When lockdown forced Ansie van der Westhuizen from Yes Indeed Facilitators to stop work, she didn’t have much to do for the first week. Then the messages started coming.
For more than a year, van der Westhuizen had been running a Facebook group called “For the Love of Giving”, where people who were in need could ask for food or clothes or furniture. People knew her cellphone number.
At the same time, the head of the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development, Ntombi Baart, admitted that their food distress response coupled with that of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) would be inadequate. She said the number of households in the Eastern Cape that live below the breadline totalled 1.2 million, of which about 264,000 receive no income and do not know where their next meal will come from.
During lockdown, a sporadic need for food turned into a torrent of requests. WhatsApp messages, voice notes and phone calls just kept on coming. Some hours of the day a message would arrive every minute.
These are the messages that come through on Van der Westhuizen’s phone in only a few minutes:
“Good day. I would really like help with a food parcel. We are battling hubby is on no work no pay. We are 5 in the house. I stay in Sidwell. We will really appreciate it.”
“Good day. There are 11 of us in a house. And a baby. We need food.”
“Good morning. Sorry to bother you. I wanted to know if you were giving out food parcels. I phoned Sassa and the Democratic Alliance and many other numbers. Nobody is answering. If you can help I would appreciate it.”
“If you can bring us food we will appreciate it. We live in the wendy house behind the big house. There is a station wagon in the yard and two dogs.”
“Good day. I received Madam’s number from a friend. Because of lockdown my husband can’t find a job. There are four of us in the house. Three adults and a child. I hear you can help us with food. Please if you can also help us. Thank you.”
Good day. Sorry to bother you. I have asked people but I don’t know what to anymore. I need help. Someone gave me your number. I am a very shy person but we are really in trouble. My dad is 74. My sister also lives here. She is receiving treatment because there is something wrong with her mind. My dad pays our rent with his pension. He has been living here for seven years. I have left the children’s father. I am receiving help from my two sons but now they don’t work any more because of lockdown. My 4-year old’s dad is not working he can’t help with maintenance. I used to take that money to buy food. Now we have nothing. I am sorry to bother you but if possible is there perhaps a food parcel for us?”
“Good day hope you are blessed I just wanted to know how far you have come with food parcels. I don’t want to be lastig. But maybe you know. We need baby milk and porridge and toiletries. My sister have a baby but myself and my mom is looking after him because she is using drugs and doesn’t take good care of him. He is almost 3 months old but he doesn’t have anything. I am unemployed and my mom is a pensioner.”
“Good day Madam. A lady from the plot where we live has shared your number with me. Can you maybe help?”
“Hallo. Can I apply for a food parcel? It is for me and my husband and my mom and we have three children. We are struggling since the lockdown.”
“Good day please can you help. We have lost our income. We have three children and three adults in the house. Please if you can help with a food parcel.”
“Please can you help with a food parcel for a 12 year old. His mom just died of cancer. She was the only one who worked. He is staying with his grandparents. They asked if Auntie can’t deliver a food parcel. I can send pictures.”
And many voice notes like this one where one can hear the tears in the person’s voice.
“Sorry to leave a message like this. I am not really a big on typing. A friend asked if we got a food parcel. I know her husband very well. For many years. I just want to say we haven’t gotten any yet. We were waiting. There is nothing left. We are stressing a little. We have two kids.”
“I receive messages like this every day. Sometimes one a minute. When the lockdown started I had to stop working and the type of training that I do cannot be done online. So I started making food parcels,” Van der Westhuizen said.
Deeply aware of the bruising humiliation many people feel when they have to ask for food, she refuses to share pictures of the people she has helped.
“A woman will come out and say thank you, my husband is too embarrassed to come and say thank you too.”
Soon her home and those of friends were changed into assembly lines for the 465 food parcels that have been handed out so far. Teenagers, friends and family who were lounging around were redeployed to help pack. Her days were spent ordering food, assembling food parcels and delivering them.
“We are working so hard. Just as I thought we are winning, a new list will come through and the messages will start again. The need for food is so big. We will deliver 20 parcels and there will be another 150 families who also need food.”
Van der Westhuizen said what she saw when delivering food parcels broke her heart.
“It is difficult for people to ask. They are ashamed. They feel bad. They feel a deep shame to admit that they have run out of food and need help,” she said. “But I tell them: These pictures and the names will not be published anywhere. We all have our pride,” she said.
“Sometimes we arrive with a food parcel for one and then we discover: but there are seven families living here. Whole families are living in single rooms. They are coming from caravans and rooms.
“It is so dangerous at a time like this, but it is what it is. People have lost their jobs or they never had an income. They were always living under the breadline but now their plight is in the spotlight,” she said.
“When I see children who are hungry, I really want to make sure that they get something to eat,” she said.
Van der Westhuizen uses her contacts in the business world and her Facebook page to request donations.
“So far, we have received donations of food and cash and people are also sending virtual shopping vouchers.
Sometimes she would post on social media: “I need vegetables.”
Cabbage, butternut, mushrooms will arrive. Another post would ask for bread and hundreds of loaves will be delivered.
“People’s hands are open. Often I find that those who give the most are those who do not have much. They know about hunger.”
“When you bring food, the gratitude of families just overwhelms me every day. I don’t take any pictures. I know how difficult it is to ask. Last night I got a message from a woman asking about the pictures I took. It is humiliating for them to ask,” Van der Westhuizen said.
“We keep records of who gets what and we don’t double up unless we see that there really is a need and the food won’t be enough.
“Just now a police officer phoned me. She said there is a lady standing in front of her in tears because her mom doesn’t have food and she does not know what to do. I said I am coming.” DM/MC
"I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned." ~ Richard Feynman