On a normal Easter long weekend, the news in South Africa is a mixture of religious ceremonies and macabre statistics of bus- and car-crash death tolls. Ours is a country where people have, for decades, been forced to move for work. The apartheid bantustan system, as well as the use of labour from countries such as Lesotho for the mining industry, has meant we are often far from home.
Easter and Christmas are a chance for people to go home. Religious ceremonies help to anchor this movement, as people congregate around family dining tables and in church halls from Moria to Flagstaff, Stellenbosch to Marikana and everywhere else.
That won’t be happening this year. The 21-day lockdown was initiated with an eye on Easter. Without a vaccine, Covid-19 is best tackled by stopping people who have the disease from passing it on to others. The lockdown has ensured that people do not cross provincial borders and gave trackers and tracers a better chance to find anyone who might have been in contact with someone with Covid-19 so they can be tested and, if needed, isolated and treated for the symptoms.
This year Easter will have to be celebrated at a distance. On April 1, data prices at the two largest cellular-service providers dropped by a third. Fibre-internet providers have given users free upgrades. Internet providers have noted that traffic has increased up to 50% since the lockdown began.
At the Mail & Guardian, our newspaper is being published on Thursday so the people who make and distribute the paper do not have to work on the long weekend. Much of our newsroom, which is already operating remotely, will also be taking a break, although our website will still be sharing news and keeping on top of any breaking developments.
To peek through the door to see what people are doing this Easter and Passover weekend, we asked our reporters to share stories that they have heard or stories about what they are doing, be it attending virtual church services, religious ceremonies or taking this as a moment to breathe and come to terms with this extraordinary time.
For a small church in Vlakfontein, south of Johannesburg, this year’s Easter sermon will be conducted over Whatsapp. The goal is to comply with the lockdown regulations that prohibit public gatherings, while also observing the event together but apart, according to its senior pastor Sechaba Mothiane.
For the past two weeks, the church has not been gathering but Mothiane has been sending short messages to the congregants through the church’s Facebook page and Whatsapp groups. “This [pandemic] has pushed the church into the digital space and we have to change our message …When this lockdown is over the church will be in a stronger position,” he says.
Forest Town Methodist Church
The Forest Town Methodist Church in Johannesburg has been sending out weekly service outlines with links to music for congregants. One congregant called the outlines “a cross between a service and meditation”. Reverend James Baker, the minister of the church, said the lockdown has been a time for quiet contemplation.
“What we have experienced is we cannot reproduce the Sunday service. And we’re not trying to do that. But rather we’re trying to bring back the concept of church at home, with families being and worshiping together. And we pay special attention to those who are alone.”
Baker said he will send out the service outline as usual over the Easter weekend. Otherwise, he will be spending quiet time at home.
How pentecostal Christians celebrate Easter
In my household, Easter is all about acknowledging that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. He did not only do that; he defeated death by rising from the dead on the third day after he was crucified. Usually, we would go to a church conference that would last for three days for fellowship with other Christians and to commemorate Jesus Christ. Pastors would preach about the love of God for his children. It usually goes something like this: “God loves us so much that he sent his only begotten son to die for our sins”. Besides this, there is food. Plenty of food — from hot-cross buns to fish. Easter is also a time to eat. This year we will try to participate through our phones. — Thando Maeko
Queenstown, Eastern Cape
Bishop Mthobeli Elvis Matyumza started a WhatsApp group with the leaders of the church to share scripture readings, specific prayers and comments. The leaders under him then forward the message to all other congregants in the Queenstown district in the Eastern Cape.
This week is Holy Week in the Christian calendar and Matyumza says normally in the Methodist Church there would have been a church service every evening. So from Monday to Thursday he sent WhatsApp messages containing readings and comments, with observation scheduled from 9pm to 9.30pm.
Before the lockdown he produced a seven-word service (amazwi asixhenxe) with seven ministers in his district. The service will be posted on Facebook and YouTube on Friday morning. And he has also been distributing DVDs to those people, mostly the elderly, who do not have access to social media.
His message to all Christians during this time is: “God is working with us, striving to find a way forward and a cure because he has destined us for better life as humanity.”
Chillout on Instagram live
Instagram live has been my source of entertainment. Sometimes people overdo it. But it’s good that I can log on and off if a virtual music event is not as entertaining or fun. Once a month, a chilled house party called Breakfast @Khujo’s — after one of its hosts, DJ Khujo — is held at his home. They put speakers in the garden, and people come to drink, dance and dip their feet in the pool. On Sunday they’ll do an Instagram-live chillout between 2pm and 6pm, so people can tune in, watch and share at a distance. — Tshegofatso Mathe
Chaitra Navratri in India
The Diplomat reported that one elderly woman fears for her soul in India because she won’t be allowed to go to the temple on Thursday to celebrate the birthday of the Hindu god Ram, and she says she’s “feeling guilty”. Hindus around the world are in the midst of a nine-day period called Chaitra Navratri that began with what for many is considered the Hindu New Year and will culminate with the festival of Ram Navami. Normally there is fasting, mass worship, offerings in temples, and festivals. But this year, celebrations and prayers are home-bound events and if there is group worship, it is live-streamed.
QwaQwa, Free State
In the Free State town of QwaQwa, Reverend Reuben Sokana said that although this Easter will be different, he will motivate his congregants to stay in touch with family and donate food to those who need it the most. “We won’t be holding any gathering — to save peoples lives — and we are requesting everyone to pray at home. It is written in the book of Isaiah 26:20 that there will be a time of quarantine.” The verse reads: “Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.”
The Jewish holiday began on Wednesday and runs until next Thursday. There has been tension and conflicting guidance from different parts of the religious community about how people can observe Passover while sticking to strict traditions meaning, for example, people cannot use electricity. Some rabbis have argued in favour of people joining together through social media, especially those who are isolated and cannot benefit from the usual social vibrancy of religious gatherings.
The Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Square, a gathering point for Catholics, is normally packed during Easter as people come to hear the Pope share his Easter message, noting how one of its main characters, Jesus Christ, is recorded as dying on a cross and then rising to heaven. Pope Francis has already delivered his Palm Sunday address to an empty Basilica. The pope, in his early 80s, has been isolating, alongside other Catholic leaders, in the Vatican as the surrounding country of Italy became an epicentre of Covid-19 globally.
Food and zoom
We have began having set suppers with friends, where we share a recipe before and everyone cooks. The idea is to be finished before the Zoom call so you can sit down and eat with each other, while you share stories. Most of us haven’t finished cooking in time and others are still trying to convince children to go to bed. So it gets loud and confusing — just like meeting up for supper with friends. With friends in different countries, some going through difficult times and stuck alone in isolation, it is a chance to reach out. Although we aren’t religious, this long weekend will be a chance to talk more, eat more and share this moment. — Sipho Kings