It’s 9.25am. More than 100 people, mostly men, patiently sit at the back of the City Hall waiting for Monica Rensburg, a distributor for the Grahamstown Feeding Association. Some have just woken up from their makeshift cardboard-box-beds, newspapers and rags in this spot or in the streets nearby. They all carry containers of various shapes and sizes, ranging from empty milk cartons to Sprite bottles.
A photographer pulls out a camera and the crowd instantly becomes agitated.
“The whole of Grahamstown is going to know we eat here,” shouts a man in the crowd. You can cut the tension with a butter knife. Rensburg pulls into the car park in her aging white Grahamstown Feeding Association bakkie, instantly diffusing the situation. The hungry get up and shuffle into a queue which stretches around the building.
Three slices of bread and a cup of milk is the menu for the day. It’s been that way for three weeks now since Wylie’s Dairy generously started donating milk. Usually it is bread and soup but most prefer the milk.
Soup flavours vary between beef, tomato and thick mixed vegetables (a favourite). Rensberg says the nutritional content is evaluated by a doctor. Payment for the meal is just a discarded plastic bag, encouraging the poor to help clean up the streets; thus the soup kitchen is named “the plastic soup kitchen.”
People who have nothing
“I’m not full,” says 21-year-old Anele Petros stroking his belly. He’s been coming to the back of City Hall from Monday to Friday for the last two years. He cleans cars to pay for his supper, until the traffic police chase him away.
“When I had a job selling sunglasses in front of Mr Price I didn’t come here,” he says. He’s upset by some of the other men in the queue. “See the blue overalls, they have jobs! Some people think this is breakfast, this is meant for people who have nothing.”
“Hou op!” (Stop it!) scolds Rensburg, addressing some teenagers audaciously trying to get a second helping.
“You got to be cruel to be kind,” she explains. “I have to raise my voice sometimes or they will take advantage, especially the young ones.”
Grahamstown born and bred Rensburg knows most faces and some names. She is fluent in both Xhosa and Afrikaans. “When they get angry they can swear me. We have our ups and downs.” Youngsters pour water over some spilt milk and clean it up.
Rensburg has helpers at every stop and they are rewarded with a double portion. She tries to alternate them on a weekly basis. Winston Goliath, the driver (and security when things get heated) counts 194 people. He’s been working with Rensburg for the past three years.
“I think we are going to run out of bread today, we’ll see how far we go,” he says.
“Monday mornings you can’t make jokes, they are very hungry. Sometimes their last meal was on Friday,” says Rensburg on the way to Vukani.
The charitable scheme doesn’t receive a cent from the municipality, relying on the “generous people of Grahamstown.” Bread is purchased from Pick ‘n’ Pay and extra loaves are given for free. Oatlands Bakery donates between 20 and 30 loaves every morning and The Rhodes community is also a large sponsor.
She arrives in Vukani at 10.30. Along the side of Raglan Road an orderly queue of about 150 people has already formed. It is made up mostly of women and children. Here any garbage is exchanged for food.
Do what you can
“We want only milk for our babies,” says Amanda Daweti, a young mother. She takes the one litre of milk home and cooks it in a pot to make umphokoqo (pap), which she describes as “African salad.”
“We mix the milk with water,” she says, stretching the meal to feed six people.
As the bakkie bounces along the dirt roads into Joza, Rensburg explains: “I’m here from the beginning.”
For her this job is not about the money. Having heard about the position after an announcement for volunteers at church, for the first three years she put on her soup-stained green apron she received no payment, fuelled by the satisfaction of witnessing the general grace and thankfulness of each day.
On average they feed more than 300 people a day. Now in her 13th year, she says she wouldn’t swop her job for anything in the world.
Around lunchtime the bakkie arrives at the Indoor Sport Centre, Rensburg’s final and favourite stop. The people here treat her with a lot of respect, waiting patiently in line and not begging for extra portions.
Hard work, great returns
“We just made it,” she says smiling as the queue comes to an end. And so does the milk and bread. Some of the young patrons wash the van in appreciation.
This Christmas, Rensburg plans to take a well deserved holiday at the beach near Fish River.
“When I leave I will buy them all chocolates and biltong,” she says. Several other organisations have approached Rensburg, citing her dedication and work ethic, but she blankly refuses. For her there is no substitute to the gratification she finds in feeding people.
“I will retire at the Feeding Association, this is my life.”
In 2009 Rensburg and Goliath provided more than 54 000 meals to the needy.