The measures taken by government to slow the spread of COVID-19 have unmasked the face of racialised and gendered inequalities hiding in the folds of democracy.
The national lockdown has exacerbated the lack of access to food, adding over 10-million more families to the 14-million who were going to sleep hungry before the start of the lockdown. This is according to a survey report by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC).
Vishwas Satgar, a co-founder of and activist in the SAFSC, says that the research that they conducted before and during the lockdown estimates the number of people suffering a shortage of food during the lockdown to be close to 30-million.
This number, according to Satgar, is mostly made up of unemployed people, workers in the informal sector, and domestic and farm workers who don’t receive any UIF payments and often earn below minimum wage. “The food crisis will kill people first rather than the COVID-19… We called for activists to take their activism to supermarkets and demand that supermarkets set up solidarity pantries, allow for solidarity buying, [and] create special solidarity products of essentials that are ethically priced so that it can be distributed to communities,” said Satgar.
The R350 social relief of distress grant was announced by President Ramaphosa as a six-month form of support for those who are unemployed and don’t receive any form of grant or UIF payment. Alongside this, the South African Social Service Agency (SASSA) was to distribute food parcels. But the emergency food relief has been uneven and delayed across provinces, and the announcement of the UIF grant has caught SASSA flat-footed with long queues forming daily outside their offices and people going home without getting any assistance. This has translated into more people being insecure because of the lack of access to food and falling deeper into poverty under the lockdown.
Francesca De Gasparis, the Executive Director of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI), says that the measures by government are not enough because of the long standing systemic inequality that makes poor and working class people vulnerable. “South Africa’s inequality and poverty crisis is a long running issue. It started right back under colonial times when people were given unequal rights, and it was perpetuated even more seriously under Apartheid,” she says. South Africa carries this history on her back as the majority of the population continues to inherit poverty and the opportunities for Black people to work and create livelihoods remains thin.
Ayanda Kota from the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) says that the long-winded history of inequality in SA is visible in the high rate of unemployment, while not having a secure and stable source of income sinks the working class further below the poverty line. “In places like Makhanda, you’ve got unemployment hovering around 70%. In the province of the Eastern Cape, the unemployment rate is over 40%. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world,” he says.
Khensani Ndaba from Alexandra in Johannesburg is unemployed and lives with her five children. Their only source of income at the start of the lockdown was the child support grant she receives for her nine-year-old son. “I tried to start washing people’s clothes for money during weekends but now people don’t bring their clothes anymore because they’re scared of the coronavirus,” she says. The effect of the covid-19 measures has meant that families in these poor households are locked down hungry, with no food and often not knowing how they will survive the pandemic. The halt on the informal industry as a non-essential service during level 5 meant that the main source of income for many was no longer accessible. “We only received R300 this month, not R350. The child support grant that I received helped me and then later in the month, I had to ask my elderly mother who depends on a disability grant for help,” said Lungile Mfene.
In a letter to the president written by human rights organisation, Black Sash, and endorsed by 24 other organisations and trade unions, a recommendation for an increase of the Social Relief of Distress grant from R350 to R1,227 was made. “There are just over 15-million people that have no income and that have been forced into hardship due to the pandemic,” says the national Director of Black Sash, Lynette Maart. The letter recommended that the six-month temporary relief grant be converted to a permanent adult grant for those with little or no form of income between the ages of 18 and 59 years.
The informal sector was hit hard by the covid-19 crisis because it meant that soup kitchens, small-scale farmers and community-based feeding schemes for children could not operate, resulting in many people going to sleep hungry. “The government needs to think far beyond major supermarkets and think about the informal sector. It needs to strategically think about how it creates opportunities for communities to get the food they need to earn livelihoods,” suggested De Gasparis.
“The government promised us food parcels; we registered for them two weeks ago and they still haven’t arrived. The R350 from the government is not working because you buy a bag of mielie meal, sugar and bread and it’s finished. What are we supposed to eat for the rest of the month?” asked elderly grandmother, Rose Makamo, from Alexandra township.
Despite the R500-billion support package for various sectors, the food parcels and the social grant increases, there are many instances that have shown the inadequate and ineffective nature of government’s response. The hike in prices in large supermarkets of staple foods during the lockdown continues to be a problem. In a webinar organised by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), titled “Democratising SA’s food system in and beyond the crisis”, panelist Mervyn Adams reported that in a period of two months, rice increased by 26%, potatoes by 80% and brown bread by 14%.
The move to automated systems of receiving grant payments has caused a slow start to the process and in turn, excluded many people who struggle with access and knowledge, resulting in many people still waiting to receive their grant while many others in different areas still wait to receive their food parcels.