Durban - This week, St Peter Parish in Durban’s Mahatma Gandhi Road prepared 120 food parcels to distribute to the needy.
The parcels are designed to sustain a family of four for a fortnight. Normally distributed over three days - Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays - parish priest Father Georges Bidzogo had a problem: 80 of the parcels were given out on Tuesday alone.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Bidzogo said. “We’ve run out of money.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit South Africa hard, cruelly exposing the social divides, especially among the country’s diaspora communities, many undocumented or refugees from conflict in their home country. Even those who do have jobs - and the right documentation - have found themselves unable to work and to earn because of the lockdown.
“We used to have a lot of needy people,” says the priest who came to South Africa from Cameroon in 2013, “but now it’s four times worse.”
When he was posted to Durban in September 2014, he started a soup kitchen with the St Vincent de Paul organisation, as well as trying to raise funds from as far afield as the US to create a culture of self-reliance by uplifting the community and ensuring that one child in each family would get properly educated to break the spiral of poverty.
Everything, though, stopped with the imposition of the lockdown. The soup kitchen was one of the first.
When Bidzogo began his parish outreach, St Peter’s was providing succour to 80 refugees. By the time the lockdown was instituted in March, this number had grown to 200 people wholly dependent on his efforts. Now the number is 4500, many of whom are desperate South Africans.
“Because of the social distancing protocols, we no longer cook food to give out,” he explains. “The food that we do cook is given to the homeless shelters, but it’s far better in terms of Covid-19 to supply food for people to prepare themselves.”
Bidzogo is desperate. He had thought the pandemic would be the paramount threat to people’s lives.
Instead, it is hunger.
“There has been no help from government. We’re bankrupt now, we used our last R10000 to buy those 120 food parcels this week.”
Initially helped by uMhlanga’s St Margaret Anglican Church, the Pallottine Community in Germany, and the Ubuntu Army, his other donors have been forced to scale back because of the sheer cost and relentless scale of the crisis - except for the Angel Network, which in turn has been helped by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Covid-19 relief fund.
As the Angel Network’s KZN representative Tanya Altshuler explains: “We stepped in about two months ago, but the list of people just keeps growing. Father Georges is an inspiration to all of us.
“He never turns away a desperate person. In fact, when we get calls from the desperate in Durban and surrounds, he just tells us to send them to him. Many of these people don’t have access to government relief funding and they certainly aren’t a high priority for state-sanctioned food parcels.
“It’s a dire situation. There are many mothers who have to send their young children to bed hungry every night; there are moms with toddlers who don’t have nappies for them; families of up to 10 all living in flats in the Point area without electricity.”
One of the inspiring aspects about Bidzogo’s initiative, says Altshuler, is the sophisticated data base to ensure that the relief parcels are given out fairly and transparently to those who need them most, cutting out the irregularities that have tainted other Covid-19 relief schemes in other parts of the country.
“The list though just keeps growing, the need is incredible and no one seems to understand the urgency or the scale.”
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Altshuler has secured a donation of 300 loaves of bread from Future Life and rice too, to be distributed next week. But the situation can’t continue, ongoing support is vital to sustain the feeding scheme.
“We’re appealing for any and all donors to come forward to help these forgotten people. We are trying to ensure the recipients get a nutritionally balanced parcel that includes staples as well as fresh vegetables and fruit.”