Hungry and desperate immigrants are struggling to survive during the lockdown
“I don’t know if this is illegal,” says Cora Bailey quietly as she opens a gate leading to a small garden tucked inside Community-Led Animal Welfare (Claw) in Durban Deep.
A large group of hungry Zimbabwean people, mainly women and children, sit scattered on the grass. Some have been here since daybreak, waiting patiently for their only meal of the day.
As Bailey enters, their masked faces look up at her, hope in their eyes. “Come two-by-two and we’ll organise something for you,” she tells them gently.
Claw staffers get to work fast, piling plastic packets half-filled with donated maize meal, which is distributed in minutes. “It’s such a small bit that one can give,” says an exhausted Bailey, who has spent her morning tending to sick and injured animals.
“I find it so humiliating for people to have to queue for food with their children It robs them of their dignity and (the lack of food) weakens their immune systems.”
In the two months since the start of the lockdown, the non-profit, which has long distributed food parcels to Roodepoort’s most vulnerable communities, has become even more of a lifeline.
Now, hunger and desperation are everywhere. “We’ve never had to deal with hunger at this scale before,” says Bailey, who founded Claw in the 1990s to provide veterinary health care for impoverished communities.
Her rule for Claw, which is not an official feeding scheme, is to get the food distribution done fast, while practising social distancing with skeleton staff.
Monica Harawa says life has been increasingly hard during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“I don’t want anyone accusing us of bringing crowds When we get here at 8am, desperate mothers and children are already sitting here, asking for something to eat. I’m ashamed to say I can’t even look at them. I panic silently: are we going to have something to give everyone?”
Clutching her packet of maize meal, Patience Moyo tells how if it wasn’t for Claw’s help, she and her family would have starved by now.
“There’s nothing to eat at home,” says the 32-year-old, of the informal settlement of Matholiesville. “This will last for today and hopefully tomorrow. Then I will come back.”
Moyo, who arrived from Zimbabwe six years ago, made a living grinding rocks in the illicit mining operations that dominate the area. Since the lockdown, the local artisanal mining industry has ground to a halt.
“The lack of food is the problem. My two-year-old daughter cries the whole night from hunger. I tell her I’m going to Claw, that maybe I’ll find something. After 10 minutes, she cries again. It’s very hard,” she says, her eyes welling with tears.
Fellow Zimbabwean Thembinkosi Khanyi lost her monthly income of R500 a month in the artisanal mining industry when the lockdown started. “As foreigners, we are forgotten. You can’t get the Ramaphosa food parcels if you don’t have a South African ID, which we don’t have. And we can’t go back home because the borders are closed.”
The generosity and kindness of donors - some from as far as the UK and the US - is “literally preventing starvation” here, says Bailey.
Today’s donation of maize meal was purchased with money donated by a UK nurse of Claw’s vet, Grant Wienand. “There are all these unacknowledged good people who believe that the food is going to reach a hungry person. Random people will arrive, and say ‘we brought you some oil’, or some beans. Other organisations give us fresh vegetables. Someone just dropped off a huge bag of muffins and meals yesterday. The day before we made loads of peanut butter sandwiches. A shop in Roodepoort sells bread for R7 a loaf so it goes quite far.
“On Friday, some lovely woman just arrived with soup and had Covid-19 information leaflets for everybody and sanitisers and masks. One day we had 300 people here and someone who adopted a dog from us, brought formula, and we made it and put it into cups I have all these Takealot orders that will arrive at my house and I don’t know who it’s from.
“We don’t know day-to-day what we’re going to have for the next day and you don’t want to see anyone going hungry. Somehow, every day there is at least something.
"I think of all these little kids - what will they eat tonight and what will they eat when they wake up tomorrow? Seeing children rip open a packet of instant porridge and eating it without adding water is heartbreaking.”
The police have come to Claw several times, “questioning large groups of people walking down the street who said they were coming here for food.
"I told one of the officials, ‘you go outside and tell those children we can’t give them a sandwich.’ The officials left.”
Dog poisoning cases have surged, too, and more and more people, evicted and out of a job, can no longer take care of the animals they love.
Julia Gezane supports eight children and receives food parcels from Claw.
“It’s heartbreaking I get people saying ‘here’s my ID can you organise the government food parcel for me?’ I’ve given my details to so many people and wonder whether those food parcels have actually arrived.”
There’s no social system that caters for foreign nationals under the lockdown, says Bailey. “To just pretend they’re not around This National Coronavirus Command Council - have they thought about what to do about the foreign nationals? How do you tell people to stay inside their homes?
"Have they thought about people roaming the streets looking for food? The lockdown is counterproductive in that way ... Hunger is immediate. You can't say: 'I'll see if I have something for you tomorrow.'"
She worries, too, about lurking xenophobia and is wary of making public appeals for help. “There was a WhatsApp group for feeding schemes I was on of people feeding those around them.
“I mentioned what about the foreign nationals? The response was ‘they must voetsek back home, that they’ve got no business here.’ First of all, it’s a lockdown, they can’t leave. But what good does that do for a hungry person?” .
In their dark makeshift lounge in Durban Deep, sheltered by scraps of cloth, Macdonald Gondwe sits alongside his disabled relative, Monica Harawa, her legs wasted by polio.
He lost his gardening job when the lockdown started and yearns to return home. “Here, there is no job, no money and no food. That’s why many Malawaians want to go home but the borders are closed. To get food, we need a South African ID. But this lockdown is for everybody.”