Lockdown Diaries: The politics of food parcels in Cape Town

Lockdown Diaries: The politics of food parcels in Cape Town
A general view of food and sanitary parcels being packed and loaded for distribution at the Gauteng Social Development Warehouse on Day Six of National Lockdown on April 01, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: ER Lombard/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

‘Some leaders are corrupted; they take most of the food their families’, wrote Nathi, who lives within an informal settlement in Imizamo Yethu, Cape Town. His words seemed to fit a well-worn truth in South African politics: the delivery of resources and services is skewed by self-interest and patronage.

While Nathi’s observation may be true, the truth does not exist as a single, simple story. Truths are multiple, messy and layered. In our Lockdown Diaries project, we have been hearing many stories around the politics of food parcels as we have spoken to a diverse range of over 70 participants from across Cape Town. These stories show that if we focus only on chronicles of corruption (and alleged corruption) we risk missing the bigger picture at play.

Over the five weeks since our project began, people’s stories have demonstrated that food parcels are being distributed unevenly across Cape Town as a whole and across particular townships and informal settlements. While some diarists in Khayelitsha had been closely involved in food parcel programmes, others, like Assie, wrote that no food parcels had been distributed in his part of Khayelitsha.

These patchy patterns of delivery mean that parcels are not always reaching all of those in need, nor are they necessarily reaching those in the greatest need. Such shortcomings provide a fertile ground for allegations of patronage and corruption. Allegations allude to self-interested leaders and brokers who are siphoning off resources to feed their own families and friends.

In South Africa – as in every country across the world – there will undoubtedly be some of this at play. Personal and professional relationships, alliances and obligations always shape the priorities of those in power. These can be driven by a whole range of motives that include loyalty, political calculus, ideological commitment, and economic gain. Sometimes these ties can be relatively broad and inclusive. At other times they can be particularly self-interested and narrow. In everyday life, they can determine access to opportunities and resources. In the time of Covid-19, they can determine who gets fed.

But the archetype of the self-interested leader only gets us so far in understanding the politics of food parcels. As Khaya puts it, “The system is a problem.” People’s access to parcels is patchy in large part because demand is great, parcels are limited, and distributors’ knowledge of need is imperfect.

Prior to the lockdown, unemployment in South Africa stood at 29%. Many of those who did have informal and formal work within the country are now unable to earn an income. Despite the number of food parcels being delivered, the daily hunger people face goes far beyond the capacity of these organisations to feed them.

The gap between provision and demand can be stark. Mavis lives in Block Six, an informal settlement in Philippi. This settlement has approximately 728 homes, but they only received nine food parcels from their councillor as part of a ward-wide distribution. “We decided to give them to the poorest of the poor,” Mavis explained, “and now we’re trying to apply by ourselves by SMSing Sassa, but… [we are] still waiting”. Even as a local leader with a good knowledge of her community, though, choosing the “poorest of the poor” is no easy job. Many residents in Block Six are facing great hardship during the Covid-19 Crisis.

As organisations offer what they can, community leaders are faced with an excruciating choice: turning down assistance that is desperately needed because it is so limited, or anger those who are left behind. “I cannot be part of organising 30 people or 100 people and leave others behind,” Khaya explained, from Khayelitsha. “You say we must identify 100 poor people – we have thousands of thousands of poor people.” Ultimately, Khaya stepped back from the distribution committee rather than risk becoming an “enemy of the people”.

Understandably, in a situation of limited resources and great need, organisations and individuals have been trying to build lists of those in need. In practice, this has led to a squall of sign-up sheets, hotlines, and WhatsApp messages asking for people’s details. Those who are struggling to make ends meet in South Africa are often all too used to having to prove their poverty and document the indignities that they face in the hope of getting help that rarely arrives. That does not, however, make the process any less dehumanising, nor does it dilute the frustration that people feel when, as our diarists related, the parcels that subsequently arrived do not come to their door.

Better distribution strategies can undoubtedly improve the ways in which parcels are delivered but it cannot solve the fundamental problem at play: food parcels are not a sustainable, comprehensive or systematic fix. They are governed by a logic of charity. When the state distributes a small number of food parcels through its ward councillors, it mimics this logic of charity: Whether they want to or not, distributors are forced to choose those they deem to be “deserving”.

Politicians may make that distinction on the basis of political allegiance but even those who seek a more needs-based approach are often forced to make dubious definitions of “deserving” in the midst of limited resources and unrelenting need. Their attempts to bolster the legitimacy of their choices through lists and registers can create the kind of frustration they sought to avoid. Over time, irritation and desperation deepen. This is why the shift by the state towards extraordinary grants and grant increases this month was so important, for all its flaws: it acknowledges that the people’s survival is not an act of charity, it is the duty of the state. DM

For more information and to read more blogs go to Lockdown Diaries. The Lockdown Diary Project is run by a team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of the Western Cape.


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