‘They are just killing us with hunger here’

Some Gauteng residents say they took food and items to sell to stave off hunger after the Covid-19 grant was discontinued. Others were angry about the army being deployed in their area.

As residents started clean-up operations after days of unrest, hunger remained the main grievance, heightening calls for the government to reinstate the Covid-19 social relief of distress (SRD) grant. 

“When they stopped that R350 grant, the hunger became worse. That’s when the hunger really started to hit. They are just killing us with hunger here. There are no jobs … How can you go apply for jobs when you have no money? We were stuck in one part of the circle, so what can we do? Take what we can and eat that for the next three months,” says Tinyiko Mathebula*.

Mathebula, 38, lives with his wife and two children, and he says they started appropriating food and taking other goods from Mayfield Square in Daveyton, Ekurhuleni, on the night of Monday 12 July. By midday on 13 July, he was making his sixth trip back from the shopping centre, after sleeping for a few hours from 6am to around 11am. This time, he was carrying only naartjies, a television aerial and a few things he hoped to sell in his spaza shop. 

“I don’t even think there is anything left at Pick ‘n Pay and Shoprite. The ones who are here now are the ones who were asleep last night … We finished all these shops. We fought with the police, they even ran out of rubber bullets and left,” he says, adding that no one was deterred by the live ammunition and rubber bullets the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department and private security guards fired. 

Related article:

Mathebula moved from Giyani in Limpopo and found work at OR Tambo airport in the early 2000s, but lost his job. Jobs have been scarce and these days people work only to line their stomachs, he says, adding that he foresees things will get worse. 

“The hunger is rife. We are doing this because we are hungry. If you look at it, when we were getting the R350, even the muggings in this area had decreased. But since they stopped the R350s, we are being stabbed … at night. So it’s better if everyone has food so we can relax,” says Mathebula.

Every shop owned by “amaPakistani” where he used to stock goods for his corner shop was closed, so he opted to get as much as he could until the situation is better. “I took food and things to sell because I have a small business there on the corner. Popcorn, maize meal, sweets, fish oil and food for the family,” he says. 

“Eventually I thought I should stop before getting arrested for nothing, because there is nothing left. These guys are just picking up what’s left, even picking it off from the ground.”

13 July 2021: A boy with biscuits and a roll of Kaizer Chiefs wrapping paper surveys the crowd while a woman carries wet wipes and nappies at Mayfield Square in Daveyton. Others carry building materials.

A small difference

Phumlani Mkhize, 25, says the mark has been missed about what fuelled the protests in Mayfield especially. “It’s not only about Zuma … When [President Cyril Ramaphosa] said he was going to bring in soldiers, people got angry. They hadn’t done anything here, but the moment he said he would deploy soldiers, people got angry and thought this president doesn’t care about us, and the worst part is that he is shutting everything down. At least let him come with a solution. He mustn’t just close and not have a solution … And you know that R350 made a difference? At home, I could buy a braai pack or meat, but now he cannot close and say there is no solution,” he says. 

Human rights organisation the Black Sash has said the government cannot justify terminating income support measures, and that it should prioritise humanitarian relief measures to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and reinstate the SRD grant. 

Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu said in May that the discontinued grant had benefitted 6.5 million unemployed and incomeless individuals, and that “the implementation of the Covid-19 SRD grant did play a major role in the reduction of hunger, poverty and inequalities across our country”. 

Related article:

Although it went a long way, there are calls to increase the amount to just over R1 500, and to implement the basic income grant that has been in discussion since the Taylor committee of inquiry published its report

“Even those R350s were not working for us, like, it’s too little. Thina we need jobs, we want to be funded, we wanted to be invested in,” says Mkhize. “The ANC is just fucked up, shame, and I won’t vote for them. I don’t even want to vote … They will come here and say we must vote to raise our voices, but it’s not about raising our voices because our voices are not heard, they don’t listen to us.”

On Monday night, he heard non-stop gunshots in his extension that sounded “as if it was New Year’s Eve”, because people were forcefully entering the shops of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Somalis. 

“If people are hungry, they have no other alternative but xenophobia and looting those who are cheap targets to them. Automatically, this puts others at risk,” says General Alfred Moyo, an activist who lives in Makause, Ekurhuleni. “Those that have got money will be the target for those who don’t have. Without means of survival or financial income, stresses and frustration make people do bad things.” 

13 July 2021: A man groans in pain, saying he was badly assaulted by Ekurhuleni metro and other police officers during his arrest at Mayfield Square in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng.

‘Everything is finished’

Most spaza shops in the Mayfield shack settlement are closed because the owners don’t know when residents will turn on them.

Solomon Rajah, 23, says they cleaned out his wholesale grocery shop, Tonko Airtime, at the Mayfield Square shopping centre, which employs 10 people. He lives down the road near the plots in Putfontein. 

“There is nothing we can do, we have no stock. We can only fix our refrigerators and broken shelves because there is nothing left. We don’t even have insurance, and they took everything. We are just here now, being patient, everything is finished. There is nothing else to add. What can I say? I am very sad, very sad.”

Originally from Bangladesh, Rajah, his brother and his cousin Shamim Hassan, 28, own 13 shops across Daveyton. People broke into 10 of them, including one in Daveyton Mall. 

“We have been here for 10 years, but we don’t see our families. We are here trying to make a living, but the people here think we are taking their money and work. It is not like that. We cannot even spend the money, you guys can spend the money, but they think we are eating their money. We are spending money on rent, the workers, electricity. In the first two or three years, we don’t even make that much … we are spending the money growing business. So after that, we are only getting a little,” says Hassan. 

He says they will have to monitor the situation, return home to fetch money, and rebuild once things return to normal and other shops start operating. 

“Here we are surviving, but our brothers are not like that. If we help them, they can survive. But this is the wholesale shop, how can we help them? You can see for yourself that we are also messed up, they are crying at our house. The yellow house there on the main road is the shop of my cousin, he is crying,” says Hassan, pointing at a shop painted with NikNaks branding. “We are making the wholesale, so if we are saving they are also saving. If they don’t have stock, we can give them and they can survive. But now … you can see?” he sighs. 

13 July 2021: A group of people rounded up by Ekurhuleni metro police and South African Police Service officers sit in the parking lot of the Mayfield Square shopping centre, waiting to be transported to the police station.

Degrees, but no jobs

An empty-handed Mkhize tried to appropriate some mielie meal, but dropped it when the police started firing bullets and shot him in the leg.  

“It’s poverty because people are hungry, people here really do starve … You can act like you have pride only to find that when they fix things here, they will increase prices. So, pretending you don’t want to take anything won’t help, because at the end of the day you will pay as much as the people who took things for the damage they caused,” he says. 

Mkhize lives in a house with seven others. No one works, so they depend on a grant from his sister’s disabled child, as well as that of his mother. Where he can, he adds to the household by doing make-up, hair and sewing. 

“A lot of people are poor, and it’s not like we are not looking [for jobs], we are getting rejected. A CV takes money to make. My brother has a degree in education and has no job after three years. We are just sitting doing nothing, even me with my bachelor in film and television,” he says. 

*Tinyiko Mathebula is not his real name. He was afraid if he used his real name, he would be arrested. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.