The chairperson of KwaZulu-Natal’s House of Traditional Leaders, Inkosi Phathisizwe Chiliza, has called for an investigation into claims that food parcels are not being distributed fairly in the province and that street traders who are desperate to sell goods have to pay for permits to do so. This comes after several complaints from residents in different villages, many of them deep rural and remote.

“We need the process to be transparent because people want to know how food parcels are allocated to families,” said Chiliza. “At the moment it looks like food parcels are being given to people they [government officials] know. That is why we are calling for the government to work with the amakhosi [traditional leaders] and the tribal authority on this matter, because we need to make sure that the process is fair.”

Chiliza says the current manner in which food parcels are being issued will lead to some families going hungry. “As we speak, people are already hungry. And if they see corruption in the process, we are going to have serious problems. But we have asked [member of the executive council for social development] Nonhlanhla Khoza to intervene and investigate the matter urgently.”

Several residents across the province have accused government officials and ward councillors of stealing food parcels meant for impoverished residents. According to a report in The Mercury newspaper, complaints have been received from people living in the Midlands, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Dannhauser and Nquthu. It says the spokesperson of the provincial Department of Social Development, Mhlabunzima Memela, has admitted that the department is aware of the allegations.

Chiliza says government officials should bear in mind that voters will remember these issues come the next election. “These are the same councillors that are going to go back to communities to beg for votes next year during the local government elections, and they forget that they won’t have these food parcels to bribe communities. The people who were getting food parcels will not care anymore and so they [the councillors] will depend on the very people they are sidelining today.”

Regarding the issue of permits for street traders, who need to get them from their ward councillors and municipalities, Chiliza said: “When you look at the issue of selling work permits, how can you sell someone a permit when they are trying to feed their families? Sometimes those people make as little as R20 a day working hard selling onions.”

Who you know matters

Lerato Ntombela, a resident of Dlovinga village in Izingolweni on the South Coast, says food parcels have not reached the area. “We also heard that one of the councillors in my ward was selling permits for R600 to informal traders so that they can go out and work.”

Ntombela also alleges that food parcels are being issued on “a first-name basis”. “It’s about who they know. You don’t just get food. Inkosi yethu [our local inkosi] does not help us with anything and there is nothing we can do.”

What worries Ntombela is that the majority of people in the village are unemployed and depend on government grants to survive. “We understand the situation, but it feels like they do not care about the community. Aren’t they supposed to be assisting people living in rural areas? They have their own agendas and, sadly, people are going to go hungry. They are already hungry.”

Zakhele Mnkwanka, a resident of Ozwathini village in Bhamshela, 90km north of Durban, says it is not fair that the government expects people to continue washing their hands and practising good hygiene when there is no water in the village. “We never have water. It is very rare to see water tanks in the area. When we tell the councillor about the issue, he tells us that the water pump is broken and blames the Ilembe District Municipality for failing to provide water.”

According to calculations done between 2 and 8 May, the Ilembe district had the second-highest level of infection in South Africa with an average of 18 active cases per 100 000 people.

Mnkwanka, a 53-year-old father of two, says there is no one to turn to for help. “Children are sitting at home and there is no food to eat. So they turn to the guava trees just to make sure that they have something to fill their stomachs. They are going to get sick and will need to be taken to the hospital. Then what must happen?”

His only comfort lies in the fact that the villagers look after one another.

Police turn a blind eye

In Makhasaneni village near Melmoth, pastor and land rights activist Mbhekiseni Mavuso agrees that little has been done to assist rural residents living on land administered by the Ingonyama Trust on behalf of the Zulu people. In his area, the lack of transport and an increase in criminal activity during the lockdown have left people feeling helpless.

“Although vans that transport people to and from town do not have permits to operate during lockdown, we still use them because we don’t have a choice,” he said. “If you want to go to town, you have to hire the entire van for about R500. It will take you to town and then wait for you while you do your shopping.”

He says complaints about crime to the police, local headman and inkosi have fallen on deaf ears. “We have lost hope. Ever since lockdown started, we have been under attack. Criminals are breaking into our homes, and when you go and report the matter to the police they tell us that we should not be outside during lockdown. They turn us away and when we catch the criminals, they send us home because of social distancing.”

Mavuso claims that residents recently caught five criminals and took one of them to the headman, who in turn called the police. But when the police arrived, they allegedly threatened to arrest the headman for an illegal gathering of people, said Mavuso.

Waiting for help that doesn’t come

In Maphaya in Jozini, northern KwaZulu-Natal, 62-year-old resident Linah Nkosi claims that she recently saw food parcels being transferred from a municipal vehicle to an unmarked vehicle, its destination unknown. “There have been so many promises to uplift the community during the pandemic, but no one has benefitted from that. It’s blank, nothing is happening here. I even had to buy my family sanitiser because no one is giving them out in the community. I also had to buy one for myself so that I can take it with me when I go to town and it is expensive,” said Nkosi.

She also complained that people in Jozini are not adhering to the lockdown regulations. “When people go to town to collect their monthly grant payments, it is packed like nothing has happened. All the shops are open and people drink alcohol all day long, even though the bottle stores are closed.”

But in Mondlo, about 20km outside Vryheid in the Zululand District Municipality, grandmother Favorite Phenyane, 67, remains hopeful. She says she is happy to see the police enforcing the lockdown regulations. “When lockdown began the soldiers were here, but I do not see them anymore because everyone is respecting the lockdown regulations. Other than that, things seem to be operating as normal.”

An issue that does concern Phenyane is that people in Mondlo have not received food parcels. “We are watching people on TV getting food parcels and we are not getting any. We do not know why,” she said.

Shifting responsibility

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health says concerns like these should be addressed by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, which in turn says it’s the responsibility of the Department of Social Development.

Cooperative governance spokesperson Senzo Mzila said: “Remember that Covid-19 is a security issue in terms of lockdown regulations, and the amakhosi have played a role in spreading the message of compliance. Social development has been dealing and spearheading the social relief distress issue and municipalities have their own unique interventions in place.”

With regard to councillors allegedly selling permits, Mzila says people with evidence of such conduct must report the matter to the police so that it can be investigated. “Councillors signed codes of conduct which compel them to act in the interest of the municipality, so they cannot sell permits. That is illegal.”

He also says the government is doing all it can to provide water where it is lacking.

More of the same

Mosa Moshabela, dean of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of nursing and public health, says the virus has exposed the fault lines that already existed in terms of governance in the province.

“If service delivery is slow and you have a condition that requires a rapid response and you don’t have systems to do so, you are not going to be able to provide it now. You should, in fact, have had a system all along that makes sure that people get information and resources immediately.”

Moshabela says it’s not a case of the government not providing services during the pandemic, but rather “people being deprived of services, period”.

He is also concerned about proposals to apply different lockdown levels to different parts of the country, because people will go in search of employment where they think they can get jobs, even in cities with high numbers of Covid-19 cases.

“This will increase the risk of transmission. It will transport the disease to rural areas, and that is what we should be more concerned about.”

This article first appeared in New Frame on 20 July 2020.