Covid-19: The government officials only visit our shacks when they want our votes, not when we need food

Journalist: Antonio Capalandanda
Artist: Diane Webb

Cape Town, May 29, 2020

With the first positive case reported in South Africa in March 2020, Covid 19 threatens to destroy the lives of many poor South Africans. The UN Country Team in South Africa warns that although South Africa is considered a middle income country, the number of disparities – social, economic and gender – makes the country particularly vulnerable during this emergency.

“For example, 33% of the urban population is concentrated in overcrowded slums; if coronavirus reaches that population, the likelihood of excess morbidity and mortality is a very real prospect,” said the UN in its Emergency Appeal for the Impact of Covid-19 in South Africa on May 1.

Alex Broadbent, director of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge and professor of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, told #Kizola that South Africa was not prepared to deal with COVID-19.

” The state is not competent due to a decade of sponsoring meritocracy, the economy is weak, labour relations are strained, politicians at national and local levels are often incompetent and corrupt, public spending is out of control, the ease of doing business is low, and so on.”

On March 5, when Italy saw an increase in cases to 10,149, with deaths rising to 631, South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed that a suspected case of COVID-19 was positive. It was the first such case in South Africa.

According to NICD, the patient was a 38-year-old man who had travelled to Italy with his wife. They were part of a group of 10 people and arrived back in South Africa on March 1, 2020.

The outbreak of COVID-19 began in the city of Wuhan in China and has widely spread worldwide. On Dec 31, 2019, China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in people at Wuhan, Hubei Province.

“Access to water is a constitutional right, not a privilege” said Amnesty International in South Africa in a report released on April 15, 2020

Mandisi Sindo
 Liso Sindo

According to the UN Country Team in South Africa, “although the first cases were imported, local transmission led to a rapid increase in the number of  cases.”

But South African President Cyril Ramaphosa reassures the population. On May 21, he said  that without the lock-down, the number of coronavirus infections would have increased uncontrollably.

” The best current estimate is that, without the lock-down and the other measures we have taken, at least 80,000 South Africans could already be infected. And the death toll could have been at least  eight times higher than it is.”

By May  28 the total number of confirmed cases is 27 403, 14 370 recoveries and 577  COVID-19 related deaths.  In Africa,  124,846 cases were recorded; the five countries that report the most cases were South Africa, followed by  Egypt (19,666 cases), Algeria (8,697), Nigeria (8,857) and Morocco (7,601).

On March 22, 2020 President Ramaphosa had declared a state of national disaster, with a lock-down imposed from March 27, where the government took several measures to contain the spread of the virus, including closing borders, implementing strict social distance measures, and extensive screening and testing nationwide.

Western Cape Prime Minister Alan Winde announced on March 29, 2020 that Khayelitsha had registered its first case of  Covid-19 when infections in the Western Cape rose to 310. By May 26, Khayelitsha had recorded 2004 cases.

Khayelitsha, situated on the outskirts of Cape Town, is the second-largest mainly black township  in the country and has a population of and estimated 500 000. 

Theater director and founder of the Khayelitsha Art School & Rehabilitation Center (KASI RC), Mandisi Sindo 30, who was born in and still lives in Khayelitsha, says families often have seven to 10 people living together in a shack. There is no social distance as the shacks are close to each other.

The lack of water provision and sanitation in the township are also major problems. There is a lack of water and soap to wash  hands frequently  a requirement to help beat the spread of the virus.   Also, hundreds of residents often share one block of community bathrooms. 

Days before the lock-down started, a group of about 40 Khayelitsha residents were protesting against the lack of water in the community.

“Access to water is a constitutional right, not a privilege” said Amnesty International in South Africa in a report released on April 15, 2020, entitled Turn on the Tap Today. “At the moment, however, about 1 in 3 people in South Africa does not have access to safe or reliable water. There are about 20 million people.”

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu denied that access to water was a problem in South Africa, but her team was forced to draw up emergency plans to provide water to the most needy during the lockdown.

Turn theatre into soup kitchen

Sindo said that he and his wife, Liso,  created the KASI Arts School & Rehabilitation Centre (Kasi RC) in 2017. Liso is the co-director of theatre for KASI RC. It is a shack- theatre located in the heart of Khayelitsha, where residents and visitors can enjoy the performing arts and participate in educational workshops.

They train more than 80 unemployed young people daily and help them to find jobs, internships and collaborations for those who have graduated. However, with the lockdown  Sindo and Liso have shifted their focus to cooking for the children in the community.

“When the President announced the lockdown, we had to close the theatre because we didn’t want to put our children / students in danger,” said Mandisi “shortly after we closed, it wasn’t even a day or two that our students were already back at the shack-theatre because they were looking for something to eat. Some stayed at our house all day. “

The couple decided to turn the theatre into a soup kitchen for their students on the first Friday of confinement.

“We thought that only our 80 children would come, but later that day we saw some young and old people who were  not part of the programme arriving to get food. From then on, we saw that the whole community needed assistance in this difficult time. “

Protests and looting erupted in South Africa

Approximately 13.4 million families had inadequate or severely inadequate access to food, and about 1.6 million families experienced hunger in 2017, according to a report, Food Security in South Africa, published by Statistics South Africa,  in 2019.

” Households headed by females and those headed by black Africans are more likely to experience hunger and inadequate or severely inadequate access to food. Households with a higher number of young children and those that are bigger in size are more likely to experience hunger and inadequate or severely inadequate access to food,” said the report.

According to the UN Country Team in South Africa, “despite its position as a middle-high income country, almost half of all households in the country struggle to meet their basic food needs and are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in the dynamics of the (food) market.”

South Africa’s national statistical service indicates poverty as the cause of hunger in the country.  ” The majority of these households were headed by black Africans (91,1%), followed by Coloured people (7,3%), white people (1,3%) and Indians/Asians (0,4%).”

With thousands of people living below the poverty line, restrictions on movement under the lock-down caused even more hunger and fear.

Protests and looting started across South Africa, with civil unrest gaining momentum as the lock-down continued, and people see their precarious livelihoods disappear because of the restrictions.

“When government officials want our votes, they visit our shacks and villages door to door. Now they find it difficult to deliver food for the needy door to door,” said Sindo, adding that “black and poor people are still  left behind to starve to death.”

In Khayelitsha, the demand for food at KASI RC increased, with the number of people in long queues waiting for a meal, growing from 80 to 300 people in the first week of the lock-down.

Meanwhile, in Mitchells Plain, a largely mainly Coloured township next to Khayelitsha, hundreds of angry people were fighting battles with the police, throwing stones and setting up street barricades with burning tyres for undelivered food supplies.

“Without government support, confinement can become a matter of life and death,” said Deprose Muchena, director of Amnesty International for East and Southern Africa, in a statement issued on  17 April 17, 2020, addressed to leaders in Southern Africa.

Also, the South African Department of Basic Education said that at least 962 schools across the country had been burned or vandalised since the start of the national lock-down.

The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, who was speaking at a press conference on April 30, said that vandals targeted mostly the  administrative blocks and laboratories, with  mainly Information and Communication Technology (ICT) equipment stolen. The Umlazi district in KwaZulu-Natal was among the hardest hit, with 41 schools affected.

Food for the school nutrition programme was also stolen, according to Motshekga.

The lock-down put citizens already without money under more pressure. In response, President Ramaphosa announced that the number of people receiving food parcels would be increased.  But protests and looting of supermarkets continued  in different parts of the country due to a lack of access to food parcels delivered by authorities.

Videos posted on social media and not verified by #Kizola, show crowds launching a series of attacks on delivery trucks in Cape Town, stoning, hijacking and looting vehicles to try to take food and other supplies during the lockdown.

“A man said to me, ‘I would rather die of Covid-19 than from hunger,” Cape Town African National Congress (ANC) Ward 22 councillor Bongani Ngcani told News24, adding” people are looking for food everywhere.”

Also, several suspects  were arrested for looting at various liquor stores across the country. Then, mass evictions also continued, despite an official moratorium on the practice, resulting in  demonstrations in Khayelitsha, after people were forced to leave their homes because they were unable to pay rent. Police dispersed the protests  using rubber bullets and pepper spray.

“Food, clothing and, shelter are basic necessities, and this is what is most lacking in municipalities; that is why people build shacks because they need shelter to keep warm,” said Mandisi.

On April 27, the United Nations  Human Rights Office  raised concerns about the use of excessive force in several countries, including South Africa, as governments enforce lockdown in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19.

” In South Africa, the U.N. has received reports of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips, to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighborhoods. Thirty-nine complaints including murder, rape, use of firearms and corruption are being investigated,” said   U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

On May 15 South Africa’s High Court ordered the suspension   of soldiers and police officers who were at or near the home of a man who was killed last month, following allegations he was beaten to death by security forces.

The family of Collins Khosa, who died in the poor township of Alexandra on April 10, launched the case to try to combat what they described as torture and brutality by security forces since South Africa began a lockdown to contain the coronavirus.

The Arrival
The dream of unreason
Never the same

Women  struggling

Currently, the prevalence of stunting and malnutrition among children under five years old is 27% (1.5 million) and 2.5% (360,500),  respectively, according to UNICEF.

The UN Country Team in South Africa also warns of the significant failure of breastfeeding efforts due to inaccurate information about Covid- 19 viral transmission from mother to child.

“A significant impact on the quality of children’s and women’s diets (frequency, quantity and diversity) (is) due to problems in food systems (access to food) and a rise in food prices. Also, there is an increase in the number of malnourished children who need food and therapeutic care due to poor breastfeeding practices, poorer diets, increased morbidity and disruption of primary health care systems. “

The government claims that the prices of essential products decreased by 0.5% during the  level 5 lock-down  in April. But on April 28, 2020, in a report on Covid-19 and food prices in South Africa, the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group showed that at a time when women have less money in their pockets to buy food- the prices actually increased, limiting women’s ability to feed their children.

” Over the past two months (from March 2, 2020 to  April 23, 2020) the cost of feeding children a basic nutritious diet increased by R29,47 (4,6%) from R640,83 on March 2, 2020 to R670,30 on April 23, 2020,” the group said.

“In most household’s, food starts running out between the second and  third week of every month; with the lockdown, food has run out quicker. In a normal month, families just push through until the end of the month.

” But now, at a time when families are in an even more unbearable situation than normal,[ South African Social Security Agency ] pushed back the grant payout date to the 4th and 6th of May,” said the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, “with all the talk of the top-up in grants – this money is not yet in our hands. Children are getting hungry, and for every child that is hungry know that women are even hungrier because women sacrifice their own nutritional needs for their families.” 

On April 21, 2020 Ramaphosa announced that the government had introduced an economic and social assistance package worth more than R500 billion to help companies in distress, save jobs and provide some income to informal workers and poor families. On May 13, 2020 Ramaphosa revealed that earlier that month, the government paid an additional R5 billion to beneficiaries of social subsidies to help poor families at a time when other sources of income were cut off.

The annual government Child Support Grant increase as per Budget 2020 is R20. A R10 increase was effected on April 1, 2020 (government splits the annual increase in 2 tranches: the first in April and the second in October).  The total value of the Child Support Grant as from April 2020 is R440 per month.

The food poverty line calculated by Statistics South Africa is R561 per capita per month (latest April 2019).

According to The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, the top-up of R500 per child (as announced in the president’s Speech) signalled that the government understood the importance of securing the nutritional needs of children, particularly  in the face of a vicious pandemic and deepening economic crisis.

” By reverting back to R440, just one month after increasing the grant, and then splitting R500 between all the family members in need suggests that  actually government doesn’t understand the purpose and importance of the Child Support Grant or South Africa’s unique social security  system, or South Africa’s economic crisis, the affordability crisis in the homes of millions of South Africans, and nor do they seem to  understand our poverty and inequality, or that the majority of South Africans have almost no more capacity to absorb shocks. The  consequences of the government’s decision will have both immediate short-term and long-term consequences – none of them good,” said the group.

Controversy in food distribution

Quoted by the Sunday Times, Paula Proudlock, legal researcher at the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, said that  the country’s 10 million children who benefitted from school feeding schemes  were now at home.

“The meal they received daily was often the only meal for many. There are 13 million children receiving child support benefits, but many of the caregivers, who supplement the donation with informal employment, cannot work because of the regulations,” she said.

During the closing of the schools, the primary responsibility for feeding the vulnerable was transferred to the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), under the Department of Social Development (DSD).

On April 14, 2020, NGOs wrote to the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, asking for the opening of schools to serve as food collection points for families who normally benefitted from the school feeding scheme.

But Gauteng provincial premier David Makhura denied the request almost immediately. “If we reopen our schools for school feeding, we will be putting these children at risk. We will be violating the rules of social distance,” he said.

On April 16, 2020 the Western Cape Department of Education had announced that R18 million had been allocated by the provincial treasury for schools to distribute food, with private schools authorised to offer daily meals. This action provoked criticism from the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), due to the health problems raised by Makhura.

Corruption  with food parcels

Corruption Watch said it saluted the government’s R500 billion to help address the socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it urged the government to take steps to mitigate and reduce opportunities for corruption during this period, and also to take swift action against those involved in corrupt activities at the expense of the most vulnerable in our communities.

The way in which these programmes were implemented, including the Solidarity Fund and the distribution of food, seems to point to growing evidence of corruption and maladministration,” read its statement.

Media and social media reports suggested that in some parts of the country people, including government officials and councillors, were accused of stealing food parcels.

For example, the largest opposition party in South Africa,  Democratic Alliance (DA),  in the Northern Cape has appealed to the Dawid Kruiper municipality to take criminal action against the council; or and ward 14 committee members accused of stealing food packages in Leerkans.

According to report on April 16, 2020 in The Citizen, the DA’s provincial chairperson, Harold McGluwa, said that members of the Leerkans community have reported the councillor and committee members to the police.

Sindo  said that his organization has never received government support and he claimed that some councillors  manipulated the process about who received the food parcels.

” These parcels don’t even reach the people in need. They [government officials and councillors  in particular] are selective, choosing their families and friends.”

Joshua Covenant Chigome,  spokesperson for the MEC  of Social Development in the Western Cape,  said:

 “I can confirm that we have not had any cases or allegations of corruption around food parcels.”

Some councillors were accused of giving parcels only to their relatives and members of their constituencies, thus sowing, according to Corruption Watch “serious divisions in the communities.”

In Bontehewel, ward councillor Angus McKenzie is accused of giving food parcels only to members of his party, the  Democratic Alliance.

“What I can say, however, is that our DA councillor is raising funds for food and distributes it only among members of the DA and the feeding schemes administered by members of the DA,” Henriette Abrahams, chairperson of the Bonteheuwel Development Forum, told #Kizola.

McKenzie denied the allegations. “We received 20 boxes of dry food from the mayor, and distributed these to 10 families (who were) the poorest and most vulnerable.”

Sean Muller, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg,  told # Kizola that SA is a country that is economically ill-prepared and has a highly unequal health system.

” The national debt relative to the size of the economy (GDP) was at its highest level (at the time the Covid-19 pandemic started in SA,) and a significant increase in the coming years was already expected. To address this, the government has started to find ways to reduce the number of public sector workers, including in the already insufficient health system, and was trying to reduce public sector wages, also when the current crisis occurred. “

Muller added that the private system is relatively good, but very expensive and inaccessible to the vast majority of the population.

” The public system has few resources and, even where there are good employees or institutions, they are often overwhelmed by the scale of demand.”

“The fundamental policy challenge is to strike a balance between public health measures to protect citizens who are vulnerable to serious complications or death, and economic and social policy measures to protect households and businesses worst affected by those measures (and the broader global economic situation),” said Muller.

On April 27, 2020 altogether 217 members of the Cuban Medical Brigade landed in South Africa to help fight Covid-19, especially in townships where fighting the coronavirus is a very delicate mission.

An expected eight million people will return to work on 1 June when the country implements Level 3 of the Covid-19 lockdown. The virus continues to spread rapidly.

In a TV interview with SABC News on, May 19, 2020 United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said: “If we let the disease spread, no economic recovery will be possible.”

The Danger