KwaZulu-Natal’s elderly go hungry

As the lockdown enters its fourth week, communities struggle to feed their families. With grant payments set to be delayed, many fear starvation at home and chaos in the queues.

“Gogo, we are too hungry.” Every time Fikile Gumede hears these words from one of her seven grandchildren, she feels a knot in her stomach. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that grants will be paid out later than usual next month – 4 May 2020 for disability and old person’s grants and 6 May for child support grants – has made Gumede fear the coming hunger. 

The grandmother, who hails from Dambuza, part of the uMgungundlovu District Municipality, is among a group of women from the Pietermaritzburg Pension Forum who have written a letter to Ramaphosa pleading him to reconsider the new dates.

Last month payments for the elderly and people living with disabilities were made on 30 and 31 March, while other payments were accessible from 1 April.

The letter asks Ramaphosa to increase the pensioner grant, currently at R1 800, to R2 500 from May. The women also want the president to outline a plan for care for their grandchildren should they fall ill and die of the virus.

“From where we are sitting, things are going to get very bad for us. Our pensions are too little. Hunger will kill us before the coronavirus does. Our pensions are a buffer in normal times. They are even more important now in times of crisis. More of our sons and daughters will lose their jobs now,” reads the letter dated 13 April.

The women fear not having enough money to protect their families from Covid-19.

“Food prices have increased in the supermarkets and there are food shortages on the supermarket shelves, which means we have to spend more money. Increasing the pension to R2 500 will help us … protect ourselves from coronavirus.”

The women believe Ramaphosa has made a “fatal” mistake by changing the dates. “Most of us are not even going to make it to the end of the month. Most of our food started running out from 15 April. By 4 May, we are going to be desperate. On 4 May all 3.55 million pensioners will go out and collect the grant together at the same time. We are all elderly; we are the most vulnerable to infection. If there is coronavirus in our homes, it will be a catastrophe.

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“Coronavirus will explode across South Africa. On 4 May there will be no physical distancing in taxis, outside banks, outside post offices, outside Sassa pay points, outside supermarkets, outside insurance companies and outside debt collection points.

“The police and SANDF and company [security guards] will not be able to maintain any safety restrictions. It will be chaos. People will be injured and die in the … lines and be killed by the police and SANDF trying to get money and buy food. The supermarkets will run out of food. People will watch on their television screens in absolute horror.” 

Their request comes as the government is mulling over increasing the child support grant and the old person’s grant in a bid to mitigate the effect of the pandemic. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni reportedly told the media that the grant system was the quickest and simplest way to get money to millions of South Africans.

Being punished

Gumede  says she fears for her grandchildren. The first thing she does with her R1 800 pension is pay R250 to her funeral policy.

She then buys maize meal, rice and sugar. “After that I cannot afford to buy meat. I buy [the children] chicken feet as well as cabbage to make them happy. I also have to buy washing powder so that they can do the washing, as well as cosmetics. They are boys. They shouldn’t smell.”

When the grant money is finished, Gumede is forced to borrow money to buy meat. “I borrow between R300 and R400, but there is interest that I have to pay at the end of the month, and if there is an emergency … there is nothing that you can do but go back to umashonisa [money lenders] again.

“It feels like we are being punished. Now I have to make porridge in the morning, make lunch and make them supper. They come back and say, ‘We are too hungry, Gogo.’ I then take flour and a little bit of oil that is left and I make vetkoeks.… When they are hungry … they stay in the house. It is difficult.”

After getting monthly groceries, Gumede cannot afford to buy herself anything. “I wear the same pinafore every day. So when they say we must wait until 4 May, it is really hard. We do not even get the food parcels that are being distributed.

“Even though we did not go to jail, we did fight for this freedom, but they do not do anything for us. The government does not care about the elderly. They only know us when it’s time for the elections.”

Trying to fill stomachs

Doreen Taylor, 65, is also from Dambuza. She looks after six grandchildren. Taylor says that since the lockdown, food prices have increased to the extent that she cannot feed her family.

“As we speak we do not have food. We should be going back to the shops to buy more food but we don’t have money. If we do not have food now, what are we going to do until 4 May? The government knew that 1 May is a public holiday and they should have moved the payment closer than the fourth because we really have nothing. You look at the maize meal left and wonder if there will be anything left by the fourth.”

Items like cheese and polony have become a luxury for Taylor’s family. What is important now, she says, is to fill the stomachs with whatever she can.

“I don’t even buy rice anymore. I only buy that which will fill the stomach. Then I buy tea so that they can have something to take down the food with. We only eat chicken because we cannot afford red meat. We eat chicken daily, even if you don’t want to.”

Not only is Taylor worried about her grandchildren, she also has to think about her unemployed children, who, since the lockdown, have been unable to secure piece work.

“Covid-19 makes the situation worse … We have been asking the government to increase the pension. It is even more difficult now because we live together. The children are at home, and they eat a lot.”

Starvation or infection

What worries Thoko Ngubane, 66, from KwaMpumuza, is that she risks getting the virus every time she goes to collect her social grant.

“There is little or no social distancing, and it is going to be worse on the fourth. Last month when we went to go and collect the grant, it was so full, all the shops were full. When we went to buy groceries, there was nothing on the shelves.

“There is nothing much left in the cupboard. The flour, oil and maize meal is finished. We are only left with rice. We will eat it with potatoes.

“If I could speak to the president I would tell him that the next payment date is going to be a problem because it is going to be too full. Last month it was really bad, you bought one item and [when you] returned the next day … there was nothing on the shelves.” 

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Grandmother of four Victoria Malembe, 58, from Snathing location says she usually depends on her garden to supplement whatever she cannot afford. But the drought meant her yields were low this year.

“I usually have spinach, meilies, butternut and beans. This month I had to buy vegetables, and they are finished now. There are packets of mixed portions of chicken, enough to cook for the next three days. I don’t think the food will last us till month end.” 

Malembe fears running into the police or the army, which have been criticised for heavy-handedness. “It is scary. Tomorrow I am supposed to go to the chemist and fetch my medication. I am not sure what I am going to do. I am scared of what is going to happen because the taxis get stopped in Mbali, and there are police, and we have heard how the police treat people.

“Last month, during the last pension pay out, we did not practice social distancing. It was a mess … when we got to Edendale Mall the shelves were empty, so I really don’t know if we will find food this month.”

Delisile Sithole, 65, also from Snathing, looks after her two children. She has had to set aside her pride and beg from friends, relatives and neighbours for food.

“I am scared of getting the coronavirus but there is nothing that I can do … Instead of starving to death in the house I will have to place my life at risk even though they told us not to … have close contact with other citizens.

“All I do these days is pray to God to make the virus go away and for God not to let us starve to death.”

Some of the grandmothers get child support grants along with their pensions. Most use it to pay for transport to schools, uniforms or occasionally to take a child to the clinic. This month, most have used the money to supplement their food. 

Julie Smith, a researcher at the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group says that if the decision is not reversed, millions will begin to starve.

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“There will also be fear and anger. Pensioners will be driven out of their homes into what will be the deadly chaos of the waiting lines. … The decision by Sassa to stagger grant payout is a good one but Sassa must bring the payout date forward to 28 April; not delay it back to 4 May. Sassa has made a terrible error; they still have time to fix it and avoid what will be a catastrophe.”

KwaZulu-Natal Social Development spokesperson Mhlaba Memela says the department is distributing food parcels to qualifying families.

National Treasury spokesperson Mashudu Masutha and Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko had not responded to queries at the time of publication.

Update, 22 April 2020

On Tuesday evening, 21 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government will be directing R50 billion towards grants.

He said that child support grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R300 in May and from June to October they will receive an additional R500 each month. All other grant beneficiaries will receive an extra R250 per month for the next six months.

In addition, Ramaphosa also granted a Covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month for the next six months. This will be paid to people who are unemployed and do not receive a social grant or UIF.

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