Life has become unbearable for migrants in SA amid coronavirus lockdown

The Seraleng mining community in Rustenburg, South Africa protests over lack of food and jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dino Lloyd/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
The Seraleng mining community in Rustenburg, South Africa protests over lack of food and jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dino Lloyd/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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 and "they were selling things on street corners, but they are not allowed to do it anymore", Djang added.

"They don't have permits so they need to beg for food here and there."

'Hunger has no colour'

Amir Sheikh, the 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 added.

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

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"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," Sheikh said.

As part of an unprecedented emergency plan, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced food distributions and a monthly allowance of R350 for the most destitute.

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

But migrants and NGOs insist 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.

No work, no pay

In Lenasia, a suburb 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?"

"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 added. "This is a serious crisis."

Questioned by AFP, the social development department 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 added.

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

After a surge in violence and mob attacks in September against foreign-owned businesses in and around Johannesburg, Ramaphosa was booed at the funeral of his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe.

"South Africa is not xenophobic," he pleaded at the time.

'Institutional xenophobia'

But ambiguities in his government's policies have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni called for locals to be favoured for jobs as the country emerges from the crisis.

"The proportion of South Africans working in a restaurant must be greater than that of non-South Africans," he declared.

Dewa Mavhinga of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the pandemic had brought this type of discourse to the surface.

"A number of migrants have no access to food, they are facing starvation. It's a blatant violation of their basic rights, it points to a pattern of institutionalised xenophobia," Mavhinga added.

"South African authorities have an obligation to support and provide assistance to those in needs who are unable to find food.

"If the South African government is unable to help them because of lack of resources, it must open up to international supporters to step in," he said.

In its defence, the government said it had set up a Solidarity Fund to co-ordinate emergency food aid, and no proof of identity was required from beneficiaries.

"The Solidarity Fund's response was to roll out a humanitarian relief effort aimed at assisting vulnerable families experiencing severe food insecurity across South Africa, irrespective of their nationality," said Thandeka Ncube, the head of humanity support.

But many illegal immigrants preferred to keep their distance from these handouts, dreading that they would be picked up, said grassroots workers.

"Without any permit, our main worry is to be deported. They have to hide from the police, it's exhausting," said Abdurahman Musa Jibro, a leader for Ethiopia's Oromo community in South Africa.

He said he too had received no help from the authorities.

'Humanity should come first'

"Some shopkeepers are asking their clients for an ID before selling them some food," Jibro added. "If you cannot show any ID, they tell you 'go elsewhere, go elsewhere'."

Thanks to the generosity of his community, his association has been able to feed around a thousand Ethiopian families - most of them undocumented or asylum seekers.

"Some people are bringing us food parcels. That's how we survive now," said a 47-year-old Ethiopian woman who asked to remain anonymous.

She fled repression in her country and has been living in Johannesburg with her three children without a residence permit since 2008.

She said she believed the government should help her family because "we are living here in this country. Humanity should come first, before any document".

Some consulates in neighbouring countries have recently expressed interest in arranging the repatriation of their citizens stranded in South Africa during the pandemic.

"That's a possibility which I'm considering," said Collin Makumbirofa, a 41-year-old Zimbabwean who has been living in overcrowded Alexandra in Johannesburg for more than a decade.

"As foreign nationals, we are contributing so much to the South African economy, it's totally unfair from the South African government not to help people living on its own soil," he added.

"It's very tough, we are starving. Life has become unbearable here."

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