Chefs in South Africa, reeling from a series of strict anti-Covid measures that they say will cripple the restaurant industry for years, are taking to social media and to the streets to vent their frustrations under the banner #JobsSaveLives.
The campaign, started by chef Liam Tomlin of Cape Town’s Chefs Warehouse and Canteen, began with restaurant teams, their producers and even winemakers posting poignant images to social media, holding placards detailing the number of jobs at risk should their businesses fail.
#JobsSavesLives has since ballooned, with thousands of restaurant workers taking to the streets in peaceful protest, and many restaurateurs symbolically moving empty restaurant furniture out into the roads. It’s reported that some protestors have been met with force by the police.
“It was originally meant to show how many jobs [President Cyril Ramaphosa] was putting at risk within our group of five restaurants,” says Tomlin “Within 10 days it had turned into a peaceful protest on the streets throughout South Africa and further afield. Now it has a global following.”
The campaign is a response to the government’s recent re-introduction of a countrywide ban on alcohol sales, and a strict 9pm curfew, which has since been moved to 10pm. The already beleaguered industry had been given a glimmer of hope when allowed to reopen as part of an easing of lockdown measures in June. Now many believe the industry is facing ruin.
“For far too many, it is too late. They are beyond saving and 1000s of jobs have been sacrificed with little to no chance of reemployment for the foreseeable future,” says Tomlin. In fact, the Restaurant Association of South Africa estimates that around 70% of restaurant industry jobs have already been lost due to the Covid crisis.
For many, the alcohol ban, intended to ease pressure on health services, and the curfew, collectively have been the final straw. The former is misguided says Tomlin. “Drink-related problems and domestic abuse have been around since day dot and will be around on day zero. They are not caused by Covid or people enjoying a bottle of wine, a few beers, a shot of spirit over a three-hour dining experience with like-minded people,” he says.
Matt Manning of Cape Town’s Grub & Vine agrees the measures have been devastating. “It’s like saying to a hairdresser, ‘You can reopen, but you can’t use your scissors or hairdryer,” he says. Manning, who’s recently launched his own initiative, the Restaurant Rescue Project together with Radford Dale winery, believes many people are still uncomfortable with the idea of dining out, something the government should address. “I don’t believe the virus is going anywhere soon, so we need to learn to live with it,” he says.
But many in the industry would argue that is unlikely to happen. Officials are dismissive of their concerns they say and unlike in other countries, the UK for example, there has been very little financial support for employers and employees. And what little support the government is offering has been hard to come by.
“Accessing TERS [Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme]/UIF [Unemployment Insurance Fund] has been a challenge - we are one of the lucky few who got paid out, but the amounts are nowhere near what staff were getting previously,” says Manning. “And not everyone in our industry has been so lucky – many are still waiting on UIF payment from April.”
Just ask Pete Goffe-Wood, chef-patron at Kitchen Cowboys and Viande, also in Cape Town. He says the majority of his employees are yet to receive any benefits at all. His forecast is gloomy. “The long-term effect will be mass unemployment. The sector employed about 800,000 people in March, the vast majority of those will not be reemployed,” he says.
But the overriding feeling is one of frustration. Despite the rise of #JobsSaveLives, many in the industry feel they are still not being heard. “I honestly don’t think this government or anybody working within this government has a clue about hospitality or the hospitality industry,” says Tomlin. “Lift the bans, allow us to trade, open the borders. Allow us to save jobs, allow our staff to put food on the table.”