South Africa is still a country of inequality, and the Covid-19 coronavirus-enforced lockdown has intensified the deep divisions in our society.
On one hand, there are people stuck in their homes with Wi-Fi, TV and the ability to hit the shops at any time to stock up the fridge while lamenting the lockdown restrictions.
On the other hand, millions are now without an income, a stable source of food or even the luxury of social distancing.
Of late, two particular inequalities have stood out among the many.
One is the plight of citizens who need help just to get food, and the way unscrupulous people have reportedly seized on this need to manipulate processes to benefit their own agendas.
The other is the apparent difference in the way the law has been applied to people violating the lockdown regulations.
Starting with the latter, for weeks we’ve read about ordinary citizens being arrested by the dozen for genuine lockdown violations, but also for activities ranging from retrieving a toddler who had innocently run on to a beach, to lawfully going out to procure an essential service.
Others have been physically assaulted and publicly humiliated and, allegedly, even killed by law enforcement officials.
Meanwhile, politicians who deliberately and openly flout the regulations get away with a half-hearted apology, a fine and a slap on the wrist – and only after a public outcry.
With the former, every day brings a new report of ward councillors and other politicians allegedly abusing the distribution of food parcels, and a greater level of public anger at these shenanigans.
Lest we forget, local government elections are due next year, assuming the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted by then.
Electioneering is a dog-eat-dog business, with candidates historically trampling each other and constituents alike to gain the slightest advantage.
This seems to be under way already. Hungry people are easily exploited because they’re desperate.
The food parcel distribution scheme has played right into the hands of crooked politicians.
Despite an increasing number of these allegations, the response from government has been a deafening silence.
In an address to the nation on May 13, President Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t devote a single second to the situation.
Corruption Watch has reached out to the presidency seeking to know know if it is the position of the national command council that local councillors not be involved in the distribution of food parcels.
Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko confirmed that Ramaphosa was on record as saying that the distribution of food parcels “should not be politicised” – which is not exactly the same thing, however, it could be interpreted as such because this is exactly what has been happening.
Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu has not addressed the situation of councillor involvement specifically, but has urged coordinated efforts between government and NGOs to ensure even coverage of deserving communities.
In a speech to the nation on April 21, the president expressed his dismay over reports of “unscrupulous people abusing the distribution of food and other assistance for corrupt ends”.
He assured the nation that government would not hesitate to ensure that those involved in such activities face the full might of the law.
Since then, investigations have been happening, but not as fast as the accusations have been piling up.
Perhaps the time has come for the regulation of this additional task to local councillors’ workload.
For one, this would ensure greater accountability on the part of every ward councillor, regardless of the party they represent, to the local authority that has mandated them.
Beyond the lists that supposedly record the details of beneficiaries of food parcels, there should be a follow-up effort that records the efforts of said councillors or ward committee members.
If anything, this may go a long way towards strengthening the confidence of these communities in their elected representatives.
Government has had a golden opportunity to rebuild the public trust that it has so ruthlessly been worn down.
It must not mess up – but empty promises and impunity for politicians are just more of the same that has exhausted and frustrated the South African public for so many years.
KwaZulu-Natal community activist Vanessa Burger, in a recent newsletter meant for civil society organisations, reported that food parcels are “delivered directly to ward councillors’ homes and given out only to friends, family and political supporters.
"Either that or parcels are being stockpiled for use ahead of the next local government elections, or food is being used to fight factional battles or to exclude/punish certain groups such as foreign nationals.”
This situation, Burger writes, is exacerbated by “untold delays, unwarranted red tape, chaotic administration and an almost total lack of oversight”.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the government’s tardy (or unwilling) response to this problem is that some organisations that are in a position to donate food and goods are reportedly refusing to do so.
At least, they refuse to support a system in which those goods might be used wrongly.
Whether or not they have devised an alternative distribution system is unclear.
In either case, however, the people who desperately need help are suffering while organisations and politicians wrangle over their own rights.
As Burger stated, it’s bad enough to have to rely on charity for survival, but dignity is crushed when poverty-stricken people are forced to accept food from politicians who only show concern for their communities when election time rolls around.
“Access to food – one of the most fundamental human rights – is turned into a cynical political sideshow complete with photo opportunities.”
Erasmus is the website editor at Corruption Watch
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