Elena Williams, an expert in international trade, business and economic development, and an adviser to the Connected Places Catapult, talks about leaving South Africa during lockdown to find a disconcerting world in London.
On Sunday 15 March, the President of South Africa announced the country would be going into lockdown at midnight on Thursday 26 March. We knew it was coming but now it was real. What followed was a communications campaign that, among other things, sought to discourage stockpiling at supermarkets (it worked, we didn’t experience the same run on toilet paper that was blanketing the international news coverage), and to encourage robust hygiene, 20-second hand-washing and the use of hand sanitiser.
I had recently moved to Cape Town’s edgy Central Business District from the salubrious coastal town of Hout Bay. I swapped a beach-side flat for basic digs, and my rental car for a MyCiti bus pass, and was enjoying exploring the centre of the city as I moved between my project appointments, my voluntary activities with a local soup kitchen, and my work with the TEDx Cape Town team. I was also exploring the architecture of the area and photographing old buildings. All of this came to a halt when I woke up on 27 March to one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.
Unlike the UK, there was no exercise hour and no dog walking. We were only allowed to leave home to visit the supermarket and pharmacy. Public transport, including ride-hailing services, was restricted to two windows per day and only for the use of essential workers. Among the more contentious measures was a ban on the sale of alcohol, tobacco and cigarettes. In the hours before lockdown the only serious queues were to be found at the bottle stores as people stocked up on alcohol – an illuminating glimpse into the country’s complex relationship with alcohol.
I stayed in lockdown in Cape Town for two weeks until Thursday 9 April. During this time, I continued my work on Urban Links Africa, but I also joined an army of volunteers rallying to support community causes such as soup kitchens and housing shelters. From my fingertips I mobilised my South Africa network to source provisions – everything from produce to wooden pallets – and with each day my requests became more audacious and the conversations more surreal. I will never forget asking an international hotelier to lend us a hotel, not least because he agreed!
But I had my own personal conundrum when the government announced the closure of South African airspace. Should I stay and continue being helpful, despite not knowing what would happen with the virus or whether my travel insurance would cover me if I fell ill (was this force majeure?), or should I return to the UK until the dust settled? Too late. No more flights, so I continued being useful. I began assisting my SA Chamber of Commerce colleagues who had swung into action to support South Africans stranded overseas. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I became ill I ran the risk of being a burden on already fragile health system, so on 5 April when the British High Commissioner announced the availability of repatriation flights it was with a heavy heart that I booked one.
‘I had my own personal conundrum when the government announced the closure of South African airspace. Should I stay and continue being helpful, despite not knowing what would happen with the virus or whether my travel insurance would cover me if I fell ill… Or should I return to the UK until the dust settled?’
I left Cape Town on the first flight out. It was strange, but also comforting to be greeted by my former British High Commission colleagues at the muster point at Green Point stadium, and to be ushered by them through the eerily quiet airport where they handed us over to the care of Virgin Atlantic. I cried as plane took off, it all became overwhelming and I felt helpless. I was leaving the one place in the world I felt fully connected to, made worse being surrounded by people who were ecstatic to be returning home. I was not one of them.
We arrived at an incredibly quiet Heathrow Terminal 3, shortly before midnight. I took a taxi to one of only two hotel airports still in operation, where I stayed for four nights before heading to London. At 3am on the second night I found myself at Terminal 2 helping the South African team as it repatriated its stranded citizens back to Cape Town. I distributed face masks, handed out hand sanitiser and marshalled the queues, trying to be useful at what I know was an emotionally difficult time for all involved.
Back in London I rented a flat strategically close to the river and a large local park, and self-isolated for 12 days before venturing out. From the balcony I looked out onto a different lockdown to the one I had experienced already. Seeing people jogging and cycling, buses and traffic flowing all day, delivery vehicles stopping outside at frequent intervals, this lockdown confused me. Everything appeared normal. I felt discombobulated. I still feel discombobulated. But now I’ve joined the 6am club taking walks through the park and along the river, trying to distance (which is not always easy on narrow London pavements). I have queued to get into supermarkets and done the awkward dance in the aisle trying to respect other people’s space whilst also trying to grab my stuff quickly and get back to the ‘safety’ of my cocoon. I do the Zoom calls, but quickly tired of the Zoom socials.
Like a lot of us I am wondering what the future holds, especially mine given that I was in the process of relocating to South Africa, again. I am trying not to spend too much anticipating when the world will reopen for global citizens like me, but what I do know is for those who work in economic development in Africa, we have a lot of work to do.
‘Like a lot of us I am wondering what the future holds, especially mine given that I was in the process of relocating to South Africa, again.’
Urban Links Africa has been established by the UK’s national centre of excellence for urban innovation, Connected Places Catapult, to identify the UK’s six best-in-class SMEs and partner them with their most impressive local counterparts in some of Africa’s most rapidly emerging cities, specifically: Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa, and Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu in Kenya.