Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa

Part of the African Arguments series
April 2022 9781787385733 320pp


This book explores the impact of Covid-19, and the associated state lockdown, on rural lives in a former homeland in South Africa. The 2020 Disaster Management Act saw the state sweep through rural areas, targeting funerals and other customary practices as potential ‘super-spreader’ events. This unprecedented clampdown produced widespread disruption, fear and anxiety. The authors build on path-breaking work concerning local responses to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, and examine the HIV/AIDS pandemic, to understand the impact of the Covid crisis on these communities, and on rural Africa more broadly.

To shed light on the role of custom and ritual in rural social change during the pandemic, Covid and Custom in Rural South Africa applies long-term historical and ethnographic research; theories of people’s science, local knowledge and the human economy; and fieldwork conducted in ten rural South African communities during lockdown. The volume highlights differences between developments in Southern Africa and elsewhere on the continent, while exploring how the former apartheid homelands–commonly, yet problematically, represented as former ‘labour reserves’–have since been reconstituted as new home-spaces. In short, it explains why rural people have been so angered by the state’s assault on their cultural practices and institutions in the time of Covid.



Leslie Bank, Adjunct Professor of Social Anthropology at Walter Sisulu University, is in the South African Human Sciences Research Council's Inclusive Economic Development division.

Nelly Sharpley is a medical sociologist. Formerly head of Social Sciences at Walter Sisulu University, she now leads Special Projects in the office of the vice-chancellor.  

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