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South Africa’s Big Coronavirus Aid Effort Tainted by Corruption

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

Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

JOHANNESBURG — 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 592,144 coronavirus cases, the fifth highest number of confirmed cases globally 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.

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Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

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.

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.

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Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

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.”

“Who gets food is highly politicized,” he said. “Especially if it comes from government funding.”

When the lockdown was announced, researchers at Corruption Watch, a watchdog group, set up an online public site called Lockdown Life. It was intended for sharing the simple pleasures of life in quarantine — “grandparents spending time with their grandchildren, or being able to wash your car twice a day, nice stories,” said Valencia Talane, a senior researcher with the group.

Instead, the site was quickly overrun with complaints ranging from distributors pilfering food packages and selling the items at marked-up prices, to packages going missing and local officials charging for free food vouchers.

“It snowballed,” Ms. Talane said. People sent videos of food trucks “literally backing up into councilors’ homes, and offloading there.”

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Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

On Aug. 15, Mr. Ramaphosa announced that the lockdown regulations would be eased to allow for the sale of alcohol and tobacco products, which had been banned, as well as some travel. Gatherings of more than 50 people are still prohibited, and wearing a mask in public remains mandatory.

The millions of South Africans who applied for the social relief grant can reapply for another three months of assistance if their circumstances remain vulnerable, the government said. But in some cases, ordinary township residents have had to band together to help families meet their most urgent needs.

For Nuraan Gain, a teacher who runs a soup kitchen in Coronationville, a suburb of Johannesburg, that meant finding new ways to stay open. Unable to make her own money stretch to feed the lines that now swell to 300 people a day, Ms. Gain said she now relies on donations of food packages and cash from local mosques, churches and well-wishers.

Julian Alexander, a 49-year-old businessman standing in line at the soup kitchen recently, used to run a warehouse storage business with his cousin. He would take home about $1,645 a month to support a family of six. Now, he has turned to hawking DVDs and pots to support his family.

“When we’re dealing with a pandemic around the world, we still have to deal with this,” said Mr. Alexander, referring to the government corruption. But he still has to look after his family, he said, adding, “Your pride has to fall.”

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