South Africa lost a much-loved leader in Nobel Peace laureate and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, in December 2021. A kind and principled man and the moral compass for our country both during apartheid and after democracy in 1994, he fought vociferously to bring about change. He was an avid campaigner for international sanctions against South Africa, which ultimately helped to bring about the fall of the National Party government and the end of apartheid. My fondest memory of him, though, is leading a march to reclaim the beaches reserved for whites during the 1989 Defiance campaign, his T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Just call me Arch.” It summed up both his humility and sense of humour. As scary as it was to face the dogs and whips brandished by the police, there was a sense of security and solidarity in being led by the Arch. His compassion was evident again later when he wept at the brutality of the oppression suffered by ordinary South Africans, while chairing the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in 1996. In spite of bearing witness to some of the worst atrocities humans can commit against each other, he believed in the future of South Africa. He will be sorely missed.
Across the continent, we have lost spiritual and cultural leaders — from Egyptian writer, Nawal El Saadawi, to South African vocalist, Sibongile Khumalo. Not all the deaths have been due to the COVID pandemic, but they certainly reinforce the loss and grief experienced by millions of people across the world. The death toll globally is more than five million. It is estimated that for every one person who has died there must be at least two or three people who are mourning those deaths; that equates to 10 to 15 million people, most likely struggling to find closure for their grief without the spiritual and cultural processes, the rituals and ceremonies that have been restricted due to the pandemic.
Our family, like so many others, has struggled to come to terms with the death of my father just over a year ago — the lack of closure as a result of not being able to see him while in hospital and neither to view his body after, has upended the bereavement process. My mother, understandably, is afraid of contracting the disease and has isolated herself which limits community support. We were not able to gather in any significant numbers to mark the first anniversary of his death recently. I am left feeling guilty that we haven’t done enough to commemorate his life as a school teacher and principal who touched many and was well-known in the community.
As we enter the third year of living in a pandemic, there is little sign of the onslaught abating. Many have been left to contend with other losses too, such as unemployment and anxiety about an unknown future, as well as the effects on their mental health. We are forced to become desensitised against the pain and sorrow, slowly becoming immune to the loss and grief, if not to the virus itself. COVID has been replaced by OMICRON in our daily chats. South African scientists first identified the latest variant, leading to international panic and a travel ban being slapped on to South Africa and ten other southern African countries. Those who had planned on spending the festive season with friends and family who they had not seen for two years, were forced to cancel flights or indefinitely postpone travel plans. It seems almost ambitious to live day by day. We should plan twelve hours at a time!
It has become more difficult to focus on the gratitude that kept me going during the first year of the pandemic, but I continue to keep my journal, and the list of things that I am thankful for has become more intangible, the gratitude being for lessons learned from loss and negative experiences. While online pottery and yoga classes will never be the same as the in-person experience, working remotely has taken on new impetus. I doubt that I would have pursued the connection with a colleague in Europe with the same fervour two years ago. Perhaps back then we would have connected via email and promised to meet up when we were next in closer physical proximity. Now we have collaborated on an essay project after numerous virtual meetings, although a planned field trip had to be postponed. At least we can write, we agreed on our last call. And there’s that wonderfully affirming gratitude.
Archbishop Tutu lay in state at St. George’s cathedral in Cape Town for five days, in a simple pine coffin, as per the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s wishes. St. George’s is his old cathedral, a place that many of us, irrespective of our religious beliefs, remember for the refuge that it offered when the apartheid government banned public gatherings. The Arch was remembered and celebrated across the country with tree planting, signing of condolence books, and the lighting up of buildings like the City Hall in Cape Town. The bells of the cathedral were rung every ten minutes to commemorate him. I found comfort for my own loss in this communal remembrance and celebration of his life and perhaps there lies the lesson we need to learn.
At the very least the pandemic has taught us that we are in this together, that whatever affects one of us has a knock-on effect on the rest of us. And, perhaps, what will follow is that we learn to be kinder to each other since we have all come to know sorrow so much more intimately. As poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”