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SA faces food riots and breakouts from the lockdown

- William Gumede

Getting food to the vulnerable, needy and poor during the COVID-19 lockdown is now increasingly urgent.

Getting food to the vulnerable, needy and poor during the Covid-19 lockdown is now increasingly urgent.

If not, South Africa face the specter of slowing down the spread of Covid-19, but large numbers of people dying of starvation, and possible food riots and breakouts of the hungry from the lockdown.  

The overwhelming majority of South Africans are either unemployed, eke out a living in the informal sector or survives on one form of government social grant. Those who are unemployed, working in the informal sector or are self-employed have no income during the movement, trading and buying restrictions of the lockdown.

The restrictions on movement of the lockdown makes it difficult for civil society organisations who distribute food to assist the needy. Even so, civil society organisations and charities do not have the funds and resources to distribute food to all who need it.

So far, even the few food parcels being distributed by the state, private sector and civil society organisations, hardly reaches those who need it most.

Large numbers of poor South Africans get their food from community feed schemes every day; whether run by the state, civil society organisations or the private sector. Furthermore, millions of children from poor families who received their meals from the state school feeding scheme now are at home under lockdown with no food.

Roughly 10 million school-going children get their basic daily food from school feeding schemes. During lockdown such daily meals are not available. They face mass starvation. Not providing food to millions of needy, is a shocking omission in government’s Covid-19 emergency plan. There has to be a simple way of food reaching the needy quickly.

Providing food to the needy during the lockdown is a government responsibility, but the private sector, and well-off individuals who can contribute, should also do so. Individuals of means can donate food to the needy. As part of a solidarity social pact, government, private sector, civil society and ordinary citizens can club together to provide and distribute food to the needy over the lockdown period.

Government must partner with civil society organisations, charities, churches, business and citizens to distribute food to the poor. Retailers could make unused food available to the poor, rather than it to be allowed to go to waste.

Food must be distributed door to door to vulnerable families. Civil society organisations and charities who are traditionally involved in distribution food to the need must be given essential service status, given government and business funding. Well-off private citizens must also donate to such food distribution civil society organisations. They must also volunteer their expertise, if practical.

The private sector involved in logistics could help with the transport of food. Retailers almost everyday transport food from depots to stores. Food distribution to the poor in outlaying townships and informal settlements could for example piggy-back on such transport.

Telecommunications companies could help with either a short message system, social media application or an easy toll-free number for the needy to request or make application for food relief.

Every city, township or village could have a coordinating committee of civil society organisations, private sector, government and private individuals which can coordinate the receiving and distribution of food into the community. Government halls, community centres, churches or schools could be used as local food distribution hubs.

Although a better food relief strategy during the Covid-19 lockdown for the poor given the complexity of distributing food to the vast numbers of the poor, is to make food vouchers available which can be redeemed at certain retailers. The success of providing food relief to the poor during the lockdown will ultimately determine whether the lockdown explode into social upheaval, riots and breakouts.

Off course, the best strategy to provide food is to give a basic income grant to all the unemployed and poor, over the period of the lockdown, which will give people cash in hand, which could be paid out at Post Offices, banks or retailers. As for the argument that there is no public money to provide regular food, a food voucher or a grant to the needy over the lockdown period; the R50bn that government has set aside to foster “big” black economic empowerment (BEE) industrialists should instead to be used to feed the poor.

The terrifying social costs of not providing food to the needy: food riots, people dying of starvation and the deaths that will be caused by an accelerated spread of Covid-19 because the hungry break out of lockdowns, makes it crucial that money be found for food for the needy.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in the Daily Dispatch.