/ 16 April 2020

Not enough Covid-19 food parcels

empty shelf
Although the government has made provision for food-assistance packages for the most vulnerable, some people say it’s those who fall just outside of the qualification (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

South Africa’s most sparsely populated province — the Northern Cape — has South Africa’s fewest reported number of cases of Covid-19, but it continues to be part of the national effort to curb the spread of the virus.

In the Kalahari town of Groblershoop, about 120km southeast of its largest major town, Upington, people are adhering to the lockdown restrictions.

No one walks around unnecessarily, and residents say children are off the streets. But the majority of the town’s about 5 000 residents are worried.

The big employers here are vineyards and the wine industry, with the Orange River winding through the province, passing just 2km from Groblershoop.

In the !Kheis municipality, a third of the working-age population was unemployed before the now-extended national lockdown. With industries, as well as local employers such as dry-goods stores closed, there is a real danger of people being unable to buy food. 

Although the government has made provision for food-assistance packages for the most vulnerable, some people say it’s those who fall just outside of the qualification criteria who are most at risk. During the lockdown, school-feeding schemes, which feed about nine-million schoolchildren, are not running, so those children now rely on food at home.

Frans Blaauw is a pensioner who receives an old-age pension of about R1800 a month. It’s more than nothing. But in his home, which he shares with his wife, two adult children, and five grandchildren — there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

“One of my children works at a butchery. But that business has closed now. So at the moment, there is no one working at home. But because we get a Sassa [South African Social Security Agency] grant, we were told we don’t qualify for a food parcel,” Blaauw said.

Blaauw said his social grant money had already dried up a week after receiving it.

With no additional income into the household — and without the assistance of a food parcel — he and his family’s immediate future remains uncertain.

But, he’s respecting the lockdown. And is urging his family to do the same. “It’s the law. There’s nothing we can do about it. I’m not afraid of this coronavirus. If it comes, it comes. But I’m staying safe inside my house. I’m not leaving, but that doesn’t mean I’m not worried about my children,” he said.

Local community worker Sarah Matekon said she’s been inundated with calls from people about the distribution of food parcels.

She said many people in the community rely on social grants, which means they don’t qualify for a food parcel.

“We were told that only people who are the most underprivileged will get food parcels. If there are people in the house who get more than R1000 a month, then they were told they don’t qualify. So if you have a mother or a father in the house who receives a Sassa grant, then that whole household doesn’t get,” Matekon said.

Small towns and rural economies have been hard hit by the lockdown.

Although agriculture is deemed an essential part of the economy, many farms have put workers on short time or have closed altogether. This means those who had earned a weekly salary now go home with nearly nothing.

In rural and farming towns, this often means buying essential items on credit from farm stores. This debt then gets deducted from farm workers’ wages when they are next paid.

“There’s no one who works here at the moment. The harvest time is now over. So, no one is working. And it’s the time of the month [when] many people have run out of their grant money. So they’re forced to go into town and go buy food on credit. But if there’s no work, how will they pay it back?” Matekon asked.

The Northern Cape government told the Mail & Guardian that it was prioritising “zero-income households”, in which there is no employment and no income.

“On a district level, the department of social development, municipalities and Sassa have worked on creating a master beneficiary list/database to ensure eligibility and to ensure no double-dipping,” the province’s social development department said in a statement. 

The department said, together with Sassa, it was identifying people who would be eligible for food parcels because they were not able to collect their social grants during the lockdown.