‘A person can do anything in life, but not if they are hungry’

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‘A person can do anything in life, but not if they are hungry’

Food aid volunteer Sipho Ntuli is moved to help the country’s desperate workers, who now have no income

Journalist
Sipho Ntuli, right, and other drivers load maize meal for food parcels.
ALL IN A DAY'S WORK Sipho Ntuli, right, and other drivers load maize meal for food parcels.
Image: Alaister Russell

It was an early rise on Monday for Sipho Ntuli, who, despite the lockdown, has been able to work as a truck driver  delivering essential food packs to communities such as wastepickers and cleaners who are out of work and desperate for food.

Originally from Kwamaphumulo in KwaZulu-Natal, Ntuli lives with his wife in Johannesburg, where he works to provide for his five children and grandchild at home. 

“It’s hard to be away from my children, but they are grown up now. Unfortunately, they can’t work during lockdown, so I send them money. It’s very important to have work. I feel happy to be able to give people who are at home and starving something to eat. They are not lazy people, they are hard working.

“A person can do anything in life, but not if they are hungry.”

Ntuli woke at 4.40am and was on his way to Soweto by 5am.

The task was to load food donations onto his truck and then deliver them to the impoverished community of Elias Motsoaledi.

Ntuli works for LoadIt, an e-hailing removals company which connects drivers to clients directly.

LoadIt has partnered with Gauteng-based SDI Force to gather donations of food and personal protective equipment (PPE).

SDI Force is putting to work people who would otherwise be unable to earn an income during lockdown, such as  wastepickers and cleaners, to combat the virus and earn a living after undergoing a Covid-19 training course.  

Ntuli has undergone training, which taught him how to ensure his load was sterile and to keep himself safe from the virus.  

At 6.15am his truck and two others from trucking company Aurora were waiting outside a small  shop chosen to supply food parcels.

Wearing a T-shirt, despite the bitter cold, Ntuli set to work cleaning and disinfecting his flatbed. Fifteen minutes later he was loading maize meal onto the truck from a line of workers, all wearing face shields. 

At 7am a bread truck arrived with 1,100 loaves and again the workers made a quick job of moving the load to an Aurora truck.

A volunteer passes food parcels to a truck in Moroka, Soweto. It will take food packages to people in Elias Motsoaledi township who have lost their incomes due to lockdown.
DESPERATE TIMES A volunteer passes food parcels to a truck in Moroka, Soweto. It will take food packages to people in Elias Motsoaledi township who have lost their incomes due to lockdown.
Image: Alaister Russell

Ten minutes later the first of 1,100 food packs began to weigh down the back of Ntuli’s truck. Meanwhile, a cleaner disinfected the entrance to the small business. 

The enterprise, which asked to remain autonomous, is owned by a local woman who was chosen by SDI Force to help ensure small businesses have a chance to survive.  

Frans Mahodi, from Unity Values South Africa and a spokesperson for Aurora, who liaised with the shop owner, said workers at the store were busy at 3am ensuring packs contained enough food for at least a week. Each parcel had six tins of pilchards, four tins of beans, a breakfast porridge, a juice mixture, milk, soap, hand sanitiser and a face mask.

“We have been trained and tested for Covid-19, so we are virus compliant. For me this is not work, it is community, and there has been a call for help because people are hungry, so I need to help.”

Mandisa Mzizi, from Unity Philanthropy, added that because they chose a small Soweto business, they had helped 10 people who were hired to assist the business with packaging the food.

“We need funds to keep the whole thing going, but we are happy and grateful that [SDI Force] chose a Soweto business and a woman entrepreneur.”

At 8.45am the trucks were on the move. Ntuli commented that never in his life had he expected a virus would shut down the world.

Sipho Ntuli unpacks maize meal at a distribution site, while other volunteers take a break before the rush.
READY TO ROLL Sipho Ntuli unpacks maize meal at a distribution site, while other volunteers take a break before the rush.
Image: Alaister Russell

At 9am Ntuli reached his destination. There was already a line of 20, mostly women, recipients. Many did not want to speak to the media because they felt shame at having to rely on donations. 

As the trucks took up their space, the City of Johannesburg’s environmental and infrastructure services department was setting up Covid-19 information areas.

Volunteers arrived to help with distribution, among them Simnikiwe Ntondini. He grew up Elias Motsoaledi and managed to escape a life of poverty through education and mentorship from the Soweto Canoe Club. He is studying and works as a trainee plastic and chemical engineer. 

His parents live in Soweto and his father, as a forklift operator for Coca-Cola, provides for his three siblings. 

“I’ve been there, I know what it’s like not to have food for some nights. I know suffering and I can see people from where I grew up are suffering. It feels good to help, but it’s also sad to see people you know suffering.”

A mother and child make their way home to Elias Motsoaledi township in Soweto after collecting food parcels.
SMALL MERCIES A mother and child make their way home to Elias Motsoaledi township in Soweto after collecting food parcels.
Image: Alaister Russell

This is the seventh food drop he has volunteered for.

The first five operations in other parts of Johannesburg went by without a hitch because volunteers go into the communities beforehand to do a headcount to ensure there were enough donations.

The last two operations, however, saw thousands of people from other areas swamp the team. 

This time, despite there being 500 registered families, SDI Force created 1,100 parcels. 

Stanley Itshegetseng, deputy director at the office of the MMC for environment and infrastructure services, said because services such as wastepicking were non-essential the pandemic had forced them into “the harshest poverty”.

He said the only hiccup with food donations was that once recipients left with their parcels, other people would see them and flock to the site. 

“We just can’t handle the influx of people and it’s heartbreaking. There is never enough, despite everyone doing their best.”

At 11.30am Times Select left Ntuli, Ntondini and 20 other volunteers to their job. They had already given out more than 400 parcels. But the line had grown from Power Park to beyond the gates, up the road and across the block.

It snaked its way for at least half a kilometre. Unbeknown to those at the back, there would be no food for them.