The poor, starving and forgotten people of Diepsloot: 'We are not going to survive this virus'

People queue outside Diepsloot Mall in Johannesburg on 30 March 2020.
People queue outside Diepsloot Mall in Johannesburg on 30 March 2020.
Lizeka Tandwa, News24

We understand the reasons for the lockdown, but it’s difficult to abide by the rules, three elderly people from Diepsloot said on Monday while waiting for their grant payouts from the South African Social Services Agency (Sassa).

Diepsloot, loosely translated as "deep ditch" from the Afrikaans, is one of Johannesburg's most densely populated townships.

Many in this part of the city live from hand to mouth. Statistics South Africa says the population of the two wards which cover Diepsloot is more than 126 000, with an employment rate of between 53% to 56 %.

News24 visited the township on day four of the national lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Two people have died from Covid-19, with the number of positive cases totalling 1 280, the Department of Health announced on Sunday evening.

Last week, Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu announced that Sassa would pay grants earlier than usual to prevent a rush on payout points, in a bid to maintain social distancing.

Vinolia Makwethu, a 75-year-old woman who lives in an informal settlement in Laezonia near Centurion, said she had to travel in the early hours of the morning in order to get to the Diepsloot Post Office to receive her grant.

Makwethu receives R1 840 from the government every month. She lives in a one-bedroom shack with her ailing husband of 40 years, two daughters and one grandson, she tells News24.

She said she appreciates the importance of the call by the President Cyril Ramaphosa to keep safe distances, but this is proving difficult for her community.

WATCH | No social distancing or cops as hundreds queue at busy Sassa paypoint in Mamelodi

"Our shacks are metres away from each other, so I am happy. We understand why this needs to happen, but we are not in a position to aid government successfully."

We want to abide by restrictions, but it's hard'

Makwethu tells News24 the grant she receives is her growing family's only means of survival. In just a few months, Makwethu’s daughter will give birth to her second grandchild.

"It’s a very hard time for us. My husband and I can’t survive under these conditions. As the elderly, we know that we are more susceptible to the virus, but we don’t have that many options. I have to wake up every morning and go to my stand. I have to sell fruit and vegetables. Sometimes I only get R60 and that’s not enough to feed a growing family. We want to abide by the restrictions, but it’s difficult. We are poor. We are starving. We are forgotten," she said. 

Salthil Ramukoni, at 73 years old, says he hopes the lockdown will achieve its aims. Ramukoni, who also stood in a queue at Diepsloot Mall to receive his grant money, tells News24 that he is proud of Ramaphosa.

"I’m glad that he acted quickly. We all know what this coronavirus is because government is working. But they must stop reacting and show leadership, even when there is no crisis," he said.

OPINION: Why a one-size-fits-all approach to Covid-19 could have lethal consequences

While Ramukoni agrees with the lockdown, he also concedes that it will be difficult for people living in his community to abide by the rules. He tells News24 of his deplorable living conditions in a shack, near what he says are open rubbish dumps.

"The smell is bad. We live in an area with no basic hygiene. I get sick all the time and, if this virus comes this side, I will suffer badly," he said.

'We are not going to survive this virus'

Ramukoni, who lives with his wife and son, depends on the R70 his son earns as a gardener for food and medicine.

"We need him to work. That is how my wife gets transport to collect her medicine, and we need that money to eat. It’s getting cold. The shacks are cold and the electricity and paraffin are expensive. If our son does not work, we will starve. We want to help, we want to abide by the law, but it’s hard for us," he adds.

Matthew Mohale, a 69-year-old grandfather, says he hopes the lockdown will end soon. He adds that, while he understand the reasons for a lockdown, he needs to work to send money to his home in the North West province

"I am unemployed. This grant is my only income and I need to send money home every month."

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Mohale said he fears what will happen to his community if the virus spreads to his area. Many in his community are unable to keep to the social distance prescribed by government, he said.

"How do you keep a social distance in a taxi, in a shack, in a shopping mall that services thousands of people? It's unrealistic. Government has promised to give us houses for years and they are failing. If we had homes, of we had four walls, we would survive. We are not going to survive this virus. We need more than just social awareness. We need running water, we need sanitisers and we need homes. If this does not happen, we will see many dying. Government needs to help us."

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