The biggest lockdown threat: Hunger, hunger, everywhere

Residents in Mitchells Plain clash with police over food parcels. Residents are furious with the government for not fulfilling its promise of delivering food parcels. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Protests and looting have broken out all over South Africa in recent days in response to one issue: hunger. It is now clear that hunger will pose the greatest threat to South African well-being and security during the lockdown – and the difficulties involved with getting food to millions of South Africans in need are tremendous.

The hunger of South Africans during the extended lockdown period is spilling over on to the streets. This week alone, grocery stores have been looted and protests have broken out on the Cape Flats, Khayelitsha, Alexandra and Chatsworth – to name just a few areas.

Cape Flats ward councillor Bongani Ngcani was quoted by News24 as saying: “A man told me: ‘I would rather die of Covid-19 than of hunger’ ”.

It is clear that all three tiers of government are well aware of the threat posed by hunger. But the logistical challenges of providing food to potentially millions of South Africans under lockdown are monumental, and may not be able to be resolved through existing systems.

Problem #1: A lack of existing capacity for distributing food

When it comes to social support for the poor in South Africa, the responsibility technically falls to the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) under the department of social development.

But Sassa’s offices have been closed since the beginning of the national lockdown, and the department of social development does not seem to have the capacity to deal with current food security needs.

The department did not respond to Daily Maverick’s request for comment.

“The department of social development has an existing provincially based food distribution programme, but their capacity is [feeding] under 300,000 nationally,” Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) researcher Marius Oosthuizen told Daily Maverick.

Oosthuizen is one of a number of local academics who have been working on the problem of food security and distribution during the lockdown.

“Just in Gauteng, by the department of social development’s admission, the need in April will go up to 300,000 needing support,” says Oosthuizen.

By May, that number may rise to 3.2 million.

“It’s a question of scale: how do you get to that quantum of support?” asks Oosthuizen.

The Gauteng department of social development told Daily Maverick that 80,000 families in the province have received food parcels so far. These include sugar, mielie meal, tinned goods, fish oil, salt, rice, samp and some toiletry items.

Problem #2: A lack of data on who needs support

There is no up-to-date national database pointing authorities to who is most in need of support at this time.

Sassa has a list of existing social grant beneficiaries and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) now has records of who has applied for unemployment support at this time, but it is recognised that those most in need are people who do not currently qualify for either a Sassa grant or UIF support.

Asks Oosthuizen: “Who are those X million people and how do we reach them?”

Problem #3: The bureaucracy involved in verifying food claims

As things stand, the bureaucratic process involved in verifying the claims of those who need food is cumbersome, time-consuming and varies from province to province. It is not as simple as people in need turning up at a food bank to claim parcels.

Gauteng department of social development spokesperson Thabiso Hlongwane explained the process in Gauteng to Daily Maverick as follows:

“An individual qualifies [for food support] if you are unemployed and you have a combined family income below R3,600 per month.”

Those falling into these categories can call a dedicated toll-free number (0800 428 8364) or email a claim ([email protected]). The details of these contacts have been advertised in Gauteng on flyers and via WhatsApp.

“When you submit your name and ID, we screen you,” Hlongwane says.

“We work with banks and Home Affairs to verify [you are in need]. Then we send social workers to come and assess you. Households with children and elderly people get priority.”

The Western Cape department of social development, meanwhile, is offering food support to people who meet the following criteria:

  • A household containing member/s of the family who tested positive for the virus and are in quarantine in their homes.
  • A household where a member of the family who tested positive for the virus and who have insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period.
  • People on medication or who suffer from a chronic illness and have insufficient means to sustain themselves and were assessed and referred by a local clinic or registered health practitioner.
  • A person and their household who have insufficient means to sustain themselves during the lockdown period who was referred by a registered humanitarian relief agency, registered NPO or a municipal manager, and assessed by DSD [Department of Social Development].

Claims for food have to be routed through the provincial government call centre, a municipal manager or a registered NPO. They are then subjected to a telephonic assessment by a social worker, and screening of the person’s ID against the Sassa database to check whether they are already a grant recipient.

The provincial government states: “Once a prospective beneficiary is confirmed as meeting the criteria, they are then contacted by the department and given details of when delivery will take place.”

Problem #4: The politicisation of food distribution and related corruption

Claims have already emerged of the process of food distribution being politicised.

The DA’s Gauteng social development spokesperson Refiloe Nt’sekhe released a statement on Wednesday alleging that “five DA wards in the Emfuleni local municipality have been excluded from the distribution of food parcels while all the ANC wards in this municipality are benefiting”.

Gauteng DSD spokesperson Hlongwane denied this claim to Daily Maverick, saying:

“The DSD serves all the vulnerable of our province. It does not choose…We have called for all political parties not to politicise poverty. The DA must not use this platform to gain popularity”.

The EFF has made a similar claim, alleging that EFF members are being denied food parcels in both Tshwane and the Eastern Cape.

In the Western Cape, GOOD MPL Brett Herron also stated on Tuesday:

“South Africa has an unfortunate history of politicising the giving of food parcels. From Gauteng, over the Easter Weekend, and from the Western Cape today, the GOOD Party has received multiple reports that food aid is not being distributed in a fair and equitable way.”

In addition, the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) Tshwane branch has laid a corruption charge with police over claims that Gauteng department officials have stolen food parcels for their own families.

Hlongwane told Daily Maverick:

“We have never got any complaint from any whistleblower. As a department we are still waiting for names to be forwarded. A case has been opened; we have been asking for information to do our own investigation.”

Hlongwane said that there were strict protocols in place controlling the removal of food parcels from the central Gauteng depot.

“You sign a register to say how many parcels you take, and there is monitoring and evaluation,” he said.

In a different context, Daily Maverick also reported this week that although gangs on the Cape Flats are said to be distributing food parcels, it is alleged that only households which agree to hide drugs for the gangs are receiving relief.

Problem #5: Concerns around health and safety when people collect food

There has been some conflict over the safest way for people to collect food under lockdown. In Gauteng, NGOs wrote to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga asking for schools to be opened to serve as collection points for food for households which ordinarily benefit from the school feeding scheme.

In response, Gauteng premier David Makhura said that to open schools in this way would endanger children and break the rules of social distancing.

In the Western Cape, however, school feeding schemes have continued under lockdown – targeting around 483,000 learners who normally receive meals at schools. Over the past fortnight, R18-million has been allocated from the provincial treasury for schools to distribute food over four days, with individual schools permitted to offer daily meals.

This move has prompted criticism from Cosatu, the chair of Parliament’s committee on education and the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) due to the health issues raised by Makhura.

The Western Cape education department denied that its actions were endangering the public and said that sufficient measures were being taken to ensure health and safety, including strictly enforced queuing protocols and requiring learners to bring their own food containers from home which are not touched by staff.

But the issue of large groups forming in order to claim food is a real concern, with police already having to break up groups of this kind in Alexandra.

Oosthuizen says that any food distribution solutions are going to have to ensure that South Africa does not see “high levels of conglomeration of citizens in queues”.

Desperation and hunger also give rise to situations where food distribution can erupt into violence – as Daily Maverick reported was the case in a Nelson Mandela Bay township recently when a church’s attempt to hand out food parcels descended into a fistfight.

Problem #6: Lack of co-ordination and communication around food distribution

Many South Africans have indicated their willingness to donate food to those in need – but a broad-based response may be both a blessing and a curse.

“This is being handled well in the Western Cape, where there is a society-wide approach. Provincial government has aligned itself with churches, NGOs etc and sees itself more as the co-ordinating agent,” says Oosthuizen.

Elsewhere, the lack of co-ordination between individual relief efforts and the national government is causing problems.

Oosthuizen cites the case of a Johannesburg pastor who was reportedly arrested while trying to deliver food to the township of Zandspruit, and was told he would have to wait for the relevant permission from Cogta (the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs). There have been similar reports elsewhere in the country of attempted food distribution efforts by individuals or NGOs being blocked by authorities.

“The actions of NGOs and churches on the ground are becoming criminalised due to a lack of broad co-ordination with the DSD,” Oosthuizen says.

In some places, social unrest has been fomented through mixed messages about the delivery of food parcels. Protests which broke out in Alexandra this week appeared to be stoked by a misunderstanding over food promised by well-intentioned donors which did not arrive.

Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo subsequently appealed to the public to contact the City of Johannesburg before distributing food so that the process could be co-ordinated centrally.

So what are the solutions?

Oosthuizen and fellow GIBS researchers have written up a number of proposals. One is to replace the current system of distributing physical food parcels with some form of voucher system which could be scaled up quickly with greater ease.

Another option: a basic income grant, which had been mooted by economists for some time even before the pandemic.

Both would require the rapid accumulation of data in order to create a database to ensure the support reaches the desired recipients.

Oosthuizen also proposes an approach which integrates the collection of food support with health and testing services: in other words, the establishment of designated spaces to which people can go to collect food support and potentially be screened for Covid-19 in one place.

“Broadly, we are going to need a more collaborative approach,” he says.

“The only way this is going to work is if there is a very high level of co-ordination.”

Much-needed support is also about to be rolled out by the Solidarity Fund, which will be releasing further details about its feeding plans on Friday 17 April.

Spokesperson Itumeleng Mahabane told Daily Maverick that R120-million has been earmarked from the fund to feed 200,000 families across all provinces, including in rural areas.

The Solidarity Fund’s plans sound promising. Although it is partnering with the department of social development, it will make use of additional partners to ensure that food is distributed more widely than would be possible working through government alone.

Mahabane said that the fund is working with four NGOs with a national footprint – whose names are being kept under wraps for now – and an additional private-sector distribution partner.

“The idea is to augment the department’s own distribution networks with the distribution networks of the four NGOs,” Mahabane said.

He said the fund would also engage with further community and faith-based organisations on the ground to help identify those most in need. DM


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