On the evening of 21 April last year, 25 days into the national lockdown, Veronicah Sehoke and her family were sitting in a tiny room that functions as a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom, eating their supper.
Sehoke, who loves to cook, had prepared her favourite meal: pap and chicken feet. But instead of enjoying her food, she was listening to her family making predictions about what President Cyril Ramaphosa would say.
Something new was happening for them and the rest of the country. The previous month, South Africa shut down. Everybody was required to stay at home and work from there, if they could. As Ramaphosa greeted the nation, Sehoke thought about how the events of the past three weeks had disrupted her life, making an already difficult situation unbearable.
She tried to drown out the chatter from her mother and father to focus on what the speech would say about her situation. The 32-year-old has been unemployed for six years; at that time, all she could think about was what her family’s next meal would be. She was also hoping that the stories she saw on social media about a relief fund to cushion vulnerable citizens were true.
After completing her motor mechanic course in 2014, Sehoke thought she would get a job — but it never materialised. The country’s economy kept on shrinking.
Faced with unemployment, she spent years cleaning her neighbour’s houses and braiding people’s hair. She had to make money to help support her father, a pensioner; her mother, a tea lady at a hardware store in Silverton in Pretoria; and her 15-year-old sibling with epilepsy.
Then Ramaphosa said: “A special Covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month for the next six months will be paid to individuals who are currently unemployed and do not receive any other form of a social grant or UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund] payment.”
Ramaphosa’s announcement was targeted at dealing with the economic fallout of the lockdown. At the time, it was unclear how large an effect the lockdown would have on jobs and economic growth.
Months passed, and the unemployment rate increased to 30.8%. The youth were the hardest hit. According to the Reserve Bank, gross domestic product for the year was projected to fall 8%.
‘Money was tight’
Sehoke told the Mail & Guardian that the strictest phases of the lockdown meant she could not help her family, and her mother’s employers told her to stay at home without pay. Her 67-year-old father stopped operating his vegetable stand. It was not an essential service.
“Level five and four was hard”, Sehoke recounts. “Money was tight”, she continues, adding that she even applied for a food voucher from the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa). There was never a response.
Sehoke looks strikingly young, but her eyes speak of weariness. However, her voice is that of someone hopeful. As the weeks dragged on after the president’s speech, she depended on the kindness of her close-knit community to assist with essentials such as maize meal and meat. Finally, the grant application process started on 11 May. Sehoke hastily applied.
Seventeen days later, on a Sunday, her phone buzzed. It was an SMS notification for her first R350 payment from the state. She released a sigh of relief and quickly made plans. As well as the urgent needs at home, she would buy ingredients to sell popcorn.
“It was fine at first because school kids were going to school, so they would buy. Now they’re not going. It’s quiet. I also do not have stock yet, because I thought I would buy it when I get the [grant] money in [January],” she tells the M&G.
“Ke fila bad [I feel bad]. It’s painful because I was already used to getting money every month. I was taking it as a basic income [grant]. If they don’t continue the grant, then they must give us learnerships or something.”
Shaeera Kalla, an activist and member of the C19 people’s coalition — an alliance of social movements, trade unions and community organisations — said the grant had been a small but essential policy that has helped about five million families put food on the table at a time where the poverty rate increased sharply.
The pandemic is still here, and the economy is still in the doldrums. The emerging humanitarian crisis that developed last year continues to unfold, Kalla said. According to Sassa, 45-million grants had been paid by the end of December, totalling more than R15-billion.
‘Hard to find a job’
Kabelo Lumkwani is another one of those recipients. He has been unemployed for 11 years, since he left school. The 28-year-old man, hands stained with dried cement, says “it’s hard to find a job.”
Puffing on a cigarette, Lumkwani takes a break from the wall he had been hired to build in Lawley township, south of Lenasia. He quickly explains that since dropping out of school in grade 11, everything has been stacked against him.
“I needed money,” he said. He explained that his situation did not allow him to stay at school. He has worked at wholesalers, playing dice and selling hotdogs to party-goers in his neighbourhood.
“Anything that I can do to make money, I would do it,” he said.
Lumkwani applied for his grant in July. However, approval took more than three months, during which his status showed as “pending”.
After the first bulk payment he received, he says that “it went back to ‘pending’.
“I don’t know if I will get the last payment for January. That money is really needed,” he says.
In October, when he received the message, he woke up to queue at the Protea Post office at 4am. With dozens of others, he waited for hours. It was four hours later when a white Quantum taxi pulled up next to him.
“They told me that I would not get my money. There is always a story here. It was my first time queuing, but I’ve heard stories of people who were turned back because there was no money.”
No trust in government
Lumkwani and his friend Lerato Khoase, who helped him build the wall, do not trust the government system — even with this grant money. “You could stand there the whole day, and they will tell you [the system] is offline, no matter what time you wake up.”
Lumkwani listened to the stranger in the taxi. Hustling for his own money, the stranger told him he could drive Lumkwani to Krugersdorp where the lines were shorter — for a fee, of course.
The deal was that when the R350 had been paid to Lumkwani, he would pay the driver R80 for the 21km trip. “After I got my bit, I gave him his bit, and he took all of us back ko kasi,” he says.
Lumkwani had received R1 050. After paying the taxi, he spent the rest on groceries for his daughter, girlfriend and grandmother. But, according to the Household Affordability Index released in December, this lump sum would not be enough for an average household monthly food basket, which has increased by R161.89 to R4 018.22.
The household food basket tracks 44 basic food (including maize meal, rice and potatoes) that women living in low-income households try to buy each month.
Another young person trying to get by is Tshepo Malepeng. After he was financially excluded from university in 2017, he moved back home with his two sisters and mother. His mother used to run a thriving daycare centre in Mamelodi, Pretoria. Voices of a couple of kids linger in the air while he speaks outside the kitchen of his mother’s house.
His voice gets louder, and his face brightens up as he tells the M&G about his entrepreneurial pursuits, which had financially sustained his family before the pandemic restricted them to their home.
Since dropping out, Malepeng has been trying to run a stockbroking business. He also dyes people’s clothes. But by May there was not much business for him or his mother. He applied for the grant for himself and his 20-year-old sister. Three months later he went to the Post Office to check.
“[It’s] by grace I was able to get my money. If I did not go check, I would not have received the money, because I did not receive an SMS. When I checked the status, it would just say ‘failed’. So something told me to go to the Post Office and check,” Malepeng says.
His first payment was R1 050, and his mother used it to feed them all. The monthly R350 since then has also ensured that they don’t sleep on an empty stomach.
Extend the grant
But Kalla said that the grant “is not, and was never, enough. Community organisations and civil society have been demanding upwards of the food poverty line of R585.”
The group has been lobbying the government to extend and increase the grant. In his closing speech at the ANC’s national executive committee lekgotla in January, Ramaphosa said that the government would consider extending the grant. This, he said, would be done with a clear exit strategy and would also depend on the state of public finances.
Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson for the social development department, told the M&G that it is currently developing policy proposals on the basic income grant. “Key factors to be considered include the costing of the amount to be provided, funding sources and phasing of implementation,” she said.
Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian