Covid-19 worsens hunger and thirst in Eastern Cape

In several rural and peri-urban settlements in the province, impoverished residents can only dream of food aid and a consistent supply of clean water during the Covid-19 lockdown.

A coalition of more than 30 activist groups and social movements in the Eastern Cape has called for an urgent meeting with the province’s premier, Oscar Mabuyane, over the scarcity of food aid and water during the coronavirus lockdown.

The coalition is coordinated by the Unemployed People’s Movement, Inyanda National Land Movement, Eastern Cape Water Caucus and the non-profit organisation Abanebhongo, which represents persons with disabilities. It says dozens of villages and towns across the province, from Cala near Mthatha to Makhanda and Port Alfred, have either muddy and dirty water, an irregular water supply, or no water at all. 

In a letter to Mabuyane, the coalition describes a dire situation in the province. “The promised JoJo tanks have not been delivered … in the OR Tambo district barely 6% of homes have piped water, while less than one tenth of households have flush toilets. The district is home to almost one-and-a-half million people – two-thirds of whom are under the age of 25. Yet most young people are unemployed. Only 18% of residents have finished school. Close to 60% of households are headed by women, many of whom are pensioners.” 

The coalition says food aid promised by the government has not materialised. “This is a case of murderous neglect. The rare food parcels are not adequately available, and when they do arrive, there are documented cases of ward councillors capturing [them] for distribution through patronage networks. 

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“We should remember that over 40% of the people in the Eastern Cape of working age have little or no chances of finding employment. Thus, how are people supposed to respect the lockdown on empty stomachs and without water?” the coalition asks.

Calling on Mabuyane to “understand that the pandemic does not follow party-political lines but will affect anyone, irrespective of political affiliation”, the coalition says he must immediately deliver “the promised JoJo tanks and food parcels, and establish an emergency communication centre where abuses by officials are reported”.

Mabuyane had promised to have an online meeting with the activists on Sunday 12 April, but his chief of staff, Baphelele Mhlaba, postponed it minutes before it was due to start.

Municipal dysfunction 

One of the signatories of the letter, Ntsika Mateta of the Eastern Cape Water Caucus, confirms that several villages in the Amathole District Municipality have not had running water during the entire lockdown so far. Amathole covers dozens of rural villages in six local municipalities, between the mouth of the Fish River and just south of the Hole in the Wall on the Wild Coast.

“Nxopho, Bhele and Gobozane villages are without running water and no trucks have been sent out yet. Ward 4 of the Raymond Mhlaba [Local] Municipality has been without water in the past few months due to unavailability of diesel to pump water from the reservoirs. We did follow up, inquiring about the issue. They say they have no feasible plan to offer water trucks to communities and also no water relief for small-scale farmers,” said Mateta.

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“There is no food relief in any of these villages. We get the feeling that the municipality is failing to deliver water to many areas because they have inadequate infrastructure, and there is not enough accountability from officials who are in charge of water services.” 

About 200km away in Port Elizabeth, residents of the Airport Valley shack settlement, which borders the city’s international airport, live in crowded spaces with communal taps and toilets. According to the chairperson of a residents’ committee, Zama Mona, there are over 2 200 families in the settlement. Many of the shacks have only one room and it is difficult for the residents to maintain a physical distance from each other.

24 March 2020: Zama Mona, chairperson of the residents’ association in Airport Valley, is pictured here two days before the Covid-19 lockdown began.
24 March 2020: Zama Mona, chairperson of the Airport Valley community association pictured two days before the lockdown began.

Most of the residents who have jobs work in the informal sector, says Mona, and some, especially domestic workers, have been badly affected by lay-offs since the lockdown started. “They were put on unpaid leave because their employers said coronavirus is not their problem and the government must do something about it … There is nothing coming in. We are in an environment where there are no food gardens.” 

Those who work in recycling have also faced more than three weeks with no work and no pay, he says.

Dozens of residents are used to receiving a cooked meal at the Methodist Church kitchen every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and they get food to take home on Tuesday and Thursday. But the church has had to shut down the meals service and can only drop off food on Wednesdays.

Many children in the settlement were eating at their newly built creche before the lockdown, but it has been closed for almost a month now. Teacher Thobeka Mbada, 61, says people cannot pay creche fees during the lockdown and so she will not get paid. She supports her daughter, Nombulelo Zweni, 23, and her three-month-old granddaughter.

24 March 2020: Thobeka Mbada, an Airport Valley resident and teacher at the newly built creche, is not getting paid during lockdown because the facility is closed
24 March 2020: Thobeka Mbada, an Airport Valley resident and teacher at the newly built creche, is not getting paid during lockdown because the facility is closed

Mbada says the government should have supplied “sanitisers, foodstuffs and water” before announcing the lockdown. “Government is not doing enough to test people [for Covid-19],” she added. “When we heard about the lockdown, we were expecting to see nurses coming in here to test people.” 

Fourteen days into the lockdown, Mona told New Frame that government officials had visited the area and registered many residents for food aid, but it was unclear when it would be delivered.

“The people have been really stuck for food. At least we don’t have water shortages. But we still don’t have sanitisers or masks,” he said, adding that it was too early to criticise the government and the committee would rather wait and see whether the food aid arrived.

Water concerns in Makhanda

In Makhanda, the Nkanini shack settlement has only five taps for 700 families, estimates Ntombovuyo Salman of the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement. The residents built their shacks five years ago on a large piece of land and most families have quite a big, fenced yard, which means they can practise social distancing. 

But owing to the ongoing drought and the collapse of Makhanda’s water system several years ago, few families have been able to grow vegetable gardens, and the communal taps make complete isolation during lockdown impossible. “Most of the taps don’t work,” said Salman. “The other taps work and the municipality closes them. We drink from a drain.” 

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The “drain” is actually an underground pipe situated about a kilometre from her house that comes out of the ground for about a metre before going back underground. The concrete blocks encasing it above ground fill up with water from leaks. There are no manhole covers for the holes, and Salman says they are often full of snakes. She does not know whose pipe it is or what kind of water it contains, but says residents use it all the time. 

“Everyone goes there. We share the water with the animals who drink there – donkeys and cows. It is dangerous … We use the water for drinking and everything; it is not clean,” Salman said.

The municipality said it would not turn off any water supply during the lockdown, she added, but it has done so for a whole day on more than one occasion, and the JoJo tanks that were promised have not arrived.

Hunger and thirst in Mount Frere

Far away in Mount Frere, closer to the border with KwaZulu-Natal, Madosini Peter of the Farmers Network South Africa says the non-governmental organisation has had to buy bread for homeless people after nothing was provided for them. In the villages, she says, people have filled in the necessary forms for food relief, but almost two weeks later they are still waiting. “Now it’s getting worse … people are hungry.” 

Of the 470 hawkers who cannot work during the lockdown, only 40 have received assistance. “True ukuthula akuncedisi but ukubambisana kuloondawo kuyancedisa [Being silent doesn’t help, but being united helps],” said Peter.

Peter says she’s been told that councillors try their best to access food aid, but government officials insist that applicants supply certified copies of their identity documents. Shops providing photocopying services are either far away or closed. Some ward councillors also allege that they’ve been told to reduce the number of names of vulnerable people needing food aid from 1 500 to 43. 

Because food aid has not materialised in Mount Frere, some residents have started a feeding scheme. The food runs out quickly, though, says activist Ace Ncobo. “The issue has now reached crisis proportions. The most painful moment is when the food finishes whilst the queue is still long. If these people were given their food parcels, they’d cook enough for themselves inside their own shacks.” 

Nosintu Mcimeli, who leads Abanebhongo in Mount Frere, says no water has flown from their taps for a whole year. Once the lockdown started, the water was turned on for a few days only. “I am not sure how long they [the taps] will be closed. There are no food parcels yet,” Mcimeli added.

25 March 2020: Ntombovuyo Salman, who lives in Nkanini outside Makhanda, collects water from an exposed water pipe each time the few taps in the area run dry.
25 March 2020: Ntombovuyo Salman, who lives in Nkanini outside Makhanda, collects water from an exposed water pipe each time the few taps in the area run dry.

Mcimeli says small-scale farmers in the area are struggling to access money from the R1.2 billion emergency fund announced by Thoko Didiza, the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, on 6 April. She has downloaded the “long and complicated form” and is helping these farmers to email their applications before the deadline on 22 April.

“The challenge with filling in the form is that it takes lots of data as it is in Word, and our internet cafe is closed,” Mcimeli said.

The spokespersons for Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, Umzimvubu Local Municipality, under which Mount Frere falls, Makana Local Municipality and Amathole District Municipality did not respond to questions about the areas without water.

Xolile Nqatha, member of the executive council for co-operative governance and traditional affairs, said he has a “keen interest” to meet the leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement, Ayanda Kota, and would brief him on the department’s efforts to ensure the Eastern Cape has water.

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