Government, NGOs at odds over distribution of food parcels

Government lacks capacity to distribute food aid, NGOs say

10 May 2020 - 00:00
Residents offer their services to cart food parcels for a small fee on 2 May 2020 in Olievenhoutbosch in Centurion, north of Johannesburg. Residents came out in their thousands to receive food parcels.
Residents offer their services to cart food parcels for a small fee on 2 May 2020 in Olievenhoutbosch in Centurion, north of Johannesburg. Residents came out in their thousands to receive food parcels.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

SA's most vulnerable people are likely to be the biggest losers in a standoff between the government and NGOs over the distribution of food parcels.

Nonprofit organisation Solidarity Helping Hand, which distributes aid to thousands of families across SA, has threatened legal action "should government implement regulations prescribing that the distribution of food to the poor be centralised under government control".

Some experts say that while centralising aid distribution during the lockdown has merit, it would require the social development department to dramatically improve its performance.

"Centralising aid does have a role but then social development needs to commit to ensuring the food actually gets to the people. They need to step it up," said Mervyn Abrahams, programme co-ordinator at Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity, a group that lobbies for communities in need.

Abrahams said the department needed to do away with the red tape around who would receive food aid.

"Whoever is queuing is there because they are hungry. For instance, in the Western Cape you cannot receive food aid if you have an income of R3,200 or more, but we say those households are absolutely poor.

"Our calculations are that a household of seven people needs R3,400 to survive a month - that's just food.

"[Centralisation] only works if the department gets rid of its incompetence. Otherwise it's better if civil society distributes food."

Last week, the acting social development MEC for Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, threatened to stop organisations from distributing food if they failed to observe official guidelines.

These include applying for a letter of authorisation and informing police before food is handed out. He said all food donations should be handed to the department for onward distribution to the needy.

The government has told NGOs that the department of social development should distribute all food parcels on their behalf to avoid breaches of lockdown regulations.

Solidarity Helping Hand CEO Hannes Noëth said the group would continue its nationwide aid programme.

"Our calls are from the hungry, not from government . NGOs need to be allowed to do their own donations, because there is just no capacity for government to do it all."

Noëth said fear of corruption was another reason to be wary of putting state officials in charge of food aid.

This week Nonhlanhla Khoza, social development MEC for KwaZulu-Natal, acknowledged the department had received complaints about food parcels being looted and about councillors politicising or benefiting financially from aid distribution.

Cost of feeding a family a basic nutritious diet per month
Cost of feeding a family a basic nutritious diet per month
Image: Nolo Moima

Themba Masango, chair of the #NotInMyName NGO, called the government's centralisation plan "inconvenient", noting that NGOs have already been classified as essential services.

"NGOs are not doing it for votes so there is no ulterior motive but to help. We also have to be accountable to our donors, they need to know where the donations are going."

Thabiso Hlongwane, spokesperson for the Gauteng social development department, said there was no such thing as centralised food distribution, only guidelines on how to distribute food aid.

He said there were five food banks in Gauteng where donors were encouraged to drop off parcels. The donations were all registered and none had been stolen or given to the wrong person.

Hlongwane said the regulations were in place to stop the spread of the virus and to ensure that donated food was fit for consumption.

"We have had cases where rotten or expired food has been donated. We know people are poor and hungry but they cannot be given rotten meat," he said, calling the Gauteng system "corruption-free".

"We are asking that people who do give out food give us their data, otherwise we have families getting up to five parcels a day from various groups that don't know a donation has already taken place."

The Solidarity Fund launched by the government has already disbursed R120m to be spent on food aid for 250,000 households.


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