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The impact of social isolation on traditional and cultural practices, can technology play a role

By Stella Sigcau

23 April 2020

The world at large has been hit by an unprecedented pandemic, Covid-19 which knows no borders, class or race, affecting various countries of the world, disrupting lives and economies. It has affected both urban and rural areas, impacting also on the traditional and customary ways of living and practices, in particular, in rural areas.

Photo: Traditional Basotho men (Pixabay)

Since we are living in a globalising village where technology is imperative, it is a proven fact that rural areas are lagging behind when it comes to technology access including the skills, benefits and opportunities that come with this technology. How then can technology assist these communities and what role can it play during the social isolation as a result of Covid-19, including also on creating more awareness and prevention.

Does it have a role to play with regards to traditional practices? Is there room for technology and indigenous knowledge systems coming together to tackle this latest global challenge including for example medical remedies or cures. Is there wisdom or expertise that indigenous knowledge experts can share to assist in this regard?  All these questions come to mind as the world is battling this pandemic including its impact also on rural areas. Even though reported cases are higher in urban areas, rural communities are not immune.

Covid-19 is reported to have started in Wuhan in China, in December 2019 and has spread throughout the world with the number of affected and deaths increasing each day. Economies, livelihoods and lifestyles have been badly affected as this virus is not only infectious but also spreads extremely fast leading to governments implementing lockdowns worldwide. These lockdowns are the cause of economic and social setbacks. Lockdowns have also affected various industries throughout the world including agriculture, hospitality, tourism and transport industries as well as the SMMEs, entrepreneurs and individuals.

South Africa has also been affected by this virus with the reported number of deaths at 65 and of the reported 133,774 tests conducted 3635 people tested positive. In dealing with this pandemic, the South African government took bold and decisive action including imposing a national lockdown in March which was the first phase that affected both urban and rural areas in various ways including economically leading to loss of income for businesses, smme’s, and individuals. This phase included tax relief, the release of disaster funds, wage support, funding for small businesses and so forth. The second phase focuses on stabilizing the economy and saving jobs whilst the third phase will focus on economy recovery.

Necessitating in particular phase two apart from saving the economy and jobs has also been the increase in poverty and hunger leading to various community members becoming restless as witnessed for example in breaking in supermarkets or grocery stores as well as non compliance in some areas. On 21 March 2020 President Ramaphosa announced the various mechanisms government has put in place to address these challenges including increase in grants and measures to support businesses and municipalities whose budgets have been badly affected.

Apart from the economic, health challenges and infrastructure as well as general social impact in South African communities both urban and rural there has been growing concern about cultural or traditional practices in particular in the rural areas which had to be compromised  in order to combat the spread of this virus. Around this time some rural communities prepare to send their sons for winter male initiation (ulwaluko) which signifies coming of age for young boys to be respected men and members of society. Others undergo traditional healing training. In both these instances social distancing is unheard of and viewed as uncustomary.

Others, when burying their loved ones, need to perform various practices and rituals (e.g. umlindo, ukuxukuxa, ukuhlanjwa kweepeki) and funerals attended by large numbers including extended family and community members. Due to the spread of the virus, some of these had to be managed with government deliberating that no more than 50 people should attend and those in attendance observe social distance, no cooking or brewing of traditional beer (umqombothi) for these events.  As has been reported, police have been active as per their mandate in ensuring compliance and safety of communities against the virus including containing the spread of the virus.

In these communities the social isolation or lockdown has affected their traditional way of life and belief systems and the government has tried and is still trying to create awareness in these areas taking active steps to combat its spread. However, some due to lack of technology were not privy to the information shared on television or social media. Some have no access to smart phones with the relevant apps depending on radios for relevant information, hearsay or community gatherings. Some, even though they have heard about the virus, still lack the general understanding of this virus, some assuming that it is flu or an overseas disease.

How can then technology assist in this regard? Challenges include lack of high-speed broadband internet in these areas compared to urban areas. There are talks of online teachings for learners who are not at school due to the lockdown. This also requires access to the relevant technologies, however without access to the relevant technologies this may be a challenge. There is a need for wifi hotspots in these areas and to also use this technology to reach out to people to educate them in the language they understand about the realities of this virus and why some things, including cultural practices have to be compromised. This also requires experts, government officials including municipal officials to also work hand in hand with community leaders and Traditional Leaders as they are closer to the people as well as address skills transfer. Technology can also assist with online registrations for social grants of which many people from the rural areas are beneficiaries.

Indigenous knowledge systems including knowledge and usage of indigenous plants to combat or treat certain diseases empowered with the necessary technologies and research may come in handy. It is thus imperative to reflect on how technology can be used to address the impact of social isolation to traditional and customary  practices whilst improving the life in rural areas, in particular during these trying times.




February/March 2020








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