Finding ubuntu in action under lockdown

Dr Jess Auerbach with Archive of Kindness, which tells the stories of goodness in a society under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

The Covid-19 lockdown has, at times, shown us the uglier side of human nature, but it has also inspired many of us to put the needs of others before our own. It’s our capacity for good, the spirit of ubuntu, that a new book, Archive of Kindness, explores.

Launched at the Community Kitchen, in Muizenberg, on Saturday, Archive of Kindness is a compilation of stories – selected from 2000 submissions – based on random acts of kindness shown by regular people, to other regular people, during lockdown.

The stories in the book are compiled by Dr Jess Auerbach, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at North West University, on the Potchefstroom campus. She was trained at UCT, Oxford and Stanford universities.

After 10 years living and working abroad, Dr Auerbach and her partner settled back in South Africa, bought a home and planned to work and grow roots.

Except, the Covid-19 pandemic hit suddenly and hard: the people in the home they had just bought could not move out. Jess’s partner’s architectural practice imploded.

“We were helped out of our bind in the most unusual and unexpected way: one of our soon-to-be neighbours heard what had happened, moved out of her own home into her brother’s place, and gave us the key to her home for the duration of lockdown, or as needed,” says Dr Auerbach.

The neighbour (who did not want to be named and remained anonymous in the book) did not even know their surname at the time.

Dr Auerbach says the act of kindness made a big impact on her, and she started to see similar things happening all around her, including the development of the various Community Action Networks that started helping the needy.

With Dr Auerbach’s field of work being all about the study of societies, cultures and their development, she could not pass up the opportunity to explore this further. And the Covid-19 pandemic presented the ideal focus for it.

It was only when her students were needing to learn remotely that the socio-economic gaps between them started to show, she says. Dr Auerbach encouraged them to find stories about kindness from their communities as part of their studies.

“Anthropology is all about letting people’s stories be told, accurately, authentically,” she says.

The students were asked to either provide 50 stories each, or 25 stories and an essay. “Most of them chose 50 stories,” she says.

The resulting book features stories chosen from the 2000 submissions received.

Colleen Higgs (who publishes local women authors) put Dr Auerbach in touch with BK Publishing in Pretoria, and the project was given a grant to find a promising artist to illustrate the book and publish it – showing another side to a country that Dr Auerbach acknowledges has its problems but is also nowhere near the systemic collapse some think it is.

Jethro Longwe, 36, a graphic designer and recent graduate of the Ruth Prowse School of Fine Art in Cape Town, was chosen to illustrate the book.

Longwe dedicated his work in the book to his lecturer, Mernette Swartz, whose encouragement, he says, helped him finish his studies.

The book is powerful, he says, because it shows kindness has no race or age or delineations and that a kind act, while it need not be a big thing, is an important thing.

His part was to read and understand the stories then create images that represent them.

Proceeds of the book sale are going to the materials fund at Ruth Prowse. The book is available for sale at Muizenberg Community Kitchen.

For more information, visit: www.archiveofkindness.co.za and submit your own story for inclusion in future editions.