The stories are gut-wrenching. People driven to the brink of such despair by hunger that they’re eating anything from grass and shrubs to tortoises to fill their bellies. A family contracting rabies after eating a stray dog. The cries of the desperate coming through day after day: please, help us. We have nothing. We’re starving.
Residents of the Eastern Cape – South Africa’s poorest province, which includes areas as diverse as the arid plains of the Great Karoo and the lush beauty of the Wild Coast – had already been brought to their knees by a crippling 10-year drought.
Then the pandemic arrived and lockdown stripped away the last vestiges of hope, leaving nothing but misery and desolation.
Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, head of disaster-response non-governmental organisation Gift of the Givers Foundation, says the humanitarian crisis is the worst he’s ever seen – and he’s witnessed the devastation of war-torn Syria and the apocalyptic aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.
Ali Sablay, a project manager with Gift of the Givers, meets us in Graaff-Reinet.
“In my 28 years with the organisation I’ve never seen such hunger,” he says.
Before the pandemic struck, about 29% of the Eastern Cape’s seven million people were unemployed. Lockdown laid further waste to the economy, with small businesses and large industries alike shutting their doors and retrenching employees.
In the blink of an eye, thousands more found themselves facing starvation.
“People are pleading for help on a daily basis,” says Ali Conradie, who along with his wife, Corene, is the Givers’ Eastern Cape project coordinator.
He plays a sound clip on his phone from an elderly woman who’d seen the organisation’s relief effort on TV.
“Hello, Gift of the Givers, we’re hungry here at the farm,” she says amid sobs. “We don’t have a house, we have nothing. Please, Gift of the Givers, we’re here in Stutterheim, please. Please help us, we’re hungry. Please, please, please. We saw you helping people – help us.”
Suffering is everywhere, Corene says. “A family in Mthatha contracted rabies after they ate a dog in desperation.”
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15 October 2020