The Covid time concertina

Jeremy Gordin says one year in, and everything appears to be falling apart

If you like being puzzled or even getting a small headache, look up the Wikipedia definition of “time”.

By the time (ha) you have considered “spacetime” and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as well as linear and circular time, not to mention time as understood by various philosophers – well, as I suggested a moment ago (ha ha), you might have a pain in the ol’ brain box.

What I don’t find in the article, however, is an explanation of what happens to one’s perception of time during a pandemic (as in Covid-19), especially during lockdowns and other restrictions.

For example, from March 2020 until now – this past year – seems to me to have been compressed, as though someone were pushing together the two March months like the opposing ends of a concertina.

It feels as if it was just yesterday – though it was in fact February 2020 – that my gorgeous wife and I were holidaying in the Knysna area.

So last Friday (the 19th) we sallied forth to drive about 500 kms and a bit from Johannesburg, via Polokwane (for a night), to Mapungubwe National Park, the original site (we are informed) of the erstwhile Kingdom of Mapungubwe [1]. There, with five friends, we planned to stay (and did) at the Tshugulu (Rhino) Lodge in the park until Human Rights Day.

What appealed to me among other things about this trip was that Mapungubwe is one of those “timeless” (“seemingly unaffected by time”) places like, say, Angkor Wat. Certainly, you might recall, former President Thabo Mbeki was much taken with places such as Mapungubwe and their timeless significance in terms of Africa and African civilization.

Now, the last time I visited Polokwane was for the 52nd National Conference of the ANC, 16-20 December 2007, which did not end up being Mbeki’s finest moment. Jacob Zuma and friends were swept into power – and by 2009 Zuma was president.

But today it’s March 25, 2021, a mere 14 years later – and this morning in the ConCourt, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, representing the Zondo commission, excoriated the former king of Polokwane, arguing that Zuma should be found in contempt of court and sentenced to a two-year jail-term.

Not only this, but lawyers acting for a former president in a divorce case said in the Pietermaritzburg high court on Tuesday that the former president is in fact pretty skint. Could this be? Could he have been misled by a certain family? I.e., they made the money and he received only cooldrink funds? Oddly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised.

We fast forward to Saturday afternoon. I stayed near the swimming pool to study a paperback and provide some entertainment for a visiting troop of baboons. My six travelling companions set off to drive the national park’s “Eco trail” (rough stuff) in one of the best-known makes of sports utility vehicle there is (clue: Prince Philip recently had an accident in one) – when ka-boom! The suspension was lost, then the power steering; probably the hydraulic line (if there is one) was ruptured.

What this meant was that much of the already brief time at our disposal was spent arranging for a tow truck for the early hours of Monday, no easy matter since part of the attraction of Tshugulu lodge was that there is no cell phone reception. No matter, we are an intrepid lot. The question though was: what had happened to the vehicle?

We fast backward – to the journey from Polokwane. The next stop, 150 kms northwards, is the buzzing metropolis of Alldays. Those 150 kms are simply unplayable, as are, for that matter, the 70 kms from Alldays to Mapungubwe.

Some of the potholes are so large and deep that you could easily run a gift shop inside them. In some places, the tar is completely sheared away as if a giant had lacerated the road with a giant cat o’ nine tails.

Methinks that’s where the SUV got injured (not on the Eco trail). My wife and I, driving our elderly sedan, took 90 minutes longer than our friend in the SUV on that leg of the journey. We were forced to; if we’d hit just one of those potholes, we’d have blown a tyre. We had to play dodgem cars for 220 kms, except that we were dodging potholes, and we also often had to drive on the wrong side of the road – good thing there was scant traffic.

Did you, by the way, read Gareth van Onselen’s fine article, ‘Joburg is dying’? Well, on Sunday, while Joburg was dying and we were shuttling back and forth from the lodge to the main gate of the national park, where there was some cell phone reception, some people were reading in the Joburg Sunday Times that “Nelson Mandela's once-elegant Houghton home in Johannesburg – which hosted some of the world's leading figures while the former president was alive – is now an abandoned eyesore”. The article has photographs too.

Apparently, the house in 12th Avenue was occupied until last year by Mandela’s grandchildren, Ndaba, Mbuso and Andile, sons of the late Makgatho Mandela, Madiba’s son by his first wife, Evelyn. Ndaba said the three moved out after the Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (NRM) Family Trust stopped paying the utility bills.

Ndaba Mandela has claimed the Trust want to sell the house, which is why it stopped paying. Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke and advocate Wim Trengove, who are trustees, said the Trust stopped paying the bills after they suddenly more than tripled to about R50 000 a month. The problem (according to Ndaba)? A water leak.

To summarize. A tourist landing at OR Tambo and wanting to see the austere and gorgeous Mapungubwe, well run by the helpful SANParks staff, the kind of place Mbeki treasured, can’t hire a car and drive there – well, not along the most direct route – because the roads are ruined.

The erstwhile president of the republic, he who would be king, and indeed was for a while, not only can’t find the boodle for an estranged wife (so he says) but is actually facing jail time (theoretically anyway) after not even bothering to be represented in court.

The home of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the country’s first black head of state, whose government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid and fostering racial reconciliation, a secular saint – his home has become an “eyesore”.

All quite sad. The imprecations of time, do you think? Or am I missing something? 


[1] As Wikipedia tells us, Mapungubwe (c.1075–1220) was a medieval state in South Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. The name is derived from either TjiKalanga or Tshivenda. The kingdom was the first stage in a development that would culminate in the creation of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the 13th century, with gold trading links to the African east coast. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe lasted about 80 years, and at its height the capital’s population was about 5000 people. The Mapungubwe Collection of artifacts found at the archaeological site is housed in the Mapungubwe Museum in Pretoria.