'What you see in people’s faces is pain': Voluntary helpers' emotional burden

18 May 2020 - 08:25
By Iavan Pijoos

In poorer communities in Gauteng, the reality of desperate, hungry people fighting to stay alive during the nationwide lockdown is stark.

This is the experience for Education Africa's founder and CEO, James Urdang, who does community work in townships across the province.

Urdang said the organisation also hands out food parcels for their students studying the early child development programme in Orange Farm, Diepsloot, Soweto, Alexandra and Braamfontein.

“I have witnessed a lot over the years, but I haven’t seen what we see now in our country, in our poorer communities and our townships where our fellow South Africans are living in poverty.

“You don’t see social distancing. What you see is poverty. What you see is hunger. What you see in people’s faces is pain. Tummies are hungry.”

To look hungry people in the eyes and tell them you can’t help is traumatic.
Cradle of Hope founder on Covid-19 food regulations

Urdang said he recently drove past thousands of people queuing for food parcels outside a mall in Orange Farm.

“What impressed me is that they were all cordial and well-behaved, but what I saw was desperation. We don’t see this in middle-class communities.

“Where our people live in townships and rural communities, life is hard and tough. There are very few places to wash and very little basic hygiene.”

A non-profit organisation in Krugersdorp has been distributing sandwiches to poor people.
Image: Melodie van Brakel A non-profit organisation in Krugersdorp has been distributing sandwiches to poor people.

Every day for the past three years, a non-profit organisation in Krugersdorp has been distributing around 400 peanut butter sandwiches to hungry children and adults in the area.

During the nationwide lockdown, the numbers have doubled.

The organisation, Cradle of Hope, had strict hygiene and social distancing measures in place, but new regulations forced them to stop distribution on May 11.

Regulations prohibited them from serving any cooked or prepared meals, and only allowed them to distribute non-perishable foods which they had to deliver to recipients.

“It is extremely difficult. It breaks our hearts. Some of the children we have known since birth and we have helped them with nappies and milk.

“To look hungry, desperate people in the eyes and tell them you can’t help them is traumatic. Some of our personnel are in tears daily.

“I am extremely worried about these people because some are sick and have weak immune systems. They are at greater risk of contracting the virus,” founder Melodie van Brakel told TimesLIVE.

A car guard, who asked to remain anonymous, said his family had benefited from the sandwiches daily.

“The sandwiches were for my sick father, my brother and two children. With the lockdown I can’t work and we don’t have any food in the house. I am angry. How do they expect poor people to survive?”

On a daily basis, scores of people gather to receive food parcels.
Image: Muslim Association of South Africa On a daily basis, scores of people gather to receive food parcels.

Yaseen Theba, from the Muslim Association of South Africa (Masa), said there had been a growing demand for food across Gauteng.

“For many the lockdown is more than containing the coronavirus and being at home or staying within the restrictions. For many it means no work, no pay.

“It is shocking to see the numbers of people without food.”

Theba said they started small by only distributing to temporary shelters in the inner-city of Johannesburg looking after homeless people, especially those living under  bridges.

“Our focus then shifted to the informal settlements, where there was a huge need. The need for food is absolutely dire.”

Theba said when distributing food parcels, the recipients are stoic because “they realise there are limited resources”.

“Community leaders and church leaders assist us and identify people needing food. Social distancing is generally maintained and we do comply. We also receive massive support from law enforcement.”

The non-profit organisation distributes more than 1,000 food parcels per day.

“We try to keep politics out of it when going into areas. The lockdown is affecting us beyond race and religion..”

Casey van Wyk handing out food parcels to the homeless in Johannesburg.
Image: Neville van Wyk Casey van Wyk handing out food parcels to the homeless in Johannesburg.

Pastor Neville van Wyk, who is responsible for pastoral care at Rhema Bible Church, said the plight of the vulnerable has never been highlighted more than in recent weeks.

Van Wyk and other leaders at the church have started distributing food parcels in parts of Gauteng.

The church had made funds available to help with the purchase of grocery vouchers and food packs for those in need. The funds come from charitable donation, tithes and offerings from members of the church.

Ministries within the church, including their men's and women's ministries, have also been assisting the zone pastors with grocery packs.

“The generosity of people towards the needy has been phenomenal,” Van Wyk said.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many battling to survive after salary cuts and job losses.

“People are struggling. People who were able to make ends meet before are now facing challenges. Uncertainty reigns. People gripped by fear have to face the reality of not knowing where their next meal may be coming from,” Van Wyk said.

“People are hungry and winter is creeping in mercilessly. The need for food will be compounded with the need for warm clothing and blankets.”

Van Wyk said social grants were a “lifeline for the most poor in society”, but many people were going hungry after having to ration their supplies.

“We need to get more food and clothing to people. We also need to get more masks and sanitisers to those in informal settlements.”