Grinding hardships persist with no help in sight

Unimaginable levels of poverty in far-flung rural villages in South Africa are not being addressed by local councillors who are supposed to help improve the lives of residents in their wards.

Nolungile Mgolombane, 52, lives in a crumbling one-room mud house with two of her children and one grandchild in Ngcengane village, situated in a rural area about 60km from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. The house has collapsed several times in the past decade, but Mgolombane has never got any help from the government. 

Her only source of income is a child support grant she receives every month. “All these years I built my property using mud bricks. When the storm [in November 2020] knocked down these walls for the fourth time, I gave up. I had no more energy and resources. My children are now traumatised by what I am going through every day,” she said. 

“For about a year, I have been staying with different families in my village just to hide my face. What saddens me is that the ward councillor here and other officials who often visit the area know about my situation. I cried to them for help but they have neglected me.”

1 October 2021: Lonwabo Mgolombane, 14, removes corrugated iron sheets on a rainy day. A heavy storm last year damaged his family’s home and took the roof off one room.

Mgolombane’s home does not have electricity, tap water or a toilet. When there’s no money to buy paraffin, the family cooks outside on the ground in a room that was once used as a kitchen but no longer has a roof. They use plastic bags and newspapers to light a wood fire.

In an address on 15 October 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out how the people who live in impoverished communities are affected by starvation. “Poverty and inequality have deepened, threatening many South Africans with hunger and sudden loss of income,” he said.

But without any action to alleviate this stark reality, Ramaphosa’s words mean nothing to people like Mgolombane, just like the empty promises that have been made in the run-up to the 1 November local government elections are not taken seriously. 

Nothing ever changes

“It is very easy to see politicians these days because they are busy doing door-to-door campaigns in our areas, particularly the ANC people. I hear them talk about improving service delivery. I still don’t have water, not even a JoJo tank. How can I vote when there’s never been any change in my life?” she asked.

In response to questions about Mgolombane’s dire situation, an outgoing ANC ward councillor, Zanemvula Gusana, said: “I am aware of her circumstance. The first disaster that brought down that house happened in 2010. I have in the past tried to put her on top of the [housing] list. 

“Last year again I submitted her name to the Department of Human Settlements, along with 42 others who were also left homeless. But the process is too slow. I know that she tried to rebuild it with old corrugated iron sheets and getting the support of family members. She has been so unlucky. Otherwise, I’m following that issue.” 

A neighbour, Nonkuthalo Dlakana, 61, who accommodated the Mgolombanes for a few months, said her friend has been overlooked and neglected by the government. “It was very sad to see Nolungile wandering around trying to find a shelter on that cold day [of the storm]. Fortunately, not too long after that terrible incident, [charity organisation] Gift of the Givers came to offer food parcels to those who were affected. 

1 October 2021: Sinalo Mgolombane, 16, prepares spinach for cooking. Her family is struggling and sometimes survives on handouts from neighbours and friends.

“The situation was painful to witness. I invited them to stay with my family for a while. We shared food and other little things,” said Dlakana. 

Despite the hardship she is experiencing, Mgolombane is trying to start a farming operation with two pigs. She used to do odd jobs in Mthatha but had to stop for health reasons. 

For Mgolombane’s children – Sinalo, 16, a grade 9 pupil, and his brother Lonwabo, 14, who is in grade 7 – the food they get at school goes a long way to fight hunger because they often don’t eat in the morning. 

In June last year, advocacy group Equal Education took the Department of Basic Education to court to compel it to reinstate the nutrition programme that had been suspended when schools closed during the Covid-19 lockdown. A settlement was eventually reached and the programme continued. If it wasn’t for that, Mgolombane’s children would have been in an even worse situation. 

“When I finish school and go to [a] tertiary [institution], I want to do social studies and become a social worker so I can help children who come from underprivileged households like myself,” said Sinalo. 

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