Hunger and starvation in Durban

Hunger and starvation in Durban
Dalton Hostel resident Timothy Nzuza believes that the lockdown should stay in place ‘while people are still getting sick’. (Photo supplied)

Allegations are flying thick and fast as some desperate eThekwini residents wait for the delivery of food parcels, one of the brutal consequences of government’s draconian and extended Covid-19 lockdown.

Hunger — and more particularly the very real fear of starvation — has roused already elevated suspicions in some of the province’s rural areas, where peering through a curtain at midnight and seeing “food being delivered at that time” has led to allegations of theft and mismanagement of the parcels by councillors.

What the lockdown has revealed is that it is ordinary citizens who are stepping up to place food on the plates of the province’s distressed.

And allegations about councillors who milk the lockdown to ensure they are able to “buy support” for next year’s local government elections in order to keep their seats. But just how deep and real this problem is, is difficult to uncover. Even the South African Police Services couldn’t provide clarity.

Unable to walk, KwaMashu resident Michael Ndlela lives on the streets of Durban, foraging for scraps. His life has changed little since the lockdown. (Photo supplied)

Nevertheless, perceived or real, over the course of the weekend and into Monday, Daily Maverick received several calls from eThekwini residents accusing councillors of distributing food to friends and family. One such call involved the “peering through the window” scenario in Ward 94 of eThekwini Metro, which includes the areas of KwaMakhutha and Ensimbini, just west of the seaside suburb of Amanzimtoti.

“The councillor was seen handing out food parcels at about midnight on Saturday to people who were her friends and family. One lady went to collect parcels and was turned away,” a resident, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, told Daily Maverick.

The ward in question has a population of about 20,000 people, consists of large rural areas and the majority are unemployed or involved in casual labour — which has dried up due to the lockdown.

Contacted by Daily Maverick, local councillor Nomvula Hlomuka said that the delivery of food parcels had actually started later than midnight — between 1.30am 2am on Sunday morning.

She said this was because the parcels had to be collected from Durban’s food bank, transported and then sorted.

“It was about 2am that we started to distribute food because people were aware that we [had collected] on Saturday,” said Hlomuka.

Addressing the allegations of delivering to friends and family, Hlomuka said that one family that was set to receive a parcel happened to live near her mother’s home.

“The food was going to be delivered at one of the families next door to the house where I was born. My car was just parked in front of my mother’s house, but the food did not go to my mother’s house.”


The general rule of thumb is that priority for food parcel deliveries goes to households with an income of less than R1,800 — the maximum a state pensioner receives. After this list is exhausted, those with a lesser need are catered for.


Hlomuka said she was aware that there were people complaining about not receiving food, and admitted that the needs of all of the indigent in her ward would not be met.

“Before the city started handing out parcels, I even spent R6,000 of my own money on buying food and I asked my friends to contribute.

“Here in this ward, close to 500 food parcels were handed out prior to this weekend. I had also asked some non-profit organisations, the local community policing forums and traditional leaders to help.

“We know what we are doing is not enough in a ward this size, which has a large rural area. It is very difficult,” said Hlomuka.

The metro has allocated R66-million to supply 1,000 parcels to qualifying indigent residents across each of its 110 wards, or vouchers to those who prefer to do their own shopping.

Besides this project, other municipalities throughout the province are also delivering food, as is the Department of Social Development in partnership with the Solidarity Fund. Sassa, NPOs, business forums, churches and individuals are also delivering parcels.

Regardless of the supplier, getting parcels to homes is reliant on how information is relayed from the ground. Each entity that provides food parcels must validate a request, assess the need and try to eliminate duplication. If the ward councillor or ward committees responsible for the task are inefficient, serious delays will ensue.

The general rule of thumb is that priority for food parcel deliveries goes to households with an income of less than R1,800 — the maximum a state pensioner receives. After this list is exhausted, those with a lesser need are catered for.

Most of the parcels contain any or all of the following items: maize meal, samp, flour, soya mince, salt, sugar, cooking oil, peanut butter, instant yeast, long-life milk as well as household cleaning and sanitation items. Some of the parcels include fresh vegetables, depending on who is doing the supplying.

On Sunday, KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala said that as of 6 May, the provincial government had received 100,302 requests for the special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD). Of this number, 34,077 had received parcels, another 59,086 were outstanding and 9,624 of the applicants did not meet the criteria.

“We are aware that there is an increase in demand for social relief support and we will continue to respond within the available resources,” said Zikalala.

Spokesperson for the province’s department of social development, Mhlaba Memela, told Daily Maverick that KwaZulu-Natal was using its existing ward-by-ward outreach programme known as Operation Sukuma Sakhe to deliver parcels.

Operation Sukuma Sakhe was initially established to respond to the province’s TB, HIV and AIDS crisis. Memela said “strong local leadership” at a ward level was needed to ensure food parcels reached their intended destinations.

“We also rely on local knowledge and ubuntu. Often when we visit one area, people inform us about people who live in the community that are in distress, but for some reason are not being helped or receiving a grant,” said Memela.

Government talk, although prolific, tends to be cheap. In reality, it is NPOs, religious organisations, individuals and communities who are the most organised and adept at keeping the hunger pangs at bay.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) is part of a network of social and environmental justice non-profit entities headed by well-known environmentalist Desmond D’Sa.

“Government and the large industries who operate in this region have abandoned the people,” D’Sa told Daily Maverick.

The lockdown had turned 5,000 subsistence farmers in the south Durban area into “criminals”, he said, while promised assistance from the government had not materialised.

The SDCEA had donated money and food parcels to the Wentworth and Merebank communities, and assisted hostel dwellers in Umlazi, he said.

“Churches, mosques, the Tamil Federation and other non-profits have stepped in. If we cannot help each other then we lack humanity. But I am not sure how long all these organisations can keep on providing.”

The South Durban Basin is home to two petrochemical refineries, a large paper mill, motor manufacturers and at least 5,000 businesses, 22,000 households and about 200,000 residents. 

In the north of Durban, resident associations have committed to feeding five informal settlements based within their wards.

Through their local community police forum and in partnership with an umbrella non-profit to access permits for delivery, the residents of Greenwood Park, Avoca, Effingham and Redhill have managed to deliver 1,070 food parcels to the settlements since early April. Collectively, those informal settlements house about 15,000 people.

The residents have also distributed 340 food parcels to suburban households. All of this was at a cost of about R150,000. To date, the group has not been contacted by or seen any government agency. Local CPF spokesman Kavir Ramchunder told Daily Maverick the community had to step in to stem a swell of desperation.

“Most of the funding has come from the residents, while local supermarkets have assisted. It is really hats off to the community and no one individual.”

Further inland, the Howick community has created the uMngeni Relief Network (URN)– a joint effort between several community organisations, farmers and businesses.

The network is supported by the local municipality, but does not receive funding from any government agency. URN has, over the past three weeks, delivered about 5,600 food parcels to the municipality’s 12 wards.

The network’s co-ordinator, Matt Hogarty, told Daily Maverick the group receives weekly donations of fresh produce from local farmers, cash donations and cost-price deals from local supermarkets. He said 40 volunteers pack the parcels in a sponsored warehouse; the goods are then transported via 10 trucks — also sponsored by local businesses.

“The lists [of people in need] come in on Tuesday, we pack, and on Thursday we go out with the 10 trucks,” said Hogarty.

He said Sassa and the social development department had made some deliveries to the area, but nowhere near the scale of the URN.

While acknowledging the permit system had streamlined since initially being rolled out, Hogarty said the network remained completely privately funded, thus “don’t have to answer to government”. 

Despite this, URN has obtained a seat at the table of the municipal Joint Command Council where various government entities, including SAPS, meet weekly to discuss their localised Covid-19 response. There are several foundations also undertaking deliveries across the province, one being the DRK Foundation, which is linked to controversial cigarette manufacturer Yusuf Kajee.

Kajee is part of the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), which is taking the government to court over the “unconstitutional” ban on cigarettes during the lockdown. Together with Ibrahim Shaik, who runs his own foundation, Kajee has over the lockdown period delivered 700 food parcels, costing on average R420 each, from Port Shepstone to Richards Bay. 

“We are mainly focusing on the rural areas as they are often forgotten,” Shaik told Daily Maverick.


Another resident, calling in allegations of irregularities from his ward, said that reporting the matter to the police would end in “my homicide”.


eThekwini’s hostels — estimated to house 250,000 mostly unemployed or casually employed residents — remain a challenge for NPOs and the city, irrespective of lockdown.

Daily Maverick received calls from residents at KwaMashu Hostel alleging irregularities in the distribution of food parcels — including a truck loaded with packets of rice that seemed to have vanished.

The ward councillor in question could not be reached.

Daily Maverick asked all those who phoned in with allegations of irregularities if they had reported the matters to their local police stations. Replied one caller: “If my name gets known, I am dead.”

Another resident, calling in allegations of irregularities from his ward, said that reporting the matter to the police would end in “my homicide”.

Police were unable to tell Daily Maverick how many — if any — cases had been opened in the province relating to councillors stealing or selling food parcels intended for the poor.

Dalton Hostel, based in the suburb of Umbilo and housing about 3,000 people, is largely a forgotten area, as are the poor and elderly residents at Melbourne Court. Both buildings fall within Ward 32, which is without a councillor. The Umbilo Business Forum has been supplying the hostel and poor residents, such as those at Melbourne Court, with food parcels.

Daily Maverick accompanied Mthembiseni Thusi on his deliveries to both buildings, on behalf of the business forum.

“We were saying the market must open and the market has come to us [with the parcels]. We thank God for this. You go into Checkers and buy two potatoes for R10. We are very grateful,” said 71-year-old Sheila Johnson after receiving a parcel outside her Melbourne Court residence.

Dalton resident Timothy Nzuza, who has lived at the place for more than 10 years, said the casual labour he relied on had mostly dried up since the lockdown.

“But I don’t think we should end the lockdown while people are getting sick.”

A clutch of drifters sauntered up to this journalist was entering the Dalton precinct, they had hands outstretched, begging and oblivious to the stench from the overflowing skips. Although beggars are not new in any city streets, the fear of being without food for a length of time — even scraps — was tangible.

“It’s hard now with the lockdown, people aren’t here to help, where do I get a slice of bread from?” asked a dishevelled stranger. DM


"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]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.