The lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus has "revealed a very sad fault line in our society" – inequality – President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter, in which he also criticised the hoarding and selling of food parcels as "disgusting".
Ramaphosa acknowledged that government's intervention for the most vulnerable "has been slower than required, and that lapses have occurred".
On 23 March, Ramaphosa announced that the country will be in lockdown from 27 March to 16 April, with the date subsequently extended to 30 April, with several regulations imposed.
Last week, concerns about the provision of food parcels to impoverished communities escalated, and in some instances led to protests and looting.
"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," Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly newsletter, published each Monday.
"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.
"Yes, these are the residual effects of a fractured and unequal past. But they are also a symptom of a fundamental failing in our post-apartheid society. The nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus has gravely exacerbated a long-standing problem."
He said many countries around the world have imposed coronavirus lockdowns to save the lives of their citizens, as has South Africa.
"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.
"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."
He said government also had to contend with allegations "both disturbing and disgusting".
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"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.
"If there is found to be substance to these allegations, we will deal with the individuals concerned harshly," Ramaphosa wrote.
He said the payment of social grants has proceeded relatively smoothly, and after a number of technical challenges, the food distribution system is being streamlined.
Government will "scale up welfare provision" during this period to help households living below the poverty line, Ramaphosa said.
- Compiled by Jan Gerber