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'I will die of hunger before coronavirus,' says desperate mom

People queue to receive food parcels during South Africa's lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Itumeleng English/Africa News Agency(ANA)

People queue to receive food parcels during South Africa's lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Itumeleng English/Africa News Agency(ANA)

Published Apr 26, 2020


Johannesburg - Hundreds of poor families are struggling to put food on the table or access government-provided food parcels despite President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing a number of poverty relief measures - including vouchers, cash transfers and a grant top-up for caregivers.

Since the lockdown was announced a few weeks ago, the Department of Social Development (DSD) has issued a dial-in service for food parcels, but desperate families told The Sunday Independent this week they were either struggling to get through or there was no response to their calls.

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But the Gauteng Department of Social Development (GSD) said there was no crisis and 80% of those who sought assistance were attended to within 48 hours. GSD spokesperson Thabiso Hlongwane said they received about 57000 calls a day for assistance and 80% were attended to.

“It’s not true that the operators don’t help people. If so, we would have not reached 170 000 persons in Gauteng since the lockdown started,” he said.

But his colleague, Motsamai Motlhaolwa, contradicted Hlongwane, saying the department handled up to 10 000 calls a day. “All callers who make it through are attended to; we hardly have complaints, unless they don’t meet the minimum criteria or are outside of the province. The turnaround time for all referrals will be 24 hours to a maximum of 48 hours, subject to transport logistics and related matters,” he said.

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SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco) Tshwane regional chairperson Abram Mashishi yesterday weighed in on the matter and issued a statement calling on the DSD to update its capacity at the call centres.

Mashishi also said people were calling in but not receiving responses after holding their phones for over 20 minutes. “It is imperative that everyone works together towards making sure that the downtrodden receive the required assistance without many human elements and political ambitions,” he said.

The Sunday Independent visited informal settlements around Gauteng this week. Residents said they spent many minutes of airtime phoning for help and to register, but it had been been three weeks of endless waiting for feedback. As a result, many were starving.

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Nomawethu Sidyiwo from Vumbuka squatter camp in Vosloorus said she had been getting R1335 for all of her three kids and had to ensure that this money lasted the entire month, especially during lockdown, as she was unable to do odd jobs to augment the grants.

The 35-year-old mother invited us to her house while she cooked her last meal, consisting of samp. Sidyiwo tried hard to hold back her tears but a drop fell down her cheeks. She said: “My brother, I am sorry for crying. I do not like the living conditions that I have been exposing my children to.

"Last night, we were eating pap without sishebo; imagine feeding your kids pap with water! What you are seeing on the stove now is samp without beans; I have no cooking oil or salt. That samp is the last food I have in this house. The paraffin might run out before the samp is ready to be served.

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“This lockdown has just brought nothing but hunger to us. It was better before because I used to do laundry for two families and the money could help a lot in the house. I will die of hunger before corona (virus).

“Some people came here last Wednesday; they claimed to have been from Social Development and they took our ID numbers and promised to deliver food parcels. We have not heard from them since. I knew that nothing would happen - more empty promises,” Sidyiwo said.

Bafana Marumba, of Sebokeng in the Vaal, said he called the Social Development number two weeks ago but stayed on the phone for at least 20 minutes without a response.

“I ended up sending an email, and after that I got a message that I must provide them with information as to how many children I have. They also requested my ID number and home address. I sent that immediately but until today they haven’t reverted to me,” said Matumba.

The 39-year-old father of two said his internet café business was closed because of the lockdown. “Things are hectic now. We have no income and we are struggling to buy food. I am even asking my friend to lend me money, said Matumba.

Matlaletsa Mokhunoane also shared his experience. The 49-year father of two said he wanted food relief because he was unemployed. “This is not good; we are sacrificing the money we would have bought bread to make calls (to DSD). The next thing we are told to wait for the operators. I stayed on the call until I decided to drop a message, and they also responded requesting further details. But since then I haven’t heard anything from them,” he said.

His statement was supported by his neighbour, Buti Mofokeng, who said he called three weeks ago but hasn’t had a response.

“This thing is not helpful at all. After several calls which were not answered I decided to send them a message. They then sent a message saying they will revert to me within three to five days. But until today I haven’t heard from them,” said the 41-year-old.

Mofokeng said his family now rely on their child’s grant.

“I used to have piece jobs but I had to stop after the lockdown. Now my wife and I survive on our child’s grant. It’s not enough, it’s just R400.”

Unemployed families in an informal settlement between Orange Farm and Evaton complained that the lockdown also added to their problems.

Motshabi Matlala said things have gone worse since the lockdown, adding there’s no income in their home as her husband is also unemployed.

“We were selling cigarettes on the streets and things were much better. Then the president banned the sale of cigarettes,” she said.

“Right now I am going to cook the last food. Probably this will be my last plate for the entire week. I had tea with no sugar in the morning because I wanted to save food for supper.

“We only have a maize meal and two potatoes,” she said.

Matlala said she too called SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) in an attempt to apply for food relief.

“They said my registration was successful and they will phone me back, but I am still waiting,” said the 35-year-old.

The situation was equally dire for Jacqui Phunyetsi who had no idea how she could register for food relief.

“We don’t have electricity in this area. So we are not able to access radio, TV and the internet, unless someone shares the information. I didn’t even know the government is providing food. I really need to apply for this because there is nothing at home. I can’t even make a plan to survive,” said the 50-year-old mother.

Bafana Mgababi said his family has relied on social grant money for his children since the beginning of the lockdown because he can’t go out to do piece jobs.

“Except social grant money for our children, there’s no other income. Things are worse, we are running out of food. The government also promised us food parcels but until today we haven’t received anything,” said the 36-year-old.

Mgababi said he applied for food parcels two weeks ago, but is still waiting for a response.

“The situation here is so painful. We live by faith," said Waterworks community leader Andries ‘Gaza’ Mdakane, painting a picture of the realities faced by members of the informal settlement next to Protea Glen in Soweto.

The “forgotten” neighbourhood is made up of 993 families, who have no electricity but heaps of rubbish everywhere, with a few communal taps, toilets that haven’t been drained out and a palpable sense of poverty in the air.

Social distancing is not an option for this community, some of whom sat outside to enjoy the warmth from the sun and wondering where their next meal will come from.

Mdakane places blame on their ward councillor Gladys Khoza who did not bring enough food parcels to cover every household.

“The only thing she did thus far was bring 50 food vouchers, which we turned away because it wasn’t enough and will cause fights among the people.

“We had to organise food for our people by heading to Lenasia to ask for donations, which were delivered last week Sunday by a security company.

The community also consists of many foreign nationals, the majority of whom come from Lesotho and don’t have identity documents and therefore don’t qualify for any grants. But even in such grim situations, most say they would rather struggle here than return back home.

Councillor Khoza refuted all the claims made against her and said she is doing all she can to get the community the necessary services and food parcels.

Khoza said she is adhering to the processes prescribed by Sassa and because she is a ward councillor for both WaterWorks and Zuurbekom, she has to split everything she receives into two.

Khoza says the number of qualified people is around 300 households who are documented but said she is working on helping those who aren’t documented.

The Sunday Independent

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