What Pieter Dirk Uys and others are doing during lockdown
Keith Bain asks some well-known personalities how they have reset their values
The prima donna
Pieter-Dirk Uys, who was regularly banned under apartheid, says he’s used to being in lockdown. "The former regime used censorship to try to shut me up [and failed]; consequently, I’ve been unemployed since 1975 and so have been responsible for everything in my life, which leads to some pretty successful social distancing.
"For the first time in history, everyone in the world seems to be on the same side. Usually war has two sides in action against each other. Covid-19 is an invisible invader, probably the most successful terrorist the world has ever known. It is indeed World War 3. Will we survive it? Afrikaans has the best answer there: ja-nee.
"There will have to be a new normal. What we left behind will not be what we rediscover. The bad, which we took for granted, will be replaced by a new bad. The new good is what we might find; things that necessity demanded under lockdown and now can be allowed to become a beginning. Office blocks (empty because people now work from home) might make way for new apartments in the heart of cities. Communities can celebrate their survival with the experiences of lockdown having strengthened neighbourliness. We might realise that every social crisis during lockdown was anchored in community life that had been allowed to crumble during our 26 years of democracy: housing, access to water, focus on health, safety and security, the education of children, old age care … you can add your list here.
"What will still be there when we are brave enough to explore once more? I don’t see life returning to a new normal without a vaccine giving us the visa to travel safely. It will be an adventure to go back to all the places one treasured and took for granted. Let’s hope they survive."
Uys is the alter ego of Evita Bezuidenhout, Africa’s most famous white woman; she even has her own theatre, Evita se Perron, in the West Coast hamlet of Darling. pdu.co.za
The month before lockdown began, Zolani Mahola was discovering a new kind of freedom. "In February I started free diving with Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck of the Sea Change Project. No wetsuit, no oxygen. Just deep connection with the belly of the sea and all her creatures." That new bond with the natural realm became the thing she missed most during quarantine. "I long for morning and afternoon swims out beyond the shore at Clifton … There’s something so cleansing about pushing past the cold, surrendering to the power of the ocean."
Lockdown paused such physical expressions of freedom, but it couldn’t hamper Mahola’s unfolding personal journey, a newly charted path set upon last year with her shift into a solo career, establishing herself as a storyteller, a healer.
Making big changes isn’t easy for her, Mahola says. "We get lots of signals telling us when we need to make a change in our lives, but I have to get the signal about 20-million times before I heed it. To get yourself out of a rut, you need to interrogate yourself and be curious. That’s what helped me kickstart my transformation. Being curious about yourself is the first step. And knowing that you have agency."
Of course, the energy of a lockdown can feel stagnant, immobilising; the mood itself can put you in a rut. But Mahola keeps moving.
For her, lockdown meant the gift of time with family, plus time for a routine of meditation and stretching, and the need to navigate the uncharted waters of performing in a virtual context: regular online concerts and connecting with fans via Instagram. It wasn’t enough merely to be seen and heard, but to listen as well — "checking in", she calls it.
That online space evolved into a platform where she started interviewing fellow artists, getting them to share their stories. And she featured young changemakers like queer poet Sibahle Daniel and 18-year-old climate justice activist Ayakha Melithafa too.
It’s also been a place where she can share her thoughts about what needs to change. The real freedoms she’s after need to be democratised, she says. "We need to make the circle bigger, particularly those of us who are economically and socially in much more privileged positions. I think the more we ensure access and genuinely listen and engage, the more we can close the gaps between us … Those gaps that Covid-19 has made even more apparent."
Mahola launched her solo singer-storyteller career last year and goes by the moniker The One Who Sings. theonewhosings.com
The fearless one
Can you imagine this guy in a tutu? Why not? A strapping man, with zero hang-ups and a willingness to try anything, Siv Ngesi is resoundingly fearless and couldn’t care less what others think.
"It sounds clichéd, but what I fear most is being too scared to do something." Among his scariest moments? Scuba diving in Réunion’s shark-infested waters, and then skydiving from a helicopter. "It’s not the same as jumping from a plane — those blades spinning above your head are pretty terrifying."
He says his refusal to say no, that fear of nothing but fear itself, has granted him access to life’s freedoms. It’s a personality hack handed to him by his mother, a woman who taught him to be fearless, to stand proud. Harsh then that for months on end, he’s been unable to visit her. "She’s quite sickly and we don’t want to infect her."
Besides missing his mom, Ngesi — whose hyperactive, hypersocial streak means he likes to participate furiously in life — took hard lockdown in his stride.
To fill the social void, he took to hyper-productivity. Aside from exercising like a maniac ("I built a home gym with borrowed equipment and used my time to get physically ready for a new TV series — it’s going to be SA’s Game of Thrones!") and cooking up a storm, he took heaps of online classes. Everything from acting and directing to salsa dancing and, yes, ballet.
"It’s been incredible watching, listening, learning a lot. I’ve been very productive and have no complaints.
"What’s going to be very important after all this is over is remembering to appreciate what we have while we have it. For some of us, it’s probably taken lockdown to really appreciate what we have."
What’s most striking about Ngesi’s resilience, his refusal to mope or complain and his near-baffling positivity, is that he recognises his good fortune. "I have to add that our ‘normal’ was never right," he says. "I think we should all go back and change various things about our society. People are living just three minutes away from where I live with such privilege and they are starving. So I think we should all plough back and make sure that this important moment in our history results in some radical, positive shifts. For the betterment of all."
And he’s prepared to say that in tights and a tutu, fearlessly.
Ngesi appears in the forthcoming fantasy action drama series Blood Palms, set in a folkloric Africa 11,000 years in the past. iamsiv.com
The mountain goat
Trail runner Ryan Sandes is used to spending prolonged periods alone. He first found his calling by winning a multiday, self-supported foot race across the Gobi Desert. Home tends not to be his natural habitat. There’s a kind of freedom he derives from spending hours on end hoofing it on mountain trails, tiptoeing along cliff edges or traipsing through remote wildernesses on freakishly unlikely journeys — survival mode hardwired into him. He was the first human to win an off-road ultramarathon on every continent. Including Antarctica. On some adventures, he’ll be on his feet for 24 hours or more at a time. One recent appraisal of his achievements concluded that, during his 13 years as a professional runner, he has circumnavigated the earth almost twice.
Now you tell someone like that to stay home and only come out for groceries. Cabin fever, surely?
Thing is, you don’t do what Sandes does if you let your mind falter.
Whatever’s in his DNA, the stuff that gives him the capacity to keep going when his legs are jelly and he’s half-hallucinating is mental resilience. And so, even quarantine is experienced through that lens. "For me it’s trying to look at the positives. Being able to spend a lot of time with my son, Max, and some good time with [my wife] Vanessa. It’s something to cherish, having my family close."
Aside from DIY projects and puzzle-building with Max, lockdown’s main not-so-mini-goal resulted from an offhanded April Fool’s quip about doing a 100-mile home "race". One thing led to another and he actually ran that ungodly-sounding distance at home — "the ultimate challenge," he says, "especially from a mental point of view". As restrictions eased and three hours of running — but not on mountains — were permitted, he set another challenge: exploring every road in Noordhoek. His Strava maps look like the result of an Uber prank.
His other lockdown realisation seems counterintuitive. With so many of us signalling our desire to travel again, Sandes (whose running career passport stamps tally 156) says: "I actually want to experience more of home; my desire to explore my own country has been stoked."
Sandes last year established 13 Peaks, a self-navigating, self-timed route that takes runners to his 13 favourite mountain peaks across the Cape peninsula. 13peaks.co.za
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