Hunger Pains

How red tape is hampering the hungry from receiving food in South Africa

Olievenhoutbosch residents queue for food relief parcels on 2 May 2020 in Centurion, Gauteng. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

The government doesn’t want people randomly handing out food parcels under lockdown – and there are some good reasons for that. But frustration is brewing over the complex bureaucracy governing food distribution while people go hungry. Now, legal action may be pending.

In the small Eastern Cape town of Cradock, there was food available for those in need. The local Spar had donated 300 food parcels for distribution. But for days in late April, the food languished in a local community centre – despite the fact that the parcels included perishable vegetables.

“People were asking: What’s happened to this donation?” Cradock local Neville Prinsloo told Daily Maverick.

What had happened was that the Spar donation had been handed over to the local municipality, as per lockdown regulations. After Prinsloo took to Facebook to raise the alarm over the non-distribution of the food, he received a phone call from the mayor’s office informing him of the reason for the delay.

“Why they hadn’t distributed the parcels was that as government, they can’t distribute a parcel that is not up to Sassa [South African Social Security Agency] levels in terms of quantity,” Prinsloo said.

Sassa food parcels are intended to keep people going for two to three weeks, whereas the Spar parcels would only provide food for a few days. It would be unfair for one person to receive a Spar parcel, Prinsloo was told, and for a neighbour to receive a more substantial Sassa parcel. As a result, the municipality was holding back until additional supplies could be added to the Spar parcels.

“I get that logic, but the situation is dire,” says Prinsloo – who is a non-political member of his ward’s joint operations committee during lockdown.

“If someone is hungry, you have to hand out what you can.”

In the end, a group from a local foreign-owned shops association got together what Prinsloo describes as a “substantial” amount of supplies, which was then distributed together with the Spar parcels.

Olievenhoutbosch residents receive food relief parcels on May 02, 2020 in Centurion, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

But for Prinsloo, the incident highlights the frustrations many are feeling at the perceived hurdles standing in the way of simple and easy food distribution to those who need it most in South Africa under lockdown.

As previously reported by Daily Maverick, the bureaucracy associated with giving out food during lockdown is cumbersome, time-consuming and varies from region to region. There is very little clarity currently on which regulations apply in which area.

In Emalahleni (formerly Witbank) in Mpumalanga, a notice was circulated by the municipal manager in late April laying out the “requirements” to be “adhered to” by private persons or organisations wishing to give out food parcels.

The requirements include:

  • All cooked or uncooked food parcels to be inspected and approved by environmental health inspectors prior to distribution;
  • Food parcels cannot be distributed without a permit; and
  • Clear details of what is being distributed, when, and to whom, must be provided to the municipality for sharing with the security cluster.

Gauteng Social Development MEC Panyaza Lesufi, meanwhile, said last week that he was concerned about the ways in which individual citizens and NGOs were contravening regulations around food distribution under lockdown.

Lesufi reminded the public that anyone in Gauteng wishing to distribute food directly to communities must apply to the provincial Department of Social Development no less than 48 hours in advance in order to receive an authorisation letter, and must then approach the local police station to inform the SAPS of the distribution plans.

Nationally, a particular bone of contention has been the requirement that the distribution of food from a central point has to take place in collaboration with the local municipality or social development structures.

Prinsloo says this is causing tension in Cradock and surrounding areas of the Eastern Cape, where farmers and businesses are willing to make generous contributions – on the condition that they are permitted to deliver supplies themselves, rather than through the municipality.

“A lot of it stems from distrust for the municipality,” Prinsloo told Daily Maverick.

The Democratic Alliance has also expressed discontent with this state of affairs.

In a statement on Monday, DA spokesperson James Lorimer called on the government to realise that “centralising food relief through provinces or municipalities is inefficient and a gateway to corruption”.

Lorimer said: “According to reports, NGOs across the country are frustrated by red tape in applying for permits to distribute food while government is attempting to centralise this function under an incapable state.”

Among the NGOs that have been vocal in opposing the bureaucracy hampering efforts to address hunger is anti-gender-based violence group #NotInMyName.

#NotInMyName secretary Themba Masango stressed to Daily Maverick that the group is complying with government regulations around food distribution, including the wearing of protective gear, enforcing social distancing and not handing out food to more than 60 people at a time.

But Masango says it is important that the government realises, “NGOs are here to assist. We are not here to take the glory from government.”

He pointed out that NGOs are frequently more familiar with communities and conditions on the ground than government officials.

“Donors also often feel more comfortable giving to NGOs than to government, for obvious reasons,” Masango said.

“Government should be encouraging NGOs which are compliant [with lockdown regulations] to continue the good work, not feel under pressure.”

On Monday, trade union Solidarity’s charity wing Solidarity Helping Hand (Helpende Hand) indicated that it has “instructed its legal team to prepare for a lawsuit against government, should it continue to implement regulations prescribing that the distribution of food to the poor be centralised under government control”.

Olievenhoutbosch residents receive food relief parcels on May 02, 2020 in Centurion, South Africa. According to media reports, the Mahlasedi Foundation and Department of Social Development initiated a food-relief program in Olievenhoutbosch to assist more than 30 000 residents suffering under the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. (Photo: Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

René Roux, Solidarity Helping Hand’s head of communication, told Daily Maverick that they received their first complaint about three or four weeks ago, from a Krugersdorp NGO which was allegedly stopped from running a soup kitchen. Since then, it has also received reports from a number of churches which have been prevented from distributing food parcels.

But even the organisation threatening legal action against the government acknowledges that the distribution of food cannot be a free-for-all.

“In these times we understand that guidelines must be followed in order to stop the spread of the virus,” Roux says.

It is not just in South Africa that restrictions have been placed on the distribution of food during lockdown. In Malaysia, the same has applied, with the Malaysian Medical Association giving its full support to restrictions out of concern for the preparation and distribution of food without wearing protective gear.

In India, similar restrictions have been put in place in various regions. After social media showed people distributing food to children on the streets, India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights said that members of the public were endangering children and other indigent people by encouraging them to stay on the streets rather than seek shelter.

In South Africa, a number of undesirable incidents have been recorded as a result of well-intentioned food donations.

A KwaZulu-Natal municipality was found to have distributed expired instant porridge to needy families in April after receiving the porridge as a donation from an NGO.

The unregulated distribution of food parcels in informal settlements has led to conflict and even violence. Gift of the Givers spokesperson Badr Kazi recently told Daily Maverick:

“When delivering goods, checks and balances have to be put in place to ensure that aid is fairly distributed. This includes keeping a register of everyone who has been handed food parcels.”

Such “checks and balances” are very difficult to keep track of without some form of centralised system.

But Solidarity Helping Hand argues that individual NGOs should be allowed to decide for themselves where the food goes, because they know where the greatest need is.

“Since the pandemic, requests for help increased far above 100%. There is no reason why the state should decide where NPOs’ donations go to or force us to deliver food to a certain place,” Roux told Daily Maverick.

She added:

“Helping Hand has national permits in place, but now government seeks regional and municipal permits as well and it seems the state’s regulations differ from place to place, adding to confusion. We can’t allow these uncertainties to interfere with our mission to alleviate poverty and hunger.” DM


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