On the front line: An interview with Abdul Karrim Matthews

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Olivia M Coetzee and Abdul Karriem Matthews (photos: provided)

We are living in very weird times; sometimes it feels like I’m watching a Netflix series, but what makes this real is when I watch the videos of people crying out for help in communities, asking for the basics, like feeding themselves and their children. For me, it is important to hear directly from community and community leaders in times like these, because the thing is this: we may see only the nurses and the essential workers on the front line, but those essential workers come mostly out of working-class communities –communities where the outbreak of COVID-19 will spread like wildfire, for many different reasons – and that, to me, means that working-class communities are, in actual fact, on the “front line”. And so, how do we protect these communities from the threat that is more real to them than others who have better and more resources available to them?

I asked one community leader from Bishop Lavis to answer a few questions surrounding the specific times in which we find ourselves.

Could you please tell me more about yourself and the role you play in your community?

My name is Abdul Karriem Matthews, and I am a member of the Bishop Lavis Action Community and the Total Shutdown movement. Both of these organisations highlight the war on the Cape Flats and resist attacks on the part of the state against citizens in the form of evictions, installation of water management devices, etc.

Could you tell me more about how people in your community are responding to the COVID-19 regulations and the lockdown?

Most residents try their best to adhere to the lockdown regulations; some wilfully ignore the regulations, and others simply have no choice but to leave their homes in search of food. Food insecurity is a huge crisis in our working-class communities.

What are your views around how the South African government is dealing with inequalities within our country’s borders?

The state has, since 1994, imposed a neoliberal economic framework that benefits only white monopoly capital at the expense of the working class. In fact, under this regime, we are now the most unequal society in the world.

We have seen many instances where the police have arrested people for being outside their homes when they were out getting necessities. What are your thoughts around the fact that we have more than 72 000 troops on the streets of South Africa?

I am very worried about this deployment. Already, five people have been killed by state agencies. The fact is that you cannot kill a virus with an assault rifle. Despite the deployment of the SANDF on 18 July 2019, not one major gang leader or drug merchant has been arrested and jailed. I am afraid that the army will be used to put down any attempt to revolt against the state.

The Department of Basic Education is getting ready to reopen schools. What are your thoughts around this?

I totally oppose the opening of schools for the 2020 academic year. Without mass screening of children, parents and teachers, the schools will become the next vector for the transmission of the virus. The state should reopen parliament and the seat of the government first and expose themselves.

Do you think social distancing is a possibility within schools if they reopen?

Social distancing is impossible in schools, period. We as parents have to resist the opening of schools for the 2020 academic year.

If you were part of a COVID-19 committee, what would you like to see happen within our communities that are still – after 25 years of democracy – living in poverty?

A massive public works programme building infrastructure, and a living wage to build decent homes. With decent wages and decent homes, we could rebuild our lives and afford decent education and healthcare, the basic requirements for living with a decent quality of life.

Many people say that the selling of cigarettes and alcohol must be part of the “essentials” list because many in our communities are addicted to them. What is your opinion on how this is being handled by the government?

This is a controversial topic. Whether we agree or not is irrelevant. The fact is that we now have a black-market economy that is turning people into criminals. It is only a question of time before the gangs take over the supply of cigarettes and alcohol, which will lead to an escalation in the war on the Flats.

Do you think that “screening” for COVID-19 symptoms will help with the “flattening of the curve” when they say that not many people show symptoms? What do you suggest should happen in order to “flatten the curve”?

We need mass screening and testing, no doubt. We can only limit the spread. We need another 30 days of a hard lockdown, at the very minimum. But then, the state must supply food for the masses of hungry citizens, and do it now.

And, lastly, if you had a direct line to speak with the president about COVID-19, what would you say to him about it?

The president heads a corrupt regime. Not one official has spent a day in jail for state looting. He should stop pandering to big business and other interest groups. He should consult with community-based organisations. I am afraid that he simply ignores working-class voices. I hope I am wrong, but I am convinced that the virus will hit the working class hard and we will die in numbers. 

And, after reading through the answers of this community leader from Bishop Lavis, Abdul Karriem Matthews, I wonder to myself: will we really come out whole on the other side, or will we have to accept that the fabric of this nation is filled with gaping holes, and we are still living under this torn Rainbow Nation blanket? Or will we, as a country, sit down and reflect on Fannie Lou Hamer’s words, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” and remove the inequalities in our South African society?

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