Disturbing and disgusting.
These were the words used by President Cyril Ramaphosa to describe allegations about officials stealing and selling food parcels meant to alleviate hunger among poor South Africans during the lockdown.
The president said the individuals concerned would be dealt with harshly should the allegations be found to be true.
“Over the past three weeks, we have been confronted with distressing images of desperate people clamouring for food parcels at distribution centres, and of community protests against food shortages.
“We have also had to contend with allegations both disturbing and disgusting. 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,” Ramaphosa said on Monday.
He was writing in his weekly newsletter in which he focused on hunger and poverty. These issues have been thrust into the spotlight by images of long queues of people around the country waiting to get food parcels.
“Many countries around the world have imposed coronavirus lockdowns with a view to saving the lives of their citizens. 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 apart the fabric of our communities,” he said.
Ramaphosa wrote that there could 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. He partly attributed this to the residual effects of SA’s fractured and unequal past, but acknowledged it is a also symptom of a fundamental failing in the post-apartheid society.
“The nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus has gravely exacerbated a long-standing problem,” he said.
With the declaration of a national state of disaster and the imposition of a nationwide lockdown, SA entered uncharted waters as the country had never had to deal with a public health emergency of this magnitude, said the president.
“We had to act quickly to save lives. 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 lapses have occurred.
“However, the payment of social grants has proceeded relatively smoothly, and after a number of technical challenges, the food distribution system is being streamlined,” he said.
Ramaphosa said the government chose to err on the side of caution when it imposed a nationwide lockdown at very short notice. This came after weighing up the proportionality of the national response and the extent of restrictions it would need to impose.
“As the presentation by the ministry of health indicated last week, 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.”
Ramaphosa said his cabinet would finalise a set of measures to respond to the impact of the lockdown on the livelihoods of South Africans.
He confirmed they will be scaling up welfare provision during this period to help households living below the poverty line.
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 in which they would otherwise have found temporary work, done business in the informal sector or saved money earned to meet their family responsibilities, wrote the president.
He acknowledged that food support was a short-term emergency measure that would need to be matched by sustainable solutions to help the most vulnerable citizens weather the difficult times that are still to come.
“Alleviating hunger is not an act of charity. It is an imperative for any society founded on respect for human rights.
“We are at a point in our battle with the pandemic where complacency could prove disastrous,” he said.
TimesLIVE (TMG Digital)