South Africa
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REFLECTION: My Story: Getting through the worst of times

When the Covid-19 pandemic first approached South African shores like a swathe of ominous storm clouds 19 months ago, very few of us could have fully predicted the deluge of devastation that would ensue.

“Prior to Covid we had been through so many ups and downs, so many battles of all kinds, so I’m mentally and physically quite adapted to major change and disruption. But with this [Covid-19 pandemic] there was just no idea what lay ahead. Would it be a week, would it be a year, would it be the zombie apocalypse, would TERS really payout, what would our infection rates be?” muses Lyndall Maunder, general manager of Clarke’s Bar and Dining Room, a restaurant few who live and work in the hustle-bustle of Bree Street in Cape Town don’t know. 

“I think it was a universal sense of being in a state of total unknown and that was a really weird place to be. Things are always a little unknown, but they’re never totally unknown, and this [Covid-19 pandemic] was that,” Maunder adds.

Clarke’s is one of many businesses that thought of closing down. As Maunder recalls, “It’s tough to explain, or even recall the emotions at the time of the start of Covid. A few months after lockdown started we had zero funds in the bank after paying all suppliers and the full salaries for March, so I knew there was nothing left in the bank and nothing more to send to staff, so we started operating as an essential service to try and bring some money in.” 

Maunder explains that Clarke’s ability to adapt, hand-in-hand with constant, open communication with staff and on social media placed it among the lucky few that managed to keep their doors open. 

“By August of 2020 we had gone through the darkest stages and had reached some of the best highs with the most incredible outpouring of help, financial assistance through donations and auctions. It was incredible and did so much good on so many levels and we wouldn’t have survived without it,” she says. 

“As lockdowns and restrictions were lifted and returned, lifted and returned, we knew what the deal was and just put the necessary in place – move to deliveries, shift the hours, lessen the staff, just batten down the hatches. It wasnt ideal, but by round two, three and four of lockdown, we could plan better each time.”

Being the breadwinner of his family and the father of a toddler, beverages manager and waiter at Clarke’s, Eben Coffee, says it is the fear of the unknown that is the source of much emotional trauma and distress.

“It [the Covid-19 pandemic] turned all our lives upside down, gave us a fright that caused emotional distress and trauma of not knowing what comes in the next hour. Will I make it? Will this storm ever end or is it just gonna turn into a tornado? 

“With no plan on how I can shield my family from this unseen beast, with only health protocols to follow I just have to believe in God, for he is the great protector,” Coffee says.

When it rains it pours

Shortly after the Constitutional Court sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to 15 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court, fuelled by politics, severe inequality and the pandemic, parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng descended into looting anarchy.

Billions of rands of damage were caused in a single week and businesses still reeling from the financial effects of the pandemic, crawling back to some form of normality, were obliterated in a matter of days.

“Our two factories where we manufacture all our items were looted and a lot of our machinery and operating items were stolen,” says Che Peinke, co-founder of Sweet Peas, a three-year-old Johannesburg-based business specialising in handmade women’s shoes and sandals.

Peinke explains, however, that the positive response from the community outshone what Sweet Peas had lost to looting. Having been fortunate enough to recoup their losses from insurance, Sweet Peas redirected donations in an effort to lift other small businesses back on to their feet.

“We were blown away by the generosity of our customers reaching out and offering donations to help us get back up on our feet. We rather redirected these donations and started a ‘save small businesses’ fund for businesses that were gravely affected during the looting, and we managed to raise in excess of R150,000 to help numerous small businesses get back up on their feet,” says Peinke.

“These times really showed us that we could come together as a community and have made us so proud to be South African.” 

While the northern and eastern parts of South Africa were in crisis, the west was experiencing a harrowing bout of taxi violence. 

“Amidst all the fears of Covid-19 and safety and survival, then comes the horrific taxi wars that contributed to cutting lives of many short, and for a few days the future looked bleak for most of us commuters,” says Coffee.

“The struggle of having to walk long distances to a safer place, of getting transportation to work and hoping you won’t be caught up in a crossfire of these wars was unbearable,” he recalls.

Community, compassion and kindness are key

“They say hope is the last to die… indeed it is. [I get] hope and love from my family and friends always checking up on each other even from a distance and encouraging each other to trudge on. 

“The introduction of vaccines also brought up the light on our dark future that things could actually get back to normal after living on levels and waves of lockdown,” says Coffee.

Maunder says her responsibility to the employees at Clarke’s, coupled with the fondness and passion for the institution that has gripped her heart over the years, stave off feelings of hopelessness and drive her through times of hardship. 

“Certainly my responsibility [is] to all the employees at Clarke’s, this is theirs and my lifeline and I also just love the place; with all its enormous pains and struggles, it’s hard to not be totally committed to it and the people in it; and without Clarke’s where would I eat? It is just the best,” says Maunder.

“I think I’ve learned to let go of things, also the impact of kindness, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of enormous kindness,” she adds.

To those struggling with the effects of Covid-19 and plotting a way forward,  Peinke advises, “Don’t give up, reach out to people who are in similar fields to you to get help or advice. Collaborate together, always be evolving and staying current and most of all, stay positive.” 

Taking stock of approximately 570 days of lockdown and living with the pandemic, Coffee says he has learnt that side hustles are a must and that today is all we have.

“Generally I’ve learnt that we cannot depend on one source of income and I’ve also learnt that we are not promised tomorrow so we should love, respect and support each other all the time,” says Coffee.

“To the people struggling with the effects of Covid-19, hang in there, you are not alone, talk to someone, call a friend, visit a church or reach out to anyone who might help or need help, take a step to healing. It might be hard but it’s doable.” DM/ ML