Coronavirus #Lockdown

Hunger, desperation and looting in Port Elizabeth

epa08364557 Residents not on a list to receive food parcels look on as South African woman carry food parcels to their shack in the informal settlement of Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa, 15 April 2020. The delivery of food was organized by the One South Africa Movement led by former Democratic Alliance leader (DA) Mmusi Maimane and the Living Hope Christian non-profit organization (NPO). Food collected from outlet Pick n Pay was delivered by volunteers who worked with local street captains that identified the most vulnerable in the community as beneficiaries. The South African government has extended a total lockdown of the country until the end of April to try stem the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 which causes the Covid-19 disease. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET

As lockdown regulations stopped the hustlers from getting money, pushed the hungry into desperation and left many struggling with joblessness, groups of people looted spaza shops and schools in Port Elizabeth’s Northern Areas.

On Wednesday 15 April pastor Russel Viljoen and senior members of his church had to smuggle food into Timothy Valley in Port Elizabeth as they feared being robbed by an increasingly hungry community. 

“People are hungry. There never was a lot of food here but now there is nothing,” he said. “People are beyond desperate. We have been counting. First, those on weekly wages got nothing. Then those on fortnightly pay got nothing. Now those on monthly pay will also get nothing.” 

Over the past two days, residents of Timothy Valley have violently looted spaza shops in the area. 

“Now all the shops are closed. They have nothing to sell. These shopkeepers were good to the community. Nobody had to travel to a store. Many were allowed to buy ‘on the book’ until they got money,” Viljoen said. 

“I have to close the church because if people know that there is even a little bit of food there they will rob the place. 

“At the big shops, prices have gone up so much, all I can now say to people is if they have some rice, a few tins, a bread – share it with your neighbour. You can’t walk openly with food on these streets any more.

Viljoen is no stranger to the extreme violence that often marks life in Port Elizabeth’s Northern Areas. When others refused to bury the gangsters killed in escalating violence in his area, he agreed to lead the funerals. At funeral after funeral he preached the power of forgiveness. 

But now he preaches leadership. As the streets so familiar to him are haunted by hunger he called on the church to take a stand. 

“This is a leadership crisis,” he said. 

Amid widespread desperation over a shortage of food parcels promised by the government, price hikes and escalating hunger, the looting of shops and schools in Nelson Mandela Bay started on Tuesday. 


1.2 million households in the province have incomes below the “minimum level” and of these, 264,312 have no income whatsoever.


Brigadier Thembinkosi Kinana said the police had arrested nine suspects on charges of business robberies, housebreaking and theft. They were also charged with violating the lockdown regulations. 

The men, aged between 23 and 50, were expected to appear in the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court on Thursday 16 April. 

“Due to high visibility of law enforcement in the area no further looting took place,” Kinana said. 

“Many of the looting incidents took place simultaneously and the reaction of the police and other law enforcement agencies was swift. Due to the volatility of the situation the Public Order Police fired teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.” 

On Wednesday the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development was preparing a memorandum to Treasury to ask for more money for food relief in the province as the provincial government admitted it was unable to cover all the households in the province living below the breadline. The Eastern Cape has the highest rate of unemployment in SA. 

In a document, the head of the department, Ntombi Baart, said 1.2 million households in the province have incomes below the “minimum level” and of these, 264,312 have no income whatsoever. 

She said the department had no money allocated for disaster relief but they have R5.2-million to help families experiencing “undue hardship” and will procure another 3,852 food parcels with this money at R1,359.18 per food parcel. 

“The department is busy developing a proposal for submission to the provincial treasury as the current budget allocation for social relief services is by far very insufficient to cover the number of households in the Eastern Cape who live below the minimum living level,” Baart said.

Spokesperson for Sassa, Paseka Letsatsi, said the equitable share for social relief of distress for the 2020/2021 financial year allocated to the Eastern Cape is R45-million. 

“There is no special allocated budget to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The allocation for the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro is R5.9-million. With the above allocation, Nelson Mandela Bay Metro can only procure 4,341 food parcels. This translates to 72 food parcels per ward, taking into account the 60 wards within the Metro.” 

He said they were processing a “significant number of applications” from households facing undue hardship. 

Provincially, the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) will procure 33,390 food parcels with its allocated budget for the current financial year. 

The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on social development in the province, Edmund van Vuuren, said the Sassa funding was barely enough to supply 12% of the 264,312 households in the province whom the department says have zero income, with a food parcel that will last less than a month.

He said other districts in the province were only receiving between 30 and 60 food parcels per ward. 

Van Vuuren welcomed the move by Social Development to ask the provincial treasury for more money. He said families’ circumstances had been aggravated by the lockdown, which has removed the possibility of part-time and contract work, which is often the sole source of income for these families. 

“With thousands of jobs on the line, what will happen when the first round of food parcels has been bought and distributed, and these funds have been depleted? 

“It is absolutely vital that the relief funding being sought be granted, and that the turnaround time for handing out food parcels needs to be expedited. For families who have already been under lockdown for two and a half weeks, the need for assistance is now, and delays in distribution could literally have life or death implications.”  

NGO worker Madge Blignault, who has been supplying food parcels to households, said hunger has always been a problem in the province. 

“I don’t think people realise the level of poverty that does exist in sections of the Northern Areas. Lockdown has highlighted this problem. Those of us who work in the NGO sector – I work for Project Hope – we know about the poverty. We have seen it and we have always worked with it. We have been busy since the extension of the lockdown was announced to get more food parcels. We have handed out 200 parcels so far. 

“With the looting that took place yesterday, we had to vacate that building with all our stock and food parcels because we were being threatened. There were gangsters threatening us to come and loot the church. The two shops that were looted were down the road from where we were working.

“We are not making the address public from where we are working now. I have to make sure that we are safe. It is tense at the moment. 

“The other thing that lockdown has done is to just bring people’s frustration levels to the surface. When you are hungry, you are angry. There is a sense of anger in the air, fear about the future and a sense of hopelessness. It is a very real problem. We are doing what we can. Please continue to give after lockdown. Poverty is a very real problem.” 

Community leader Gary van Niekerk said the lockdown was very hard for people in the Northern Areas. 

“Most of us need to go out and skarrel [hustle] for something to survive. This is the reality of being treated like we don’t exist in the Northern Areas. That is why we are trying to get donations from those that can donate and to hand out at least one meal. The need is huge out there. We need to spread what we get like that last bit of butter on your bread,” he said. 

Van Niekerk and a few helpers were handing out food at the Cyril Ramaphosa Informal Settlement on Wednesday. 

He said people were blaming a sudden hike in prices at the spaza shops for triggering the looting. 

“People blame the price hikes, the lack of food parcels and no food at home, but the truth is that it is the criminal element.”  

Apart from looting the shops, thieves also broke into several schools and took what they could. 


“People are very scared. They are stressing. They don’t know what is going to happen next. People are hungry. Some of them started looting the spaza shops.”


Eastern Cape Education Department spokesperson, Loyiso Pulumani said thieves broke in and looted classrooms at Die Heuwel Primary School and criminals also stole electrical wires at Joe Slovo Primary School. The kitchen at the KK Ncwana School in Kwazakhele was ransacked and three other schools were vandalised. 

Another community leader, Christian Martin, said: “People must understand that Port Elizabeth is a very unequal society. We have rich areas and poor areas. We were put into lockdown very fast. Nobody could prepare with food or hand sanitiser or masks or even gloves. What our poor people think of first is food. 

“People are very scared. They are stressing. They don’t know what is going to happen next. People are hungry. Some of them started looting the spaza shops. 

“We mustn’t loot their shops. We are religious people. It doesn’t matter which one, but all our religions warn that all of us were also foreigners once. I am very disappointed to see what happened. Even our schools are being looted. 

“What worries me most is what is going to happen after the lockdown. The money for the food parcels will not last forever. Who will get and who will watch? I am asking that everybody will help. We are asking the parents to help. They must talk to the youngsters to stop the recklessness and the looting.” 

“The spaza shop owners helped us for many years. They are also parents and also want to look after their children. The saddest for me are the schools that are being attacked. Looting a school is a sick thing for a community to do to itself. To destroy your own youth, your own children through destroying their future is the highest form of treason against your own community and society at large. 

“When schools were vandalised during riots before 1994 it was almost excusable because we wanted to get rid of gutter education. We are damaged individuals destroying ourselves. This is my saddest moment of all 52 years I have spent in the Northern Areas,” he said. MC


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