Monday, 20 April 2020

Pretoria: President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday expressed concern at the alleged theft of food parcels meant to assist distressed families and individuals during the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown.

“A number of provinces have received reports that callous individuals, some of them allegedly government officials, are hoarding or selling food parcels earmarked for the needy and destitute, or diverting them to their friends and families,” said the President in his weekly newsletter.

In the letter, the President vowed to deal with individuals harshly, should the allegations prove to be true.

Like many other countries around the world, South Africa has imposed the lockdown with a hope to save lives from the life-threatening COVID-19 that has killed 54 people in the country.

“We have done the same in our country, but our lockdown has revealed a very sad fault line in our society that reveals how grinding poverty, inequality and unemployment is tearing the fabric of our communities apart,” he said.

The President has been moved by images of people desperate for food parcels at distribution centres and of community protests against food shortages.

“There can be no greater anguish than that of a parent whose children cry out to them for food, but they have none to give. There can be no greater injustice than a society where some live in comfort and plenty, while others struggle at the margins to survive with little or nothing at all.”

While he has attributed this to the “residual effects of a fractured and unequal past”, he also said they are also a symptom of a fundamental failure in post-apartheid society.

“The nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus has gravely exacerbated a long-standing problem.”

The President said that while National State of Disaster and the imposition of a nation-wide lockdown has been put in place, the support of vulnerable citizens has been slow.

“We had to act quickly to save lives. And we must acknowledge that in the days and weeks that have followed, the provision of support to our country’s most vulnerable citizens has been slower than required and that lapses have occurred,” he said.

Grants

On the payment of social grants, President Ramaphosa said he was pleased to see that this proceeded relatively smoothly, and after a number of technical challenges, the food distribution system is being streamlined.

“And as the presentation by the Ministry of Health, last week indicated, enforcing a lockdown at the time we did has slowed down the rate of infection and, more importantly, bought us time to prepare for a probable surge in infections in the coming weeks and months,” he said.

Impact on the economy

President Ramaphosa said they had to consider the impact on an already floundering economy in both the long and short term, and the impact of this substantial disruption on the livelihoods of millions of people.

“We had to consider what weeks of confinement to the home would mean for the employed not paid regular salaries, for the unemployed and those seeking work, for those in casual or seasonal employment, for those in the informal sector, for the indigent and for the vulnerable.”

He said the cabinet will finalise a set of measures to respond to the impact of the lockdown on livelihoods, preceded by a range of engagements with a number of stakeholders including business, labour, religious organisations, civil society and the Presidential Economic Advisory Council.

“The social partners have put forward a number of proposals on interventions that could address the immediate vulnerability of the poorest of the poor, most of whom rely on social assistance to survive.”

He said government will also scale up welfare provision during this period to help households living below the poverty line.

He said even when the nation-wide lockdown is lifted, its effects will continue to be felt for some time to come.

“Those fortunate to have a steady income will be able to return to their jobs; but for millions of others this will be a lost month where they would otherwise have found temporary work, done business in the informal sector or saved money earned to meet their family responsibilities.”

While he concedes that food support is a short-term emergency measure, it needs to be matched by sustainable solutions that help vulnerable citizens weather the difficult times that are still to come.

President Ramaphosa also thanked non-government organisations, religious groups and ordinary citizens who are donating money and volunteering to help feed the hungry and destitute.

“Alleviating hunger is not an act of charity. It is imperative for any society that is founded on respect for human rights,” he said.