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United Apart



In March 2020, with less than a handful of known infections, SA embarked on one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. United Apart is a deep dive into South Africa’s official lockdown strategy and the effect it has had on society, the economy, and the country’s vulnerable communities. 

South Africa decided on a total lockdown. All businesses closed, a strict curfew was put in place, and citizens were prohibited from leaving their homes. Only essential services, emergency services, and supermarkets could operate. 

The numbers look dreadful; we are going to have the biggest decline in GDP since the Great Depression.” Lukanyo Mnyanda – Editor, Business Day.

Vulnerable communities found themselves without food or support as government relief programs scrambled to get off the ground. The informal sector was decimated leading to desperation from the already impoverished. In the first few weeks of lockdown, more people died at the hands of the police and the military than from the coronavirus. Many likened the compulsory stay-at-home order and extreme social distancing restrictions to the State of Emergency imposed by the apartheid regime to control citizens, especially black people living in townships. 

27% of South Africans are food insecure while in Europe only 1.4% are, so a lockdown that cuts business doesn’t make it right for society.” Prof Benjamin Smart – Institute for the Future of Knowledge, University of Johannesburg.

The government imposed a ban on the sale of tobacco and alcohol – one of the few countries in the world that enforced this policy. Though part of a planned strategy to free up hospital beds, it was widely criticized for robbing the focus of much-needed revenue. Poor socio-economic indicators, double-digit unemployment figures, and the largest HIV epidemic in the world made for a terrifying mix. As a country, South Africans had every reason to be concerned.

Everything we have done in the past simply did not prepare us for this virus.”

Prof Salim Abdool Karim – Clinical Infectious Diseases Epidemiologist, CAPRISA.

Did they go too far? Can a developing economy follow the lockdown models for fiscally sound countries? What fault lines did Covid-19 expose? What more could have been done to effect change whilst fighting a devastating pandemic? 

In May 2020, Sunday Times launched #UnitedApartSA, urging South Africans to show how they were getting through, and what lockdown means to them, by submitting video clips, images, voice notes, or anything else that captures the essence of this extraordinary event. 

Inspired by these citizen contributions, United Apart grapples with the issues that the pandemic forced us to confront. It brings together a formidable array of lockdown stories from South Africa’s leading media. This documentary gives a voice to ordinary people, frontline workers, and leading experts in the field of policy and epidemiology. It weaves together anecdotes and analysis showing off the resilience of the rainbow nation battling the brutal fault lines laid bare but a devastating pandemic.

We should not have to choose between lives and livelihoods… if we want to save lives then we have to protect our poor.”

Prof Glenda Gray – President & CEO, SAMRC