For Alice Munyanyiwa, a cup of tea has become a luxury she can barely afford.
When she travelled to South Africa from Zimbabwe at the behest of her father-in-law in May last year, the 25-year-old thought she would be able to build a better life. But she’s struggled to find work in Johannesburg because of a visual impairment.
Munyanyiwa rents a room in a derelict building in Doornfontein. There she found a community of other migrants, many of them also living with disabilities. Residents share one tap and the only toilets they have access to are public ones across the street that are locked at night. Recently, the electricity has been cut off at the building.
The residents relied on the little money they earned while begging on the streets of Johannesburg. But for the past seven weeks this community has seen the little income they earned dry up, making it nearly impossible to buy food. As the three-week hard lockdown turned into five weeks, Munyanyiwa and the other migrants were confined to their small, dark rooms.
Even as the lockdown eased into level four, opportunities to earn money through begging in Johannesburg did not return.
“We are struggling with food and clothes. Winter is coming, and we don’t have any clothes,” she says. “We are just going hungry and struggling. I still have some mielie meal, but we don’t get any nutritious food like fruit or veggies.”
John Zindandi, 38, is blind and has been living in the building since 2010. He moved there after living in the Central Methodist Church in the Johannesburg CBD after the 2008 xenophobic attacks.
“I normally survive through begging. These days are tough, man. We’re not allowed to move around. It’s very tough. We don’t have anything, and we don’t have anybody helping us,” he says. “We are very hungry. In this building, we have over 50 people who are blind. We have nobody caring for us. We are just hearing that people are getting help in other places like Yeoville.”
Like Munyanyiwa, Zindandi says he has mostly been eating once a day.
Munyanyiwa and Zindandi are just two of the millions of people in South Africa who have seen their incomes all but disappear during the lockdown, making it harder to buy food. But, as migrants, they have been excluded from the government’s food relief programmes.
Munyanyiwa says she has no idea where to even apply for any relief and has been relying on the generosity of a few strangers who have helped her.
In a joint statement, the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University expressed their concerns about the exclusion of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the government’s coronavirus relief schemes.
The legal centres said they were worried about the government’s insistence that applicants for food aid need ID numbers and that citizens are prioritised. “We reaffirm that this is not a time to exclude certain populations within society, neither is it a time to reinforce negative attitudes against non-nationals,” the statement says.
Tshepo Madlingozi, director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, says: “It is important that the government understands that this is not a time to encourage or perpetuate any form of intolerance. Neither will there ever be a time to do so. As such, the government, through the Department of Home Affairs, should explicitly give directions for the protection of asylum seekers in this period.”
In a letter to the presidency and a number of government departments, Thifulufheli Sinthumule, the director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa), says the pandemic and the lockdown has exposed historic inequality and levels of poverty in South Africa.
“Without doubt, the lockdown has impacted and disadvantaged all people living in South Africa, irrespective of one’s nationality or current documentation status in the country. One thing we know is that Covid-19 does not discriminate and neither should the government’s response to alleviate and address its social and economic consequences,” Sinthumule writes.
The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town warns that excluding documented and undocumented migrants from food relief may open them up to further exploitation and place them at risk of attempting to unlawfully cross the border to return to their countries of origin.
There have been reports of migrant communities nearing starvation elsewhere in South Africa. Health-E News reported that about 600 Zimbabweans living near Louis Trichardt in Limpopo had run out of food because they were unable to earn a living.
Joseph Maposa, a representative of the Zimbabwean community, told Health-E News: “We are so many [Zimbabweans] here and most of us were surviving through part-time jobs such as being house maids, selling various items on the streets, running salons and barber shops, and construction work but due to the lockdown, which we also support, everything has stopped and most of us have run out of food.”
In Zeerust in the North West, Congolese Solidarity Campaign representative Shauri Jonathan Mwenemwitu says Congolese migrants and refugees in the small town are helpless as hunger sets in. “It is very hard. We have no income and no food. It is very hard. Now we are facing hunger, and we don’t have any help.”
Acting MEC for Social Development in Gauteng Panyaza Lesufi says the department is not discriminating against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers when it insists on people needing to be documented.
“Our approach is simple. Whoever is appropriately documented to be inside the country will get support, and if people are not documented to be in the country, it’s unfortunate. We will request them to deal with that aspect so that they can be in a queue. We are not discriminating,” he says.
In a speech on 29 April 2020, Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu clarified the department’s stance, saying it would be “intensifying” its “hunger-targeting food and nutrition distribution programmes” but there was no mention of migrants in these programmes.
Zulu reiterated that refugees qualified for the special Covid-19 social relief distress grant, but would be required to be registered with home affairs.
Alana Potter, the director of research and advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), says it is unlawful, discriminatory and inhumane to exclude migrants and undocumented migrants from food relief according to Section 27 (1) (b) of the Constitution.
“South Africa has a long history of using narrow qualifying criteria and onerous registration processes (eg housing lists and indigent registration) as a way to target social benefits,” she says.
“Now that we’re in a crisis, these well-worn methods are the very fault lines used to distribute food and other forms of relief. Indigent registration processes required for people to access free basic services and social grants are onerous, exclusionary and come at high social, financial and economic cost to the poor.”
Hunger and evictions
Malawians Christoph Kenneth, 38, and his wife, Joyce, 29, have both seen their incomes disappear as they have been unable to go to work for nearly two months. Joyce, who usually works as a domestic worker, has been selling tomatoes in the corridor outside the room they rent in a building in Hillbrow.
She says it’s become increasingly difficult for the family to buy food and other essentials including nappies for their six-month-old son, Vincent.
“It’s not been easy. It’s been very hard. There are many people selling tomatoes or other vegetables in the building so I’m not making a lot of money,” she says.
Kenneth adds: “Life now is very hard. If I get R5, I will try and buy two nappies. We are just trying to manage.”
He says the family went from having three meals every day that included tea, sugar and fresh vegetables, to mostly surviving on one meal of mainly pap. “It’s very stressful. I’m lying at night thinking how I’m going to feed my baby, what I’m going to eat. It is very stressful. You can’t guarantee anything. We are just hoping this disease can come under control. We are hoping to do some work soon because I don’t know how I’m going to survive,” he says.
Kenneth says they used to send money back home to family in Malawi, but that’s mostly stopped. They have already spent the little savings the family had on food. “They are saying everyone, even those who are undocumented [can register for food aid]. I want to register but I don’t know where to go or how to do it. If someone can just tell us,” he says.
While Kenneth and his wife have been lucky to negotiate rent payments with their landlord, other migrants have been forced out of their homes despite a nationwide moratorium on evictions.
Last week, Mohammed Foster, 26, and his wife, Jane Afia, 19, who is eight-months pregnant, were evicted from their apartment in the Johannesburg CBD along with the other people in the apartment.
“There is nowhere for us to go. We can’t find a new place now in lockdown. Where are we going to sleep? My wife is pregnant. I don’t know what to do,” Foster says. “We can’t sleep outside. Maybe we will go to the police station and find a place to sleep there. This is a big problem. I am very stressed. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The young family eventually found a place to sleep with friends in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, while the other people who shared the apartment had to make their own arrangements.
The caretaker of the building, who didn’t want to give his name, says the owners of the building told him to evict Foster and the other people in the apartment after they failed to pay rent. He concedes it “wasn’t fair or right” but insists that Foster and the other people who shared that apartment were warned.