Covid-19: Unemployment destroying hinges on the ‘Doorway to the Karoo’
Touws River, a small town along the N1 in the Western Cape, has been devastated by the economic effects of Covid-19, with more and more residents relying on soup kitchens to survive.
“A ghost town” is how soup kitchen co-founder Rashaad Baker described his hometown of Touws River (Touwsrivier), an old railway town along the N1 highway in the Western Cape.
With the prolonged Covid-19 lockdown, many of the town’s residents have become unemployed and dependant on soup kitchens for food.
Touws River is an old railway town about 180km from Cape Town, a two-hour journey by car.
Ali Sablay, project manager at humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers Foundation, told Daily Maverick he had been receiving calls for assistance from Baker and soup kitchen co-founder Daphne van der Merwe, since October 2020.
Employers in and around the town have been cutting back on jobs, while some businesses have been forced to close operations altogether. In July 2020, Aquila Game Reserve, one of the area’s biggest employers, offered a “Save Now, Safari Later” promotion special — this in an effort to reinvigorate declining tourism, in the wake of 500 of the reserve’s workers being temporarily laid off due to Covid-19 and having to rely on unemployment incentives. Commuter Transport Engineering — another vital source of employment in the town, has closed down, adding to further joblessness.
Touws River has a population of 8,751 people according to the Statistics South Africa 2011 Census, with only 35,4% of the population employed. 10 years on, Sablay said the town suffers an unemployment rate of 93%.
Employment opportunities in the region remain scarce
The Breede Valley Municipality, into which Touwsrivier is incorporated, had provided jobs for fewer than 50 people, according to Baker. The municipality’s main offices are in Worcester, about 70km away from Touws River.
Two local Touws River supermarkets employed a handful of people.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the town’s residents found work on farms in the surrounding area, at the transport company and at the reserve. The town is labelled as a “doorway to the Karoo”, as it is situated along the R62 wine route.
Sablay told Daily Maverick he first visited the town in December 2020, to deliver 300 food parcels to the community. “There is nothing happening there,” he said.
Last week, Gift of the Givers delivered 250 food parcels, non-perishable bulk supplies to Baker and Van der Merwe’s soup kitchen for distribution to the destitute community, along with sweets, chips and chocolates for the town’s children
“One lady said we bought Christmas for the children,” said Sablay.
Baker told Daily Maverick that his soup kitchen has been registered as a non-profit organisation, under the moniker “Compassionate Hearts”. It initially provided meals to between 20 and 30 children when the kitchen opened in July 2020. “You can’t say no to a hungry child when he or she says they are hungry,” he said. The kitchen now feeds 400 people.
It provides meals for the community twice a week — sometimes the only substantial meals that families in the area get. At times, the soup kitchen has had to turn people away because of a lack of supplies, which Baker said was “heart-wrenching”.
The soup kitchen has had support from a local supermarket, but Baker said this was also dependent on the available budget.
Gift of the Givers has since adopted the soup kitchen. “Their help and assistance have become invaluable,” said Baker.
Baker explained that Touws River was in dire straits and in need of help. There were no Home Affairs or Labour Department offices for the unemployed to access services such as the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Residents needed to travel to Worcester or else De Doorns — 40 km away — to access services.
Due to the lack of employment in the town, Baker said “it’s becoming a ghost town” and added, “it’s a forgotten town, people just drive through.”
Baker added, “What this town needs is reskilling. Youth needs to become skilled.”
According to the latest available figures, on 29 January, Touwsriver has had 235 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 37 active cases. The town has had eight Covid-19-related deaths
Baker told Daily Maverick the number of cases could be more — as there is “still shame” in speaking openly about testing positive for Covid-19. DM
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"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]"
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