Donald Raselalome feels he has been risking his life every day that he steps out of his house. But the 35-year-old Alexandra resident does it out of a sense of duty. He is part of a group of about 20 volunteers who have been delivering food to some of the most vulnerable people in the township.
“This is a lot of hard work. We put ourselves at risk doing this,” he said shortly after making a delivery to a family. “It’s a dangerous time.”
Raselalome is one of a number of volunteers helping Rays of Hope – a non-profit organisation that has been working with the residents of Alexandra for nearly 30 years – to deliver food, soap and hand sanitiser to those who are vulnerable.
He came through one of the organisation’s programmes that help young men and now runs a support group for boys in partnership with Rays of Hope. “I grew up here. I lived here all my life,” he said. “I feel like I must help because these are my people.”
Rays of Hope, with its small but committed group of volunteers, hopes to feed 2 000 vulnerable families during the lockdown, as well as provide sanitary goods and inform people about the importance of social distancing.
The group gathers every morning at a premises in the neighbouring suburb of Marlboro to sort the crates and pack supplies.
On a cloudy Wednesday morning in early April, the volunteers began packing while Rays of Hope executive director Sihle Mooi made arrangements to secure the property. There had been a break-in a few nights earlier and food for about 10 to 15 families was stolen, as well as masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. Mooi and another manager suspected opportunists, because they didn’t get away with much.
“You know, it was a wake-up call for us … The fact that these things that we are handling and needing, people are desperate in Alex and they become commodities. Often they can’t even buy them, so they break in. You can see the people who broke in were petty criminals … They took the little bit they could carry,” he said.
Mooi said Rays of Hope had to suspend most of its regular programmes to focus their attention on distributing food. “Already, most people are unemployed and many will lose their jobs, and many earn daily and weekly as they work. So when they don’t work, those families are struggling. And then you have children, who would normally be at school where they would be fed.
“That’s a potentially explosive situation … So we need to make sure there is food, there is health supplies and things to make sure they can protect themselves,” he said.
For the time being, the organisation is focused on the homes of children who are already in their programmes. “There are so many communities in our country where things are escalating now, but there are so few people to help … This is reminding us of how connected we all are. Our own health shouldn’t be our only concern, because the most vulnerable in society, ultimately, it will affect all our health,” Mooi said.
Some of those benefitting from Rays of Hope’s food deliveries are brothers Ashley, 21, and Mpho Molepa, 18. The two share a tiny makeshift room in an old factory in Alexandra. They had no electricity at the time their food was delivered.
“This is a very difficult situation,” said Ashley. Neither of the two brothers have permanent work. They rely on the assistance of Rays of Hope, earnings from the piecework they are able to find and the little money they make as part of the Bambanani Brass Band, which is run by Rays of Hope volunteer Mike Moloantoa.
The brothers have been living in this cramped space since their mother died seven years ago. As the oldest, Ashley feels responsible for his brother, but he has been unable to find decent work since dropping out of school in grade 10. “When there’s no lockdown, it’s a little easier. It’s not difficult, but this lockdown is killing us,” he said.
The brothers were first on Rays of Hope’s delivery route that morning. Next was Ruth Sithole, 63, and her two 11-year-old grandchildren: Makungu Maluleke and Amukelani Sithole.
Sithole lives in a backyard room that’s reached by walking past a few others, in a tight alley of twists and turns with sharp pieces of zinc sticking out from other shacks. Sithole said she hadn’t been able to leave her room much and that social distancing was a little easier for her because a broken femur from a few years ago has made it more difficult to move about.
Sitting on her bed with her grandchildren next to her, Sithole explained the strong smell hanging in the air. “I am busy boiling eucalyptus. It is one of our old remedies. I hope it works. It sanitises the air and it helps me with my tight chest,” she said. “It’s good, even if there is no corona, it helps.”
Living in these conditions, with back-yard rooms and shacks stacked close together, it becomes difficult for residents to practise the social distancing for which the government is calling. Sithole and her neighbours share a single tap outside her room, for water for cooking and washing their hands.
Raselalome said that through his deliveries, he has realised how difficult it is for the residents of Alex to practise social distancing. “It’s hard for people here. This is how people survive here. People socialise out on the street, but people also survive outside on the street and the street is sometimes the only place you can go if someone wants privacy in their room.”
William Matshila Mndau is another beneficiary of Rays of Hope’s food delivery programme. He turns 100 in June and his 43-year-old daughter Doris takes care of him.
“We are coping,” she said. “It is just the two of us living here and we don’t go anywhere. We can’t risk going anywhere because I am scared for myself and I am scared for him.”
Doris made the decision to leave her two children at the boarding school where they live in Pretoria, to take care of her father and minimise the risk in the house. They rely on food drop-offs by Rays of Hope and other family members.
“My father is very strong but I have to look after him. My children are safe there [in Pretoria],” she said.