For the thousands in ‘Spruit’ Covid-19 has no meaning on an empty stomach

Mother and child carrying food parcels at the Sunderland, Ikon, Westhills Business Forum and Tshwane Muslim community distributes 5000 food parcels on during national lockdown April 29, 2020 in Tshwane, South Africa. According to media reports, South Africa has announced an easing of some lockdown restrictions beginning next month, citing economic concerns. (Photo: Gallo Images/Lefty Shivambu)

While thousands of people queued for food parcels in an informal settlement just outside of Centurion, many returned home empty-handed.

On Wednesday 29 April a staggering 8,000 food parcels were distributed to residents of the informal settlement of Spruit, located in Mooiplaas, Centurion. Long snaking lines of people desperately hoping to get food parcels could be seen with a heavy presence of the police and defence force soldiers to assist in the distribution. This was the biggest food distribution effort in the area since the Covid-19 lockdown had begun. It was oped that it could relieve the food disaster in the community. 

The effort, however, was not enough as it still left thousands empty-handed, disappointed and forced to take the long walk home with no food. This was despite the fact that many of these people had queued since 3am that morning in the hope of some food. 

Accessing Spruit by car is not an easy task as there is no proper road or paved access and potholes filled pools of muddy water from the recent rains dot the access route. I am with Marius Oosthuizen who lives in Centurion and has been helping with the facilitation of handing out food parcels to the community. He does the work in his capacity as a member of the Rotary Association of Spruit Forum. 

Oosthuizen explains that a couple of weeks into lockdown he started noticing people lining the nearby streets begging from the motorists who drove by, eventually the people swelled to crowds made up of hundreds. The desperate and hungry crowds were threatening to start looting, before neighbouring residents intervened with food assistance.

Maverick Citizen spoke to Lucas Chirwa, a Malawian national who has been living in the informal settlement of Mooiplaas popularly referred to as ‘Spruit’ for seven years now. He works as an Uber Eats driver, a job he hopes to get back as we begin level 4 on today (1 May). 

Chirwa is part of the leadership structure in the community and estimates that there are about 30,000 people who live in the informal settlement. He says his community job is to ensure the safety of residents and to filter through messages of what is needed in order for people to ward off the coronavirus as well as figure out ways to assist the community with its food needs during this time. He says that the community of Spruit is made up of a 50/50 split between South Africans and migrants mainly from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 

Chirwa says that it is through the efforts of surrounding communities like Laudium, businesses and Centurion based community organisations like the Rotary Association that they managed to get food for the residents of Spruit starting Monday 27 April. 

According to Chirwa the majority of people in Spruit are unemployed, with others having previously relied on ‘piece’ jobs such as construction, gardening and domestic work. With the advent of the Covid-19 lockdown, however, people now find themselves no longer able to make a living off of these jobs which has relegated them to hunger. 

We are joined by Joined Tinyiko Ngobeni who says she has also been living in Spruit since 2013  and is also unemployed with a 4-year-old child to feed. She also makes a plea for food intervention during this time. She told Maverick Citizen that even though she was one of the fortunate few who managed to receive a food parcel on Wednesday, some of her neighbours did not. She says that people resorted to sharing in order for others not to go hungry. I ask Ngobeni if she is aware of the R350 grant that the government is making available to people who are unemployed and she says no.

Chirwa says that he is worried about what will happen once the food parcels run out because he does not know where people will get food then. When asked if any government officials had come to engage the community in order to arrange food parcels, he says that they had not received any assistance or communication from the government with regards to food.

As we speak to Chirwa, we are frequently interrupted by curious community members who ask if we are there to provide food assistance and if we are able to assist them in any way. Lucas explains that food is all people are worried about at the moment and that the threat of Covid-19 means nothing to them if their hunger is not addressed. He says people will not be able to hear or adhere to any of the government’s messaging regarding precautions for the pandemic on an empty stomach. DM/MC


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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