Destitute Karoo residents barely survive Covid-19

Living lives of desperation in rural areas where food is almost as scarce as work, the Eastern Cape Karoo’s impoverished are struggling to make it through the pandemic.

Small Karoo towns in the Eastern Cape that have been spared the worst of the coronavirus infections and deaths have not been spared the other devastating impacts of the lockdown. The towns are filled with starving people who cannot take their chronic medication without food, and as a result they get sicker every day.

Phumla Seane, a senior nurse at the Wongalethu Clinic in Klipplaat, has seen dozens of patients defaulting on their treatment for high blood pressure, heart disease, tuberculosis and HIV since the lockdown began, when all possibilities of casual work in the town came to an abrupt halt. But the situation was bad even before then.

“There is no work in this place. There is nothing that makes people feel they should wake up in the morning,” she said. “I have seen cases that are not getting better for more than two years, to the point where I ask where are the resources of this country and where is anyone who is kind?” 

Klipplaat is about 184km inland from Port Elizabeth. According to the 2011 census, it had fewer than 3 000 residents. A rusting train lies abandoned at its entrance, mirroring the sense of abandonment of the town itself, with its tiny three-room dwellings built during apartheid, newer RDP houses and empty, dusty streets.

When disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers pulled into the town, the only signs of life were municipal workers filling two tanks with water, which is trucked in daily for residents to collect in buckets. About 200 people quickly emerged from run-down houses when they saw the food aid truck.

The small Karoo towns in the Eastern Cape that are struggling with the devastating impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The small Karoo towns in the Eastern Cape that are struggling with the devastating impact of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Life in the town was unfathomably difficult even before the lockdown, but now it had become unsurvivable, said Seane who had asked Gift of the Givers to distribute food aid in Klipplaat so that sick residents could take their medication. It was the first time the organisation visited this town, but it has a 28-year track record of providing emergency relief to communities all over the world.

Its Eastern Cape coordinator, Corene Conradie, said Deputy Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Pam Tshwete contacted her to say there had not been a single case of Covid-19 in Klipplaat and Gift of the Givers should take special care with social distancing and sanitation.

Staving off hunger

In total, the organisation delivered more than 1 000 food parcels to seven small Karoo towns over two days. Each parcel contained tinned fish, tinned beans, jam, beef-flavoured noodles, porridge, tea, salt, oil and 10kg of rice and maize each. But in Klipplaat, when the Gift of the Givers truck arrived on Thursday 6 August, the process was fraught with difficulty. 

Seane had compiled an exhaustive list of 400 families who do not get grants and have no work or food, but with the entire town devastated by the lockdown, there was never going to be enough food for everybody. Only 11 food parcels had been provided by the government during the lockdown. So when ANC ward councillor Louis Langeveldt and the ward committee arrived to marshal people into lines, the residents who had already gathered in the street when they saw the truck became angry.

“The councillors of this town, the ANC and the DA, don’t do anything for us. Our youngsters are jobless, school-less, suffering! We are very angry. It is outrageous. We are fed up!” said resident Chyne Jacodusa. “I already know I am not getting a parcel. I won’t even look for my name on that list. I will rather just continue suffering. You will see for yourself today how it is here in Klipplaat. That is why I am not going to vote.” 

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Another resident walked past and yelled: “Don’t take a photo of me as I didn’t get a food parcel!” “I am very hungry and that is the main problem!” another shouted.

Single mother of three Felicity Johnson, 37, said the lockdown had been terrible. “It affected our lifestyle because, in the lockdown, food prices are rising and the grant we get is no longer enough. We are jobless because there are no more char jobs or washing jobs. A R5 half loaf of bread is now R8.”

Johnson was thankful there had been no Covid-19 cases in the town. “I have no idea how we would get tested. You can see for yourself that it is a small town.”  

5 August 2020: Klipplaat residents wait for food parcels. For many, it is the first food relief they have received since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown.
5 August 2020: Klipplaat residents wait for food parcels. For many, it is the first food relief they have received since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

No grants, no casual work

Both Jacodusa and Johnson said thousands of people in Klipplaat do not get grants and survive on casual work in town and on neighbouring farms. Most of the white commercial livestock  farmers in the Eastern Cape Karoo shut their gates to outsiders during the lockdown and barred even permanent farm workers from leaving the farms to prevent the spread of the virus. This negatively affected residents who lost the opportunity of casual work.

At another food-aid drop-off point in Klipplaat, close to a monument bearing the names of 16 anti-apartheid activists who were killed in the struggle, elderly people arrived on crutches and in wheelchairs, their grandchildren pushing wheelbarrows to carry the food home. 

“I am so pleased today. This is more food than I have had at home in many years,” said Sindiswa Phakathi, 58. There is only one child grant of R470 a month in her family, of which R180 is spent on a 25kg bag of maize meal and the rest on sugar, salt, electricity and transport to Jansenville, 33km away, where the shops are. The family buys tinned food throughout the month and more maize meal if they earn anything from casual jobs, which have dried up during the lockdown.

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A resident, who did not want to be named, said: “We don’t only like the Givers because they bring food. Yes, we love the food, but we like the Givers because they are not corrupt. They don’t steal from the people. We wish they could be the government.”

Ellen Kamp, 60, said life had always been bad in Klipplaat, but now it was worse. “Our children usually drop out of school and go to work on the farms. Now, in lockdown, the children have no more work and they have to steal things that they can sell for food. Life in Klipplaat is so difficult – there is no shop here, no butchery, no bank or post office. Every time we need to pay R50 to go to Jansenville. Look at these houses that we have to live in!” Kamp said.

“Hunger here is a virus on its own,” said Conradie. “So many businesses have closed and people have no jobs and nowhere to turn to.” 

5 August 2020: A distribution point on a soccer field in Klipplaat. Some families own wheelbarrows while volunteers help older and disabled residents and single mothers. Youngsters started carting services, delivering the hefty parcels for a tip.
5 August 2020: A distribution point on a soccer field in Klipplaat. Some families own wheelbarrows while volunteers help older and disabled residents and single mothers. Youngsters started carting services, delivering the hefty parcels for a tip. 

Hunger worse than the virus

In Jansenville, the local hospital has set up an 11-bed Covid-19 unit and workers from the Department of Public Works are building an extension. During New Frame’s visit, hospital CEO Gillian January said the unit had only two patients and had not yet been full. But again, hunger and starvation plague the hospital’s outpatients, many of whom have also stopped taking their medication because they have no food.

At the Graaff-Reinet municipal dump, about 88 kilometres away, 15 families who survive on recycling also received emergency food aid from Gift of the Givers. They each earn between R50 and R100 a week for recycling cans and clear plastic, and had no income at all for the first three months of lockdown when the recycling depot was closed. 

Two of the families live in bleak and rickety shacks at the foot of the Sneeuberg mountain range. During New Frame’s visit, snow was visible on mountains and it was bitterly cold. Recycler Geraldine Engelbrecht, 18, who has a one-year-old son, Eroldine, said: “Lockdown hasn’t gone well. It was extremely cold here and we have no water or food except what the Givers bring.”

5 August 2020: Recycler Geraldine Engelbrecht and her one-year-old son Eroldine.
5 August 2020: Recycler Geraldine Engelbrecht and her one-year-old son Eroldine.

She said she has never received a child grant for Eroldine and when she made her most recent enquiry, the South African Social Security Agency told her to check again after the lockdown. Her neighbour, Felicity Engelbrecht, 48, said: “We are so scared of the virus that we have not left this place. We are glad that not one of us has caught coronavirus.”

The families moved here after they could not afford to pay for water and electricity in town, and said they were just “camping” for a while. But there was no sign that they would ever find a better income that would allow them to move into a house. An old 5 000-litre concrete water tank, which Gift of the Givers fills regularly, is their only water supply. There is no electricity and no useful vegetation – just miles and miles of dry brown grass and a few hardy bushes. Because they can only cook on fires, Gift of the Givers brings cooked meals twice a week.

At the dump, Piet Oormeyer, 37, and Calvin Ligman, 20, worked together to fill large white sacks with plastic and cans. Used disposable nappies lay strewn across the ground. Oormeyer and Ligman have only ever made R400 a week at most, which they split between them. For the first three months of the lockdown, when the depot was closed, they survived on the Gift of the Givers meals.

“This is first-class work. We are keeping the community clean but we also get sick from the burning garbage smoke and we have no gloves or boots,” said Oormeyer, referring to the garbage that is set alight in small piles after the recyclable products are removed.  

Both are dependent on a man only known as “Oom Pottie”, who sells what they collect to a waste company. They are the children of recyclers and first came to the dump with their fathers when they were children. “Every day it is harder for us to get out of the suffering of this life,” said Oormeyer.

Another kind of pandemic 

On the same night in Umasizakhe, Graaff-Reinet’s 180-year-old township, community leader and father of three Xolile Galada, 33, had arranged with Gift of the Givers to bring food aid to the parents of disabled children. “Our people can wash hands, wear masks, sanitise, but if they have got nothing to eat that becomes a major pandemic,” he said. 

About 100 Umasizakhe residents were retrenched during lockdown from a major local employer, the Montego animal feed factory, and others were retrenched from farms and even non-profit organisations.

“We have taken two steps backwards in terms of poverty,” said Galada. “I am a socialist and that is why I am here – because I can’t sleep at night. I can’t smile knowing that I have a bowl but not knowing what my neighbour is eating.”

5 August 2020: Rasta Africa, 43, is the community leader of the recyclers at the Graaff-Reinet landfill site, many of whom lost their ID documents in a shack fire. ‘Without it, we cannot apply for social grants ... Nobody listens to our plight.’
5 August 2020: Rasta Africa, 43, is the community leader of the recyclers at the Graaff-Reinet landfill site, many of whom lost their ID documents in a shack fire. ‘Without it, we cannot apply for social grants … Nobody listens to our plight.’ 

Working closely with grassroots community leaders and nurses to devise a list of the people in greatest need and arrange the best drop-off points takes time and consideration – the delivery of 500 food parcels took 14 hours on the first day. 

On the second day, Friday 7 August, Gift of the Givers provided emergency aid to 500 retrenched farm and other workers. At 55 farms in the Nieu-Bethesda and Sneeuberg area, farm workers have continued working throughout lockdown as essential service workers, but their partners and family members have lost their jobs elsewhere and they have all been hit hard by the rising cost of food.

“We are taking it easy and obeying the lockdown rules for our safety, and we don’t have coronavirus here. We are safe. But the prices of food are our fear,” said Katrina Tromp. She was working as a labourer on a construction project, but lost her job and her wage of R1 100 a month. Her husband earns the same, meaning they now have half their previous income and can no longer survive without food aid.

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The Gift of the Givers philosophy, honed by decades of disaster relief aid, is to assist the “absolutely destitute”, even if there are others, like the government or employers, who should be helping.

“We never wait for the government or anyone else to help. We cannot ignore people and wait for someone else to take responsibility. If we do not turn up to assist them, what will happen?” said Conradie.

Isolation and poverty

At Bethesda Junction, a former railway junction 20km past Nieu-Bethesda, three women live in the abandoned railway homes and pay R380 a month each from their pensions to a local farmer for water.

“We have no electricity. We use candles and we collect small sticks to make fire. Our husbands have passed on. We are just old ladies and kids. We are really feeling the strain,” said Rachel Jacobus, 65. They hike the 30km to Graaff-Reinet when they want to go to the supermarket or draw their pension money, and it can take many hours before anyone drives past and picks them up.

5 August 2020: Recycler Felicity Engelbrecht lives in a shack next to the Graaff-Reinet landfill site. She owns a house in the township, but living costs there are too high. She says they were thankful for the Gift of the Givers food parcel.
5 August 2020: Recycler Felicity Engelbrecht lives in a shack next to the Graaff-Reinet landfill site. She owns a house in the township, but living costs there are too high. She says they were thankful for the Gift of the Givers food parcel.

The final batch of food aid was delivered in the small town of Pearston. Here, the Soqaqamba community organisation started a soup kitchen at the beginning of the lockdown and now feeds hundreds of people twice a week. Gift of the Givers provides food to the soup kitchen, but people are still not able to survive. This time, the drop-off was dedicated to retrenched workers.

Pearston resident Luthando Dunster, 36, was part of a large group of workers who used to erect fences as far away as the Free State and Gauteng, but he was laid off at the start of lockdown. He used to earn R1 100 a month. “It was a slave wage. We used to go away for work for months at a time. The foreman used to deduct money for our food, but he also used to eat that food. But now it is worse,” Dunster said.

A devastating drought 

In this part of the Karoo, the pandemic came hot on the heels of a devastating drought, which has still not ended. It has been ongoing for years and resulted in the huge Nqweba Dam in Graaff-Reinet emptying completely in 2019 and then being vandalised to the point where it is no longer operational, said Conradie. 

Much of the region still depends on borehole water, and subsistence farmers and people living in isolated areas, like the three women of Bethesda Junction, have been unable to grow vegetables. Many emerging and commercial farmers have been almost bankrupted by the high cost of buying bales of grass to feed their animals. 

5 August 2020: Sannah Williams, 66, struggles while waiting for her food parcel, scarcely able to sit upright on a bucket. ‘It's my chest,’ she says softly, the icy wind tugging at her thin red jacket as her daughter helps her to her feet.
5 August 2020: Sannah Williams, 66, struggles while waiting for her food parcel, scarcely able to sit upright on a bucket. ‘It’s my chest,’ she says softly, the icy wind tugging at her thin red jacket as her daughter helps her to her feet.

This, and existing poverty levels, form the harsh background to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Eastern Cape Karoo. Throughout the visit to the small towns and farms spread across 550km, it was clear that many people had only ever earned as little as R1 100 a month, or they survive on grants alone. The working class and impoverished people all said the same thing – life had always been bad, but now it was much, much worse, and there was no sign that it would ever go back to its pre-pandemic state.

“Unlike Covid-19, hunger is a silent war that nobody talks about,” said Conradie. “You can put on PPE [personal protective equipment] to protect yourself from the virus, but you can’t protect yourself from hunger. People here are highly destitute. They literally have nothing.” 

5 August 2020: Waste recyclers at work in Graaff-Reinet’s landfill site.
5 August 2020: Waste recyclers at work in Graaff-Reinet’s landfill site.
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