PHOTO ESSAY

On the frontline: Supermarket workers – our unsung heroes

By Shiraaz Mohamed 16 July 2020

Cashier Portia Nyakama (blue face mask) and a colleague at a till point. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Like Portia Nyakama, many supermarket workers around the country are now in the category of unsung heroes, daily manning the tills and stocking the aisles of grocery stores and other shops.

“I am lucky to be alive and working in this pandemic. People are dying while others have lost their jobs. Factories are closing down and here I am. I am amazed, I have not contracted the virus and I have my job. I get up every morning while it is dark and I pray to God, because you never know what can happen.” These are the words of Portia Nyakama, a cashier at a Spar franchise in Ennerdale, South of Johannesburg. 

Portia Nyakama prepares to make supper. She is the sole breadwinner in her house and is amazed that she has not contracted the virus. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Like Nyakama, many other supermarket workers around the country are now in the category of our unsung heroes, manning the tills and stocking the aisles of grocery stores, and other shops on a daily basis.

Portia Nyakama, left, with Spar franchisee Andre Coetzee as they do a price check on items. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The 39-year-old mother of two wakes up daily at 4.45am to pray and prepare herself for work. She then sets off to work, walking. Despite living a few kilometres from her workplace, she is afraid to walk in the dark as she is at risk of getting raped or mugged, so she waits for first light. 

Portia Nyakama sanitises her till and workspace as is customary after every sale. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Supermarket workers interact with hundreds of people on a daily basis and are at constant risk of exposure to and infection with Covid-19. It’s for this reason that they have to be extra cautious when it comes to their safety and the safety of shoppers, sometimes educating them on the dangers of the virus and the repercussions of not wearing a face mask or not observing physical distancing.

Portia Nyakama at her till point. She often educates customers on the importance of wearing a mask and observing physical distancing. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“I didn’t take this virus seriously at first. I did not believe it. But after I saw how people in my area were getting infected, I got scared. This is why I am so cautious. I take all precautions. After every sale, I sanitise my hands and my work area. But you get some customers who are in a hurry. They can’t wait for you to sanitise and I have to explain to them the importance of sanitising. Others are stubborn while others just don’t take this virus seriously at all.”

Portia Nyakama making her way to the cash office. She finds wearing her face mask uncomfortable at times but endures going up to 12 hours a day wearing it. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Another challenge she is faced with is the handling of money. “You will be surprised where people will pull money out from. I don’t know if the money is clean or dirty. Sometimes they pull money from their boobs or even from their shoes. That is why I sanitise so much. If I don’t sanitise every few minutes, I don’t feel right.”

Portia Nyakama helps a customer. Despite her duties as a cashier she often goes beyond the call of duty. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Another cashier, Constance Mofokeng, said: “This virus is really frightening. As much as it is frightening, the situation is also frustrating. Us retail workers, we serve a purpose to our community. They depend on us to provide them with their food. It is frustrating because some of them take this very lightly. They don’t see the importance of us sanitising our tills and work areas. It is up to us to protect ourselves and the customers.”

Portia Nyakama takes her lunch break. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Apart from the usual temperature scans and sanitising that all staff have to undergo before entering work, Spar franchisee Andre Coetzee also supplies his staff members with extra sanitisers for them to take home. 

Nthabiseng Khojane, left, Portia Nyakama, centre and Chezarynn van Tonder pose for a quick selfie. Despite working under stressful conditions they always make time for having a bit of fun. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“We are actually lucky to be able to operate. Many businesses went under or are struggling. Yes, the economy has taken a battering with this pandemic and it shows in the sales. But it is not only about the sales. It is about the wellbeing and the health of my workers and their families. Up to this day, we continue giving all our employees Covid-19 safety workshops,” Coetzee said.

When asked if Nyakama felt like a hero working on the frontline, she replied: “I am surprised and overwhelmed. I am just a normal person who follows each and every procedure to prevent the virus. If you have to use the word hero, then it is not only me. It is myself and my team that I work with. We are in this together.” DM

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