As South Africans cope with hunger in the pandemic, government efforts at delivering relief have floundered amid widespread allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

LYNSEY CHUTEL

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Contracts are being doled out to family members. Food parcels have gone missing. And funds meant for unemployment insurance are making their way into the pockets of political cronies.

South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse, responded to the coronavirus pandemic by announcing the largest relief effort in the country’s history. But the undertaking has been dogged by allegations of widespread corruption and mismanagement, undermining confidence in a government that had initially received international acclaim for its assertive response to the pandemic.

Charities and ordinary citizens say they have been left to fill in the gaps created by the government’s failures.

Despite its moves to control the pandemic, South Africa is now overwhelmed by more than 592,144coronavirus cases, the fifth-highest infection rate in the world and the highest official caseload on the African continent.South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party initially won praise after it imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in March, and announced a raft of social measures it said would mitigate the devastating economic fallout of the pandemic. A stimulus package of 500 billion rand ($30 billion) announced in April was meant to supplement an existing social safety net that already supported 11.3 million citizens with monthly assistance for food and other social services.

But that relief effort has instead become a source of embarrassment for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected on a platform of stamping out corruption. Mr. Ramaphosa has been forced to shift from explaining lockdown measures to seeking to reassure the public that aid will be delivered, and that those aiming to profit from it — including members of his own party — would be punished.

He has called those accused of corruption “a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey,” and announced a new law enforcement unit to investigate the allegations.The scandal, which has dominated airwaves and talk shows in recent weeks, includes allegations that government leaders and politically connected cronies siphoned off money meant for the Unemployment Insurance Fund, and that relatives of public officials were handed inflated contracts to supply personal protective equipment. In addition, a food distribution program that was expanded to feed some of the 4.5 million South Africans out of work because of the pandemic has been stymied by local councilors policing how the food gets delivered, according to charitable and watchdog organizations.

Roughly 7.8 million South Africans have applied for a social relief grant providing state assistance, but thousands have yet to receive the aid, the minister of social security admitted in a budget speech to Parliament last month. Many have been forced to turn elsewhere for help.

Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of Gift of Givers, a nongovernmental organization that has distributed relief for nearly three decades, said his organization was receiving a record-breaking number of requests for food and assistance in the pandemic, despite the government’s enormous relief package.

“Never in our history have we seen such a huge request for food,” he said. “It’s not only a request, it’s a pleading, it’s a sobbing, it’s a crying.”

He said his organization had received reports of children in rural areas digging for wild plants to eat.

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Mr. Sooliman said he had observed a change in the kinds of people approaching his organization for help. Recently, there have been calls from apologetic executives and middle managers, as well as farmers requesting assistance for themselves and their workers.Workers who earn too much to qualify for state grants but whose income barely keeps them above the poverty line of $70 a month are also falling through the cracks. With little ability to weather financial shocks, about half of all such households have run out of money to buy food and other essentials, more than double the number before the pandemic, according to a survey released in July. At least two A.N.C. officials have already been suspended for diverting food meant for aid distribution, local media reported. The president’s office announced that the president’s own spokeswoman has taken a leave of absence while she and her husband are being investigated on accusations that they won a $7 million contract to supply protective equipment through political connections.

In another case, the education department in the Eastern Cape province is under investigation after it awarded a grossly inflated $23 million contract to supply tablets for remote learning to a company headed by an A.N.C. official.

Several other A.N.C. party members are among the targets of the law enforcement unit recently formed by the president to investigate corruption related to the pandemic. Pule Mabe, a spokesman for the A.N.C., said the party was looking into the various allegations, but declined to comment further.

In April, aid workers with Rays of Hope, a Christian organization, said they arrived to deliver food at a dilapidated housing block in Alexandra, a sprawling township bordering Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs. But before they could, a local politician showed up and blocked the delivery to the dozens of hungry families.Sihle Mooi, the director of Rays of Hope, said the truck was turned away by a local ward councilor, Ambe Maseko. In a telephone interview, Ms. Maseko did not deny that she had turned the aid workers away, but only said the situation had since been “resolved.” Mr. Mooi said his organization was later able to deliver the food at the housing block.

Mr. Mooi said the A.N.C. and officials like Ms. Maseko are controlling food distribution to “reward some people who voted for them, and punish others.”

(SOURCE: The New York Times)

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