Today, the South African restaurant industry participated in a nationwide demonstration called “One Million Seats in the Streets”, to protest the government’s treatment of the hospitality sector during the COVID-19 lockdown. The hashtag for the movement is #JobsSaveLives.
Although restaurants were permitted to re-open in June, their business is crippled by a ban on the sale of alcohol, a 9 p.m. curfew, and an ineffective unemployment insurance system. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South African restaurant workers, owners, and family members have lost most or all of their income.
I must admit, I’ve been a super hermit for the past few weeks and had been avoiding 7th Street — the restaurant row in my own suburb of Melville — because I feel so sad about all the restaurants closing. A lot of restaurants are either indefinitely shut or officially gone for good.
But today I forced myself to go to 7th Street to show my support.
The strategy of the protest was for restaurants to move all their tables out into the street, to garner attention and create a visual display of how empty the restaurants are. But I was pleased to see a good percentage of the outdoor tables on 7th Street occupied by actual people eating and drinking. There was music pumping out onto the street, and the vibe was decidedly cheerful.
Many of the restaurants had signs outside, or staff members outside holding signs, listing how many employees are affected by the regulations and how many jobs have been lost.
The current situation is dire for South Africa’s restaurant industry, as it is for so many other industries (and people) in South Africa and elsewhere. It’s impossible not to feel demoralized. And the truth is our economy is in huge trouble, regardless of the lockdown rules.
But I also saw a lot of optimism, resilience, and hope on 7th Street today. If anyone can survive this pandemic, it is the people of Melville.
I met a guy named David, who is setting up a community center/coffee shop/event space called Community at the corner of 4th Avenue and 7th Street. Community isn’t open yet and I’ll have to write more about it later. But I did learn Community has a fabulous wardrobe room at the back, filled with fancy costumes and a huge mirror surrounded by an opulent silver frame and gigantic, rainbow-colored feather headdresses.
“Why?” you might be asking. “Why now, David?”