As Covid-19 rages on with residents not adhering to preventive measures, unemployment and poverty continue to plague small farming towns around the country.
South Africa has been buckling under a massive unemployment crisis for several years with very little hope that the economy will recover soon. The scarcity of jobs often triggers mass migration of job seekers to regions of the country where glimpses of hope shine amidst the shadows of hopelessness.
The Eastern Cape province’s Sundays River Valley region is one of the areas where thousands of job seekers often migrate to work on citrus farms as seasonal workers. The region is famed for its sought-after oranges and lemons that are in high demand on the international market.
The towns of Addo and Kirkwood are hubs of the farming business in the Eastern Cape. These towns become swamped by job seekers in winter when harvesting is in top gear. But it has not been business as usual for migrant labourers since the outbreak of Covid-19.
Mpho, who wanted to be identified by his first name only, has travelled the perilous journey from Lesotho to Addo for the past 20 years. He often sends money and groceries back home to his children. He said the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic last year drastically changed his welfare and relationship with local residents.
He said locals are accusing people from out of Addo of bringing Covid-19 to the area. “It was painful that after so many years working here as migrant workers, we were targeted as carriers of the virus. Local people accused us of bringing the virus to them, yet they don’t know that we also hold the same view of them, that they are the ones with the virus. We fear that we will get the disease from this area and spread it to our families when we go back home. The worst fear is that [Covid may] cause xenophobia. Conditions at workplaces are better because we are forced to wear masks and sanitise than in townships and in shops where there is no enforcement.” He thinks the government is fighting a losing battle to combat the spread of the disease.
Local residents meanwhile are calling for officials to step up their fight and tighten enforcement of regulations in order to combat the spread of the pandemic. They fear their region could soon be a super spreader due to the influx of job seekers.
Addo and Kirkwood towns are busier on weekends with thousands of farmworkers shopping and doing other activities. There are also several informal traders from Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and Gauteng who sell their goods in the small towns. In a recent visit to Addo, Elitsha discovered that there were no crowd control measures in several stores as shoppers were pressing up against each other. The few ATMs in the town were overwhelmed by people who did not practice social distancing while others did not wear face masks.
Resident of Nomathamsanqa township, Sinazo Maphosa, said she always stays indoors and only goes out to shops when it is necessary. She fears meeting many people since the harvesting season began about a month ago.
“Things are made worse by the conditions in local shops and in other public places. People are openly defying Covid-19 protocols. People move in large groups regardless if they are from outside this area or are local people. Our taverns are always full to the brim and no safety measures are observed. This area could soon be a super spreader if strict measures are not put in place. The virus can easily spread because there are no public toilets for
shoppers. People use surrounding bushes to relieve themselves. This is very appalling.”
A seasonal worker who is from Mnqanduli outside Mthatha, works with his wife on a farm near Addo. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the middle-aged man said, “I work with my wife at a local farm and earn R1,700 each per fort-night. We rent a room in Nomathamsanqa Township for R600 per month.” He said that the place has several rooms and people are overcrowded and that there is no adherence to Covid-19 protocols. “We only get sanitized while at work. We are also ordered to wear our masks when at work. I am afraid that we might catch the disease from the way we live in the township.”
A shop owner in Addo Town, who identified himself as Mohammed, said, “I can’t limit the number of customers in my shop when this area is only busy at weekends. If I do so, customers will go to other shops and I will be left with no business. I used to have sanitiser at the door but I just stopped after other shops had stopped practising that. It is expensive to buy sanitisers when others are not doing so. But if others start doing so, I will also follow suit.”
Police spokesperson, sergeant Majola Nkohli said, “Policing and monitoring the compliance to Covid-19 regulations forms part of normal visible police patrols. Unfortunately, police could not specifically assign members to monitor compliance to the Disaster Management Act regulations. It must also be heeded that the influx of casual workers in the region increases the demand for police resources in other categories of crime. Fines are mostly issued for failure to confine oneself to his or her place of residence during curfew times.”
The Sundays River Valley municipal spokesperson, Zusiphe Mtirara, implored retailers to enforce Covid-19 protocols in their shops. Mtirara said, “Retailers have a responsibility to ensure that their shoppers adhere to the Covid-19 protocols when they are inside in their shops. At the same time, each individual has a responsibility to keep themselves safe by wearing a mask in public and keeping a safe distance.
“On Fridays we conduct awareness activities in our towns just to remind people about the risks that come with not adhering to the protocols in place to curb the spread of the virus. We also share information on various social media platforms.”
This report is supported by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) through its Mobilising Media in the Fight against Covid-19 (MMFC) in partnership with Media Monitoring Africa and Sound Africa.