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How EWN’s Aurelie Kalenga is feeding hundreds of families during COVID-19

"COVID does not ask for your nationality before it affects you and your pocket... it’s like the doors never shut.”

Aurelie Kalenga (middle) during a food parcel handout. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - As South Africa breaches the 100-day mark of its COVID-19 lockdown, many citizens have been feeling the financial impact of the pandemic on their pockets. Job losses and pay cuts have been prevalent across several industries in the country, leading banks to offer struggling customers payment holidays, and the Reserve Bank to cut repo rates to the lowest level since 1973.

The government has offered some financial assistance to those in need through its Social Relief of Distress grant, a fund that comes from government’s R500 billion relief response to the global pandemic. The temporary R350 social payment has offered some relief for citizens during this time. But to qualify for this benefit, you have to have a South African identity number.

EWN’s news anchor and assignments editor Aurelie Kalenga has been running a food drive to feed foreign nationals in underprivileged areas throughout Johannesburg. At first, she received numerous calls from members of her church who were seeking assistance applying for food parcels or social relief grants.

“They asked me because of the nature of my job, because a lot of them had lost their jobs or their companies were closed and did not have means of earning and income. I encouraged them to apply with the South African Social Security Agency. But it turned out that the application required applicants to have a 13-digit bar code ID number to register online and a lot of them were being kicked out with their asylum permit numbers or refugee permit numbers.”

Last month, the High Court in Pretoria compelled government to give asylum seekers the R350 COVID-19 relief grant. But this court order only included asylum seeker s and special permit holders from Zimbabwe, Angola and Lesotho. Kalenga saw a large group of asylum seekers who were forgotten and were in desperate need of food and other basic necessities.

“My sister and I thought, let’s get parcels for the 40 people in need at church. But as it happened, she got a big pay cut and we decided to reach out to some organisations to ask for help," Kalenga explains. “COVID does not ask for your nationality before it affects you and your pockets. So, when we got help to feed the 40 church members, it’s like the doors never shut,” she said.

Kalenga and her sister, Cynthia, then partnered with another family member - the Kabongos - who were also running their own donation drive to share food parcels and try to feed as many families as possible.

“We have fed over 500 families to date with contributions from Gift of the Givers, the Muslim Association of South Africa. Kgomotso Modise, my colleague, got her church involved and got us more than 60 parcels, which we took to the Yeoville area and Rosettenville area. As we post on social media, more people have been reaching out to find out how they can contribute and I direct them to a website where they can buy a parcel and I go and collect that parcel from wherever they ordered it.”

The growing public support made it possible for Kalenga to feed people from around the continent.

“There’s been people from Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Ethiopia and even South Africans. Some have even been applicants of the social relief grant, but have not received anything. For me, hunger is hunger. I am not going to ask for your nationality. If I have a parcel, I will give it to you,” she says.

Foreign nationals make up just over 7% of the country's population, according to South African Statistics. Gauteng is known to be home for many foreign nationals, documented and undocumented, numbering around 8% of the province’s working population.

According to AfricaCheck, just over 26% of Johannesburg inner-city residents are migrants from elsewhere on the continent, while the share of foreign-born residents in the inner city wards did not exceed 43%.

For Kalenga, the inner city was where she knew people would need help the most: “We went to areas in Yeoville, Hillbrow, and the Johannesburg CBD to gather lists from churches. My dad also goes to shopping centres where he knows there are a lot of foreign national security guards to get some of their names and details. People also reach out on social media to let us know of families that are in need.

“When I have collected enough food parcels, then we would group them and phone them to let them know we would be in their area to give them their food parcels and we would tell them where we can meet them to deliver. Some organisations deliver to my house and tell me to give to people, while some would then tell us to inform the people to pick up the food parcels at a specific venue, sign and make sure that they have received the parcels. I am not an NPO, I am not registered, but people trusted me based on what I told them. So, I need to show good faith by means of signatures to prove to them that the parcels were delivered to the intended people.”

To make the donations a seamless process, Kalenga said, they set up a voucher system through Webtickets.

“So a parcel actually costs R200. It’s got 10kg of mealie meal, 5kg of rice, sugar, beans and oil. If you want to donate half a parcel, you can also give R100. If you want to donate more than one parcel then you can click as you want and you send us a code or you can go and collect.”

But running a food drive is not easy. Their biggest challenge?

“For us, it’s not having enough [food]. I have sleepless nights when I think who goes to bed hungry. I feel like a failure at times knowing that there is a foreign national in this country who goes to bed hungry. I know that it’s a big responsibility that I have placed on myself. But every time the parcels arrive at my house and we think we have so many, and when we hand out, we realise that it’s not enough."

But Kalenga's not letting that fear stop her.

"I am not putting it in my mind that I can only do so much. I do feel like I wish I could do more, but as a person with limited packages, you can only do so much.”

If you would like to make a donation to the food donation scheme, you can send your voucher code to AurelieK@ewn.co.za.

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