough to cover all South Africans.”

Ivana Levendall.
Image: Supplied Ivana Levendall.


Ivana Levendall is not used to peace and quiet in Ocean View.

The Cape Town videographer had been working on a documentary about her crime-ravaged suburb in the southern peninsula. Now an eerie calm has descended on streets more commonly associated with gang fights.

“Crime has stopped, and nobody is marching any more. Even the mosque has closed. Everyone is just making sure their family is safe at home,” she said.

The virus may have knocked back crime, but it has also killed off Levendall’s documentary and other work opportunities. “I have lost a lot of work because of the virus. I had to stop production to make sure that everybody was safe. I’ve had to hit pause.”

She is also worried about the health of her mother, who works at a supermarket.

Levendall says the Ocean View community is confused about the virus, with many unsure what to make of it. Few people are taking precautions such as wearing masks.

Bronwyn McCarthy and James Betterton.
Image: Supplied Bronwyn McCarthy and James Betterton.


The newly engaged couple are stranded in Peru, with travel bans halting their plans for trekking from Brazil to Alaska. They are holed up in a backpackers’ lodge in a beach town near Trujillo.

“We are not allowed to set foot outside our accommodation for the next two weeks. The army has been deployed and is patrolling the street,” McCarthy said.

Last week, when countries began closing their borders, the couple decided to cut their “engagement holiday” short.

Having spent R60,000 on airfares for a 50-hour marathon with three international and two domestic flights through Lima, New York and Kenya to Johannesburg, McCarthy and Betterton thought they were in the home straight.

But hours after booking, Peru shut its borders and four of their flights were cancelled. The backpackers’ lodge has developed a wellness programme that includes yoga and salsa dancing, but “we are really just struggling with not being allowed outside. All the doors are locked, and we feel like prisoners.”

Brian Kirsch.
Image: Supplied Brian Kirsch.


Brian Kirsch is fed up with being on holiday. He and his wife, several other South Africans and more than 2,000 other passengers are stuck aboard a cruise ship off Chile.

The Celebrity Eclipse was turned away by Chilean authorities on Sunday and is sailing to San Diego in the US.

The Kirsches, from Cape Town, are worried about what will happen then. “Although Celebrity are taking responsibility for getting us home, we have no idea how as airports and countries are shutting down on arrivals,” said Kirsch. “This is really becoming a worry for us.”

The ship appears to be coronavirus-free, Kirsch says, and passengers are enjoying its amenities. “People are swimming and walking around trying to make the best of an unhappy situation. The ship’s crew, entertainers, staff and officers have been amazing.”

Kirsch shared a photograph of some of the activities aboard. “The human spirit hey! What the hell! Might as well carry on with the Zumba classes.”

Nombuso Ndlovu and her fiancé Spha Buthelezi.
Image: Supplied Nombuso Ndlovu and her fiancé Spha Buthelezi.


The Johannesburg scientist and her fiancé Spha Buthelezi were set to marry on May 29 at a popular wedding venue in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

They sent out invitations to 140 guests, ordered the cake, hired their bridal attire and booked other service providers, but their plans changed drastically when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that no more than 100 people could gather in a venue at once.

“We got a call from the venue the next day. They said we would have to cut our guest list and that every person would be screened upon arrival. They suggested that we seat elderly guests far away from everyone else,” Ndlovu said.

She and her fiancé decided the wedding would go on.

“I will have to cut the list to 50 people. If I cancel, we lose hundreds of thousands of rands.”

Additional reporting by Paul Ash, Jeff Wicks and Suthentira Govender