South African migrants face hunger, xenophobia during virus lockdown

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – The car approaches the gates of the small parish church, where an army of hands await. The precious food is swiftly taken from the car boot and back seat and lined up in bags in the courtyard, rather like a military parade. It is time for the handout.

In the eyes of the waiting women and children, there is relief: a gleam that comes from the prospect of having a full belly.

The scene, in the parish of Mayfair just outside the centre of Johannesburg, has become grimly familiar across South Africa’s largest city. Even as a strict lockdown to slow the coronavirus pandemic is eased, many foreigners living in this country have no work and are hungry.

South Africa is the continent’s second-largest economy and a magnet for millions of refugees and migrants from elsewhere.

But the vast majority of them depend on day-to-day work – and this informal source of income catastrophically dried up from one day to the next because of the lockdown.

An undocumented Ethiopian woman stands in her kitchen with her son, in Johannesburg, as she speaks about problems she is currently facing due to lack of work during the national lockdown to help curb the COVID-19 spread. PHOTOS: AFP
Alex Koranteng (C), a retired former chef from Ghana, sits in front of the house of a Zimbabwean family in the Lawley informal settlement, in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg

In a country considered by the World Bank to be the most unequal in the world, many of these luckless people now have nothing.

“I see a lot of community members suffering because of this lockdown,” said Alfred Djang, a 50-year-old lawyer who left the Democratic Republic of Congo 19 years ago.

Some had been working in shops, “they were selling things on street corners, but they are not allowed to do it anymore,” Djang said.

“They don’t have permits so they need to beg for food here and there,” he added.

Amir Sheikh, head of the African Diaspora Forum, said his non-profit group had been swamped by requests for help.

“Since the beginning of the lockdown we have initiated a process of cooking food for the migrants,” the Somali said.

Funded by religious organisations, his network provides 3,500 parcels and 750 meals each week.

“It is very important because those people have been neglected… hunger has no colour, but unfortunately the government of South Africa has discriminated against us on the basis of our country of origin,” he said.

As part of an unprecedented emergency plan, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced food distributions and a monthly allowance of 350 rand for the most destitute.

Neither Ramaphosa nor his ministers have mentioned any conditions for the nationality of people receiving the aid.

But migrants and non-governmental organisations insist that in de-facto terms, the help goes to South Africans. While the ‘rainbow nation’ Nelson Mandela dreamed of has some four million foreigners, most of them do not have a residence permit – a document with the value of gold.

In Lenasia, a township in the remote outskirts of Johannesburg, 49-year-old Edward Mowo relies on his Lazarus hands for a living. He brings dead televisions, radios and telephones back to life.

Under the corrugated iron roof of his shack, the Zimbabwean admitted to having difficulty feeding his wife and three children.

“Most people don’t work anymore, so they don’t get paid. So how can I be paid?” he said.

“My kids were born here but they don’t get anything because we are not South African nationals,” Mowo said.

“Even with my documents I don’t get anything. They should help us, as we are legal but I’m still waiting. I’ve never seen them… We have to survive without the government, and it’s hard.”

Sharon Ekambaram, in charge of migrants’ assistance at an NGO called Lawyers for Human Rights, said the authorities had systematically refused to help foreigners.

“There has not been a single refugee that has confirmed with me that their application is through, that they qualify and they are going to get a grant,” she said. “This is a serious crisis.” Questioned by AFP, the social development ministry declined to comment before an upcoming court case over the conditions under which its aid is distributed.

Ekambaram said a hotline set up last week offering legal advice received more than 700 calls within days of grants being announced, many asking about food.

“We have seen children going to hospitals being diagnosed as malnourished,” she said.

Even though apartheid ended a generation ago, South Africa is still struggling with rampant inequality and poverty, which in turn have fed ugly xenophobia.