“I was thinking, maybe it’s better to go home; staying here is hard.”
This is one of the many thoughts of Rose Mashaba, a 28-year-old Mozambican national, who has been living in South Africa since 2012.
She met News24 outside a house in Kensington, in eastern Johannesburg.
She had walked there from the opposite end of town, making her way from the flat she shares with her child because her sister had told her there was a chance good Samaritans would be delivering food parcels for those in need.
“It’s been very hard; trying to eat and to survive with this thing is very hard.”
Mashaba, who first claimed her name was on a list of those destined to receive food packages, which included maize, sugar, flour and numerous tinned foods, eventually admitted she wasn’t. But she then explained that she had no option but to take her chances because she was desperate.
The hairdresser has been unable to earn an income because most businesses not deemed essential have been forced to close their doors since 26 March.
Her story is not unique. Millions across the country, including the migrant and refugee communities, have been left in distress following the implementation of the lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
At the weekend, visuals showed thousands of people in Olievenhoutbosch lined up in snaking queues, hoping for some relief, but many returned home empty-handed as food parcels ran out.
While Mashaba says she understands why the lockdown was implemented, and the salon where she works closed its doors, it was hard being told by the owner that he couldn’t afford to pay them a stipend to keep them going during the lockdown.
She also envies the measures the South African government has put in place to ease the devastation experienced by its own citizens during the health and economic crisis.
“All of us are hungry. I don’t have a South African ID book, but I have a permit. If I go there to register, I am told they are only helping people who have the South African ID,” says Mashaba.
She says her attempts to get the R350 grant, which is being given to those who are not employed or social grant recipients, have also failed.
“I couldn’t accept in my heart that this is happening to us. We are here, there is nothing else we can do,” says Mashaba.
She also noted that, while the country eased regulations and moved to Level 4, salons were not included on the list of businesses allowed to open their doors.
“The border is also closed. I was thinking maybe if I go home it wouldn’t be so bad. It might be easier to stay there than here. Maybe that side I will also qualify for some sort of grant.”
Mashaba is one of many foreign nationals in South Africa who have considered returning home during the lockdown, but they risk wasting money as they will most likely be turned away at the country’s border posts, which remain closed – except for repatriation missions.
The chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, Dr Abdul Karim Elgoni, told News24 he has had numerous requests for assistance from desperate people who want to return to the lands of their birth.
He said he’s considering approaching the Department of Home Affairs to see how this can be arranged.
“This is a difficult situation; I have never seen anything like this. People are living hand to mouth, I am getting thousands of messages using the word starving … they say ‘doctor, we are starving’,” he said.
“They never thought something would come out of the blue and make them all helpless like this.”
Elgoni said the forum has relied on members who own businesses, such as spaza shops, to help bring relief to thousands of people around Gauteng.
He also raised concerns over the lack of interest in the plight of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from their embassies in South Africa.
Elgoni said the forum had written to at least 27 embassies, with only one response – and that one wasn’t favourable.
“Feedback from one embassy informally saying our letter was not politically correct because we said migrants are not beneficiaries of the support given by the South African government because they don’t have IDs.”
He also complained that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, at the beginning of the lockdown, painted migrants as “enemies of the state”, regarding its position on spaza shops. But the matter, he claims, was swiftly resolved when concerns were raised by his forum and human rights activists.
The chairperson of the diaspora forum also said while he felt “unhappy” about the South African government’s efforts, he understood the necessity.
“If there is very little food, the ones who will get are your immediate relatives; you can’t go to the neighbours if you can’t feed the relatives, it’s understandable.”
‘You can’t stop anyone who wants to go home’
Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said: “You can’t stop anyone who wants to go back home; in the same way, South Africans who want to return, they cannot be stopped.”
In response to claims that some migrants would prefer to leave South Africa, Motsoaledi says the government has no intention of making it difficult for anyone, including those from the continent, from returning to their respective home countries.
He said it would be up to their respective countries to ensure the quarantine process was adhered to.
“We have never stopped the Germans, the Brazilians and all that. They have sent planes here to collect them, why would we stop the Africans?” said Motsoaledi.
The minister said he had requested lists of those wishing to leave South Africa, so plans could be made to facilitate their exit, but nothing had been forthcoming.