DURBAN, South Africa – South Africa was already in the grip of endemic poverty. The pandemic has exacerbated the struggle of many of the country’s poorest. Now weeks of riots have left shops set on fire, shelves empty and many starving.
President Cyril Ramaphosa reassured the country that “immediate food aid” was being distributed following deadly unrest that disrupted access to food after trucks, warehouses and shops were torched and looted.
But in towns around Durban, the hard-hit capital of KwaZulu-Natal province, that relief has not been found.
“I don’t know how they work, I don’t know how they work, I don’t know where they are,” Patrick Bilai, a pastor, said of the government. “If we wait for them, we’ll start to see more graves. “
As he stood at the end of a road in a pristine seaside town on Sunday, Bilai told NBC News he felt close to tears as he watched a group of restaurant chain volunteers load up his car. of food.
“I’ve seen old women come knocking on my door and they fall down and say they’re hungry,” Bilai said. “It’s a lifeline for someone. Tonight someone will come home and eat.
As South Africans deliberate on the root causes of the recent unrest – glaring inequalities, political rivalries and historic cultural divisions – a common theme is government failure.
The riots began as protests against the arrest of the country’s former president Jacob Zuma, who faces a slew of corruption charges linked to a 1990s arms deal and an investigation into corruption in the country. during a nine-year term that ended in 2018.
His reign cost the country’s economy more than $ 35 billion, about a tenth of global gross domestic product, if not double, Ramaphosa told the Financial Times Africa Summit in London in 2019.
Meanwhile, an additional 3 million South Africans have slipped below the poverty line, according to government data. This means that the poor make up more than half of the country’s 58 million people.
Hunger and malnutrition rates have also almost doubled. The number of 1.8 million people without sufficient food in 2008 rose to 3.8 million in 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Almost a quarter of children suffer from stunted growth, retardation of physical growth and mental development due to inadequate nutrition.
“The picture was bleak initially,” said Lise Korsten, co-director of the Center of Excellence for Food Safety at the University of Pretoria.
Blaming the poor for the recent unrest would be unfair, Korsten said. But it is easy to see how people in desperate circumstances could be manipulated to act for political or criminal purposes. “A hungry adult is an angry adult,” she said.
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Like those who have suffered most from funds embezzled from government coffers, it was the poorest without stocked pantries and reliable vehicles who struggled in the aftermath of the riots this month.
“If it’s like that, we can’t go to the stores, we can’t go to the malls. It’s really sad for the country, ”said a 29-year-old woman in a town north of Durban, while receiving infant formula, bread and diapers. She has asked to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted if a new wave of unrest continues.
Carrying her 2-year-old son, she said she was dependent on a child allowance which amounts to just over $ 30 per month per child to survive. “This unemployment thing is spreading every day,” she said.
The situation for many has been exacerbated not only by the riots, but by the pandemic that has shut down businesses amid closures and killed tourism.
The government put in place a temporary grant in response, which ended this year. It wasn’t accessible to everyone, and at just $ 25 a month, many were still struggling.
In the absence of sufficient state aid, Korsten said the companies were filling the void to ensure that food that could not be exported due to the port closures was redistributed across the country. “But that’s not the long term solution we need,” she said.
Instead, Korsten envisions a culture of home and community gardens, and even community kitchens, which would help ensure that people not only get basic grains and sugar to fill their stomachs, but eat healthily.
Until the government launches such a program, individual South Africans are taking the lead.
When Nonhlanhla Joye was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, she could no longer work and had no other source of income or assistance. Desperate, she took inspiration from her farming parents and started planting her own garden in bags of soil, she said.
It worked. With an abundance of vegetables, she started selling produce and realized the power that a simple garden could offer a household. “It is my mission to teach people how to grow their own food,” Joye said.
She formed the Umgibe Farming Organics cooperative, which has since expanded around KwaZulu Natal, employing hundreds of young people and grandmothers and feeding thousands.
As the pandemic and riots disrupted production, she said the cooperative moved forward as she saw the need for food intensify. It also gave him hope by bringing the realities of inequality into the spotlight.
“What just happened should be a lesson,” she said. “We should ask ourselves what lesson we were supposed to learn from… this food security problem in this country. “