Every month, on the eve of collecting his state pension, Michael Mzolo, 62, from KwaMpumuza in Pietermaritzburg, begins his long and arduous walk to collect his social grant at the Mayors Walk Post Office in the city. This is where the father of four will spend the night to ensure that he returns home with food and that his children do not go hungry.
“I leave home at 9.30pm and get there at around 11.30pm and I am the 10th and sometimes 15th person in the line. After marking my spot, I take a cardboard and prepare to sleep,” said Mzolo, who covers himself with a jacket during the night now that it’s grown cold.
The growing sound of voices at about 4am is the alarm that tells him it is time to get up and prepare for the long wait that marks the payment process. Mzolo is one of millions of South Africans who go to these great lengths so that their families do not starve.
This month, hundreds of grant beneficiaries countrywide, most of whom are elderly, were inconvenienced when staff shortages at the South African Social Security Agency caused a technical glitch that affected their payments. Some of the elderly were forced to sleep on empty stomachs and outside in the cold, while others returned home empty-handed. As Covid-19 has continued to spread, South Africans have witnessed thousands of starving people in long snaking queues waiting to collect food parcels.
What money cannot buy
The Daily Maverick reported that according to Statistics South Africa, 25.2% of the population was living below the food poverty line in 2015. Set at R441 a month, this meant they couldn’t afford enough food for the minimum required daily energy intake. The food poverty line has since been raised to R561, which again means that many of those who are largely dependent on government grants do not have enough money to buy adequate food for their families.
Mzolo, like many South Africans, says he is willing to risk breaking lockdown regulations and sleep on an empty stomach in order to get this monthly grant of R1 800, which was increased by R250 from May. “I am not scared to walk during the night or to break the lockdown curfew [from 8pm to 5am] because what am I supposed to do? If I am scared, I will not get the grant and then the children will go hungry. That is my biggest fear. I am not afraid, not even of the coronavirus.
“This month there was a glitch and some people did not even get their grant. I got mine because I always go there the night before.”
The father of Nomathemba, 8, Lucky, 14, Mduduzi, 18, and 22-year-old Lindani says the worst thing is that there is little he can do with the government grant. “You need to ask the president what would he do with R1 800 with four children to feed, take to school and pay for transport? This money is not enough,” said Mzolo.
According to a study conducted by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group, a non-profit organisation (NPO), the cost in April of a basic nutritional basket of food for a family of four was R2 576. For a family of seven – the average size of households living on low incomes in Pietermaritzburg – it was R4 506,55.
The research showed that in the best-case scenario, families were underspending on proper nutritious food by 24%. A researcher at the NPO, Julie Smith, says this is the reality for many South Africans who buy their food from supermarkets.
“The issue around food security is not that South Africa does not have food. The country produces enough food, so much so that we export a lot of it. Nationally we are a food-secure country. The issue is about affordability. Food might be on the supermarket shelf, but if you do not have enough [money] in your pocket then you cannot access it.”
Worse to come
With increasing food prices, Smith fears for the survival of people like Mzolo and his family. He, too, has accepted that hunger is inevitable. “Suffering is coming. You see we are in a pandemic, people are losing their jobs and many are still going to lose their jobs and are striking. This will lead to unimaginable hunger. The money that we get from the government is not enough to feed everyone,” said Mzolo.
As part of alleviating the economic crisis, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on 23 April that South Africa would be moving to level four of the lockdown, which came into effect at midnight on 26 March. Level four means that 1.7 million people reportedly returned to work since 1 May under strict conditions.
For 27-year-old tuck-shop owner Nhlakanipho Dube, the reopening of the informal sector means that many people can at least make enough money to support their families. The driver from Clermont in Durban, who sells bread, sugar, beans and cold drinks, among other items, says his business has been crippled by the lockdown.
He went from making R2 000 on a good day to about R800 during the lockdown. “Things have been bad especially since we stopped selling cigarettes,” said Dube, who looks after his 52-year-old unemployed mother and 16-year-old sister. Like Mzolo, Dube also fears that the worst is still to come.
“To be honest, it has been difficult. Sometimes we cannot get stock from the supplier and weeks can go by before stock is available. It is even difficult to order – you don’t get what you want since the beginning of corona.
“I think it’s still going to be tough for many South Africans. They are still going to lose their jobs … and many are not registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund.”
Extended family woes
The South African State and Allied Workers Union (Sasawu) says even its members, who work in the public sector, have been hard hit. When the government refused to pay an agreed salary increase of inflation plus 1%, which under the collective bargaining agreement should have been paid on 15 April, its members found that they were unable to support their relatives as they had planned to do.
“Our members’ living conditions were informed by the expected increase in April. Union members don’t only put food on the table in their own house. We also stretch the little we have so that four or five other family members can benefit from our earnings. How do we do this now?” said Mike Ngqolowa, Sasawu’s general secretary.
“Hunger is definitely something that cannot be avoided, because the government for the past 26 years has neglected to attend to the issues of the poor. We don’t even know if the food parcels are reaching the correct recipients.”
He expects the numbers of retrenchments in the private sector to rise as soon as businesses realise that they cannot earn the profits they did before the pandemic, and says this will affect public sector workers because they will have to support more unemployed relatives.
In rural Ngqeleni, about 60km inland from Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape near the border with KwaZulu-Natal, community activist Lindelwa Mkizwana had been instrumental in getting caregivers trained and accredited to help sickly people in the area, which is far away from any clinic or hospital.
However, the funds were depleted a few years ago and the caregivers stopped working. “Here we have the poorest of the poor in the rural areas. The chiefs in this area say people are dying again now because they have no food and they are defaulting on their treatment.
“There is nobody to care for them. Even the social workers don’t come here because they say there is no transport. Most of the children here have never received birth certificates and so they are depending on school nutrition,” said Mkizwana, who added that hunger levels were “very extreme”.
No government aid
Working with grassroots organisations and churches, the government has been handing out food parcels around the country. The process, in some cases, has been fraught with corruption and some complain that it is being used as a politicking tool.
The Bishop Lavis Action Committee (Blac), a community-based organisation in Cape Town that was started by the residents of this extremely poor and gang-infested area in the Cape Flats, is also feeling gloomy.
“Pre-Covid, our working-class community was struggling with food security,” said Blac coordinator Abdul Karriem Matthews. “Blac took up this issue and started feeding up to 200 children once a week. We were able to do so with donations from informal traders in our community. With lockdown, this became impossible as informal traders are now struggling even more.
“We have requested donations from external supporters of Blac and we have started feeding up to 2 000 people a week. Despite this, our efforts are not enough and we have seen food trucks looted in our community. Our local Shoprite was closed down and it would appear that retail shops are a vector for the transmission of the virus.
“We have yet to see the much-promised food parcels from the government, and so feeding the most vulnerable is left up to community-based organisations with very little, if any, financial support. Blac will continue to do our best, but to say we are worried is an understatement. If we don’t get enough food into our area in the next 30 days, we predict food riots and a violent response from the state,” Matthews added.
Choosing work over handouts
Pat Horn, a senior adviser of StreetNet International, an umbrella organisation for hawkers’ organisations globally, says most street traders want to get back to work soon.
“People working in the informal economy don’t self-define as grant recipients as they are used to working to make a livelihood, but they have found themselves forced into that category. Many have found themselves in food parcel queues. The R350 grant that the government has introduced is really small,” said Horn, who is also a community constituency representative of the National Economic Development and Labour Council.
“The preference of traders is to go back to work because it is really hard to buy enough for R350 to last a month. Even a trader who doesn’t earn much and whose markets have declined earns a bit more than that.”
The government has tried working with associations for waste pickers and reclaimers in Johannesburg and Pretoria to distribute food parcels and vouchers to those who lost their jobs when the lockdown started, says Horn, but the food aid system is hard to manage.
“Nobody has a complete database of everyone who has lost their work due to the lockdown. With the waste pickers, when there were food parcels for them, they insisted on sharing these with the communities they live in as they would have felt very uncomfortable to get the parcels while their unemployed neighbours did not. Some waste pickers got food vouchers, but in Port St Johns [in the Eastern Cape] none of the local shops accepted them.”
StreetNet International has called for vendors of cooked and hot food to be allowed to return to work. It also wants the leaders of traders’ associations to be issued free data and permits to move around so that they can arrange for the self-policing of social distancing measures among traders during the lockdown.
“It can only work if you keep the police out and we convince our members ourselves,” said Horn. “We need to get into this kind of strategy to help people to get back to work under safe conditions, because just giving out food parcels is not doing the trick.”
Rosheda Muller, president of the South African Informal Traders Alliance, says many members have been without any income since 27 March. “Their families are starving. There is no relief fund for us. We are seriously being affected by the interpretation of who is an informal trader. Many municipalities are not conforming to level four rules and regulations and traders are struggling to get permits to trade.
“Another very concerning matter is that some old trading areas owned by local government, where hundreds of traders ply their trade, have been closed off as they are defined by municipalities as flea markets and placed in the same category as nightclubs and casinos. How could they compare vulnerable workers trading with those places of entertainment?”
Political will shows the way
Considering all the challenges South Africa faces, says agricultural economist Thulasizwe Mkhabela from the Agricultural Research Council, the way that the government has handled the pandemic should be applauded.
“South Africa has been quite responsible and responsive in dealing with the pandemic. The continued provision of safety nets such as social grants has alleviated the vulnerability of a number of citizens. Moreover, SA has temporarily increased or introduced new social transfer payments in order to deal with the plight of those predisposed to hunger during this pandemic.”
For S’bu Zikode, president of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, the pandemic has proved one thing – that “the government can govern” if it wants to do so. “The current situation exposes the credibility of the state that is actually capable of feeding its people. Especially at this time, when everything has stopped, we are able to have food production,” said Zikode.
“I saw with the provision of water and sanitation emjondolo [shack dwellings] that within three weeks of the lockdown there were water tanks and sanitation rolled out on a massive scale that we had never seen before. And I thought to myself, within three weeks the government has been able to deliver so much. What has stopped the government from delivering to the people who have been struggling with simple basic services [all along]?
“It all lies in the political will of the government on who or what should be prioritised. That is the reality that has been exposed at this time.”
But Andries du Toit, director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, says while hunger is nothing new in South Africa, more needs to be done for those who are impoverished and hungry. “People were prepared to go hungry for a short period if the president asked that of them, but the problem now is that you are looking at a much more prolonged period before the economy can return to anything close to normality.”
Du Toit says it is clear that the country is going to face long-term economic hardship, which makes it important to ensure that order is maintained and people do not get desperate in their need to eat.