Jean Bwasa and his family have always welcomed strangers in need into their house. But the past two months have seen more and more people come and go as food parcels are delivered and other help offered.
Bwasa’s modest home in a complex on Louis Botha Avenue in Highlands North, just north of Johannesburg’s inner city, has become a hive of activity and a de facto headquarters from where Bwasa coordinates and distributes food to migrants and South Africans in the surrounding areas.
“My family is used to it,” he jokes on a Saturday afternoon. “But my wife is meant to be studying for her [post-graduate degree in internal auditing]. She’s not able to study with all of this going on.”
Bwasa, a former Congolese refugee and chairperson of The Right To Live Africa, is one of a number of migrants and migrant-led organisations that have been supplying food to vulnerable migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people during the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown.
Bwasa and many of the other organisations have said they don’t discriminate and also provide food for South Africans in need. In the previous week, Bwasa and his small team – made up mainly of his family members – delivered more than 1 758 food parcels to between 200 and 250 families.
Many migrants have fallen through the cracks of the government’s response to the food shortages that many are facing during the extended lockdown. Government officials made it clear that they would only provide food to those who have legitimate permits and identity numbers, leaving thousands of people vulnerable.
“The asylum seekers, the refugees, the migrants… they are people who are already on the margins of society. Many of them work as car guards, security guards, in hair salons. They didn’t have anything in the formal economy. We have to do everything we can to help them,” said Bwasa. “There is no politics when people are hungry.”
‘Time to be generous’
West of the city centre in Mayfair, at the Madrasah Abu Bakr Siddiq, about a dozen people start preparing basic meals from early in the morning. It is from here that Amir Sheikh, from the Somali Community Board and the spokesperson for the Africa Diaspora Forum, coordinates many of the food delivery initiatives with which the board and forum are involved.
Sheikh said they started with about 350 cooked meals a day during the first few days of the lockdown. But within a week, the demand for meals from vulnerable people in the surrounding areas increased so much that they are now cooking 750 meals every day.
“We started from the first week because we realised people would be discriminated against,” Sheikh said. “Since day one, we have been working tirelessly to help people. We have people cooking meals here, and we have a team of volunteers who go house to house to deliver the food.”
Sheikh, with his extensive network of connections to many of the wholesalers and spaza shop operators in Mayfair, Fordsburg and neighbouring suburbs, called on them to help with food parcels. “I said to them it is time to be generous and to not be looking for profits. The appeal was well received,” he said.
Working with other organisations such as Afrika Awake, a non-governmental organisation made up of South Africans and refugees who came together following their personal experiences during the 2008 xenophobic violence, they have been able to deliver more than 2 500 food parcels a week. This is more than 350 parcels a day in Gauteng. Sheikh emphasised that they assist anyone who needs help, whether they are a migrant, refugee or South African.
“Hunger doesn’t discriminate. We told people, just because you have been discriminated against, it doesn’t mean we must now discriminate against other people,” he said.
Sheikh and two volunteers arranged earlier in May to meet with a group of about 50 Zimbabweans with visual impairments who live in a derelict building in inner-city Johannesburg. John Zindandi, 38, whom New Frame wrote about, was one of the first recipients.
“It was very difficult for us during the lockdown. This is our first food parcel we received in seven weeks,” he said shortly after collecting his parcel. “We have just been eating a very little bit of mielie meal once a day. I am very happy that we have been considered for this, I am happy in a way that I can’t even explain,” he said.
Lazarus Chinhara, 43, was one of the first recipients alongside Zindandi. “It was just survival of the fittest. I was not sleeping because I was worried about my family every night,” he said.
“Some of the people in our building was going to be some nights without having taken any food. It was really difficult. This challenge has been really painful,” said Chinhara.
Sheikh said that aside from food parcels and the daily delivery of meals from the soup kitchen in Mayfair, they have been able to help migrant communities elsewhere in South Africa with e-wallets and Checkers supermarket vouchers.
Romy Petersen from Afrika Awake has been instrumental in sending e-wallets and Checkers vouchers to migrant families in need.
“A lot of people rely on street businesses and how on earth were these people going to make it? That was my thought. I started getting some money in and started doing food parcels and sending people e-wallets,” she said.
“We generally prefer e-wallets for a few reasons. First of all, it is totally private. Especially in a high-density area, it is difficult to give out food parcels. If you’ve got 500 food parcels and there’s 5 000 people and people are hungry, it can cause a bit of a riot.”
E-wallets also allow families to choose what they needed most, said Petersen. “Some people need nappies and mielie meal, some people need sanitary pads and cooking oil, so I kind of like the freedom the e-wallet gives.
“Having said that, there is also daily limits with e-wallets, so it’s not easy to send out hundreds and hundreds in one go, it can take days to do this.”
Petersen said Afrika Awake had given out about 2 400 food parcels, roughly 600 Checkers vouchers and a further 800 e-wallets so far.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the African Solidarity Campaign had delivered food to more than 650 families in Richards Bay and the surrounding areas, as well as joining forces with reverend Raphael Bahebwa Kabambire from the Congolese Solidarity Campaign to provide food for 50 families in Jozini near the eSwatini border.
Mmindje “Steven” Kabakilwa founded the African Solidarity Campaign following xenophobic violence in Richards Bay last year. It has been distributing food to any “needy family”, whether they are South Africans, refugees or migrants.
“We have also been working with shelters for the homeless, police stations and prisons identifying non-nationals in those said facilities looking on how we can also help them,” Kabakilwa said.
Abigail Dawson, spokesperson for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, called the work that certain migrant and diaspora groups have done during the lockdown some of the “most tangible acts of social solidarity”.
“In a context of extended vulnerability and continued xenophobia, diaspora groups have rallied together to support the most vulnerable in their communities irrespective of arbitrary classifications such as nationality and legal status,” she said.
“These progressive and humble acts should be a clear indication to the South African government of the integrated nature of migration in our communities and to ensure a whole of society approach ensuring access to all vulnerable people in this unprecedented time.”