‘I never had to beg for food before’: in the queues of desperation
About 50,000 workers in Joburg join millions who live off food parcels, but it’s not just the poor who are queuing
Before lockdown, 72-year-old Sisani Ncancema would rise early to forage dustbins in Soweto for recyclable plastics.
But now her R40-a-week earnings as a waste picker – to supplement her R1,860 old-age grant – are on hold as she waits for the spread of the Covid-19 virus to be contained.
Usually, once she collected her bag of plastics and glass, she’d return to her shack in the Elias Motsoaledi squatter camp to prepare breakfast for her 21-year-old grandson. She is his only surviving family member, and like most members of the community, he is battling to find work. She also takes care of her two beloved cats.
Then she’d set off to make her walk of more than 3km to Goudkopies Landfill, earning about R9 for the day’s labour.
“It’s hard because the recycling prices have dropped and I can only carry a little bit a day, but it helps my pension.”
On Monday, as she popped out of her shack at 8.30am, her neighbour had come to tell her the news of the food parcel drop just a kilometre away – word of mouth has become an invaluable tool in the township to alert people when help has arrived.
Food aid volunteers had arrived in nearby Power Park to distribute 1,100 food parcels.
The pensioner made light work of the field and multiple illegal electricity connections on the ground between her shack and the drop-off site.
Despite the late start to the morning, she was one of the first to receive a parcel that would feed her for the week.
“I was happy to receive food today. Normally we are promised help, but it doesn’t reach us. Other than that I have no complaints.”
Ncancema is one of the 50,000-strong workforce in Johannesburg made up of cleaners, informal recyclers and piece-job workers. This workforce joins the estimated 30 million people who, according to SA Food Sovereignty Campaign co-founder Vishwas Satgar, need food aid to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
But Randburg shelter operator Kelly-Ann van der Meer, who started One Small Act of Kindness, said it was not just the poor who were queueing for food. The charity now caters to people formally from the middle classes who were out of work and hungry.
In a queue at the Fontainbleau Community Church in Randburg, a 37-year-old hairdresser and trainer finds it not so easy to be at the receiving end.
“I never had to beg for food before,” said the woman, who asked not to be named as she is in the midst of a custody battle.
Her income allowed her to live a middle-class lifestyle with her partner in North Riding, till the day five weeks ago when the salon where she worked closed. The owner had just returned from China, and being in the high-risk group for infection, he decided to close shop.
She grew up in a Jewish household in Bryanston and had never thought she would be joining a queue for food.
I never had to beg for food before.Hairdresser
“I was just about to sign my permanent contract too. I haven’t lost my job, but I’ve lost my income.”
“I feel like we are in some kind of zombie movie – or maybe those movies prepared us for life now. I have just enough money to cover the R5,000 rent next month.
“Last night I ate an old bag of popcorn for dinner – it wasn’t too bad actually. I really don’t like having to ask for food – I feel others are less fortunate than me. It’s not nice and I shouldn’t be in this position.
“But I’ve tried to claim UIF – they said I must wait 35 days.”
Gavin Houlston from the Unity Philanthropy charity, who helped fund the Power Park food drop, said they were specifically targeting cleaners, waste pickers, street vendors and people who worked piece jobs in the city. He said they made up a workforce of about 50,000 and generally fed an average of five people.
R9: money Sisani Ncancema earns a day as a wastepicker
50,000: estimated workforce of nonessential blue-collar workers in Joburg
30 million: estimated number of people who will need food aid because of Covid-19
Stan Itshegetseng from the office of the Gauteng MMC of environment & infrastructure services said because these people were not considered essential workers, they would be hardest hit by the lockdown – especially because they were already living in the “harshest of poverty”.
Van der Meer said the church was housing about 30 homeless people, and was sending about 3,000 food parcels a day to impoverished communities.
“Every person we feed has a story and a skill. They haven’t chosen to be in lockdown, but they have no choice as to how it affected them.”