The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
THE sight of omalayitsha, as cross border transporters are popularly known, is one that is common enough in Bulawayo.
In the 867km between Johannesburg and the City of Kings, these men are the emperors of the road. They are the umbilical cord through which many Zimbabweans, who live and work in South Africa, feed their families back home.
Their trade however, is now under threat as they grind to a halt because of a virus that is threatening every corner of the globe. For the first time since the borders were drawn, Zimbabweans are unable to send wares and groceries to relatives back home as neighbouring South Africa shut down.
Covid-19 is a name that most transporters and their customers would not have known a month ago. But from Wuhan, China it came unannounced and uninvited and it has changed their lives. Most Zimbabweans south of the Limpopo are in service industries in South Africa and it is that sector that has been hardest hit by the Covid-19. With bars, fast food outlets and restaurants scaling down operations since the outbreak of the virus, the incomes of many have taken a severe hit.
On Wednesday, two days after President Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed a 21-day shutdown, it was announced that South Africans who had hoped to be able to order meals from their favorite restaurants and fast-food eateries, will not be able to for the next three weeks.
“As people who are in South Africa this corona thing, especially to us who are in this hotel and catering business, it is going to hit us hard because of how our earnings are structured,” Duduzile Moyo who works for one the posh Newscafé joints in Johannesburg told Sunday Life.
While the three-week shutdown will be a severe knock on the salaries of workers, they had already begun to feel the effects of Covid-19 weeks before its announcement. As fear of catching the virus gripped Mzansi, which now has the highest of cases in Africa, customers started staying away from restaurants, starving waiters and waitresses of their lifeblood — tips.
“As soon as the news of this corona thing broke, we were told to come to our shifts and then we were told that our shifts would be cut. That didn’t help us at all because people weren’t coming in and you wouldn’t get tips. So, you would stand from 9am to 10pm and not even get a single rand. Most of us do not have salaries but survive on tips, some get a commission, so it’s basically a case of no customers no pay. So, it will be difficult for us to carry on with our lives and take care of our children,” Moyo said.
She said South African businesses have done little to help workers as the situation worsened. The three coming weeks are likely to bring even more hardship, which in turn was bad news for those dependent on people in hospitality industries in South Africa.
“I believe some of us still have parents at home but there’s nothing for us to send. So, we’ve got fear that come month-end we won’t have money to pay our rentals. We have a lot of expenses so you can imagine what impact this lockdown will have on us as workers. Our savings, which we had we’ve already started using, won’t last so for the 21 days. I don’t know how we’re going to survive because the bosses at our shops are contributing nothing to the welfare of workers,” Moyo said.
Kimberly Ndlovu, a waitress for 15 years, told Sunday Life that in the days leading up to the lockdown, which meant people had to stay at home except those offering essential services, workers had to balance their own fear and the need to make a living.
“It was hard because we are pedestrians and we use public transport and we would be packed in there. It was even worse at work because we had to serve people who might have brought the virus from overseas. Because of the fact that you want that R50, you’ll be willing to put your family’s life at risk. We don’t have money to buy things like hand sanitisers and you greet neighbours who are the same so the chain goes on,” she said.
South African restaurant franchises, do not pay workers a monthly wage, instead offering them a percentage of their earnings. This means that without regular work in the next few weeks, she will have no steady income. The South African increased the minimum wage to R20,76 per hour, as of 1 March, but few restaurants and bars have taken heed.
“This is a nightmare because we’re not doing white collar jobs. As a waiter you don’t have a salary but you have to depend on someone else. So, imagine you go to work three times a week and you earn little. The government tries to regulate salaries but companies don’t follow. For example, where I work you earn 1, 5% of the business you bring in, which is too little but you can make as much as R10 000 from tips. That’s how we survive,” she said.
The South African Unemployment Insurance Fund gave out stipends to workers to cushion them against the effects of the shutdown.
However, with only a fraction of the waiters documented, only a few are eligible for the funds.
“The restaurants employ people without proper immigration papers so they can’t benefit from this. So, out of a staff compliment of 50 people perhaps only 10 will get something,” said Ndlovu.
For bartenders, the situation is equally dire. Anderson Ncube, a bartender at a posh bar in the leafy town of Sandton, said the situation had led to depression among workers in the hospitality industry. With the notoriously high rentals in South Africa, few could afford to keep money for a rainy day.
“My prediction is that it’s going to be a spiritually depressing period because the majority of waiters don’t keep money for dark days as these. It’s going to be difficult to pay rent, noting the high price of rent. People will be forced to buy groceries to sustain them through the lockdown,” he said.
Fear of crime during the lockdown and the knowledge that they could not help their folks back home during the three weeks would drive many over the edge, he said.
“Another fear is the escalation of crime if the lockdown is not supervised by both police or military as you know a hungry man is an angry man, resulting in looting and all forms of moral decay. Another thing is that many people, even back at home, rely on groceries we send. It’s going to have a negative effect especially on old folks who rely on groceries and money from Mzansi. This won’t only affect waiters but omalayitsha as well. In essence we are in trouble,” he said.