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The truth behind the lockdown Next Door



“Hey guys! You ready for the protest? We gotta get the tables and chairs into the street before 12:00. We’ve got 15 minutes before kick-off, so let’s move!”

We wanna get some attention, so blocking the street is the way to go. It’s a little hardline, and the letter Wendy (Alberts from RASA – Restaurant Association of South Africa) wrote to the national police commissioner letting him know about the protest and requesting permission was denied, so it’s a little dicey.

Squinting into the distance (in Grant Avenue, Norwood),I can’t see any of the other restaurants doing anything. Lemme just run over to the guys at The Schwarma Company to see what they’re going to do.

Look inside, ya, there’s Marwan or Wafi or one of them, I never can tell which – only been neighbours for 17 years – get my temperature taken, 36.6, still good. I look him earnestly in the eye, he looks back just as earnestly. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t …

Back to the restaurant, we band together, this table’s big and heavy, on the white line is perfect. If we put them here and run them up the road with the line down the centre, and the chairs on each end, we can still get traffic through. Perfect, peaceful, traffic slowing a bit, but flowing. Back to the shop, we need placards or something. If you’re going to picket you’ve got to have placards, no?

Pizza boxes, write on them with magic marker, “30 staff laid off, exclamation mark, exclamation mark”. Big and bold, write a second one. Don’t forget to remind Cyril (Ramaphosa) about the three months of no UIF payments received. Not a cent, 30 employees laid off since 27 March, no salary for April, May, June, now the end of July.

We’re trying to help with whatever we can, get vouchers from Pick n Pay so the guys can buy food, not giving cash because they might pay landlords and not eat, and they don’t have to pay landlords. It’s illegal to evict during the lockdown. The government promised so much, but the restaurant industry is lagging way behind and there’s no money for food. The landlord will have to go to the government to get paid because these guys sure as hell can’t pay. That’s what we are protesting about.

I saw Nkosi the other day when he came to collect his voucher, emaciated, nothing on him. He says he’s good, but you can’t be that skinny and good. Such a beautiful smile, but how can he be smiling when he’s starving.

I get him back into his old position because take-away sales are increasing. I get him some transport money, staff meals, and sanitiser, new masks, and screen him, and he’s okay. He’s working now.

I’ve got to try get as many guys as possible back into the restaurant, but we have got to wait for people to feel safe to come back in, and they’re not coming yet. Take-aways and platters are doing well.

I better get Onios back into the kitchen. He is also skraal as hell, but up-beat and ready to work.

Everyone’s on half hours so jobs are kept and we can break up into two teams. That’s everyone from waiters to managers to scullery to mashgiachs to chefs. So, if G-d forbid one member gets sick, that team can go into quarantine and the other can take over. That way, we can all stay working and alive.

Business is a bit better now, but we’re still 70% down from our worst turnover, and we’re running on take-aways and platters. That’s about a triple load of take-aways compared to pre-lockdown, which is a new normal for us with a skeleton staff as we can’t have as many people in the kitchen. We need to stay safe and keep social distance, so staff are multi-tasking, learning new skills, and taking on multiple positions.

With staff on half hours, salary cuts, and layoffs, we still have a massive shortfall every month and are struggling to get salaries out. We still help laid-off staff, who call at 06:00 telling me they’ve been kicked out of their apartments because we aren’t paying their salaries and UIF hasn’t been paid. That’s where Onios was for two nights – unthinkable – sleeping on the streets because we can’t take him back as there isn’t enough work.

The team is totally swamped with new procedures, with massive loads of take-aways and platters to dispatch, and drivers to control. Then, there’s a WhatsApp line, four phones ringing, an internet order system, and our own delivery system so we can employ waiters as drivers and save the crippling 25% chunk of every sale plus VAT that Mr Delivery takes.

Our waiters are back, not running tables because there’s only one table, but running the phones. Table 11’s order is getting mixed up and they are trying to remain patient, but aren’t managing, just like we aren’t.

The most difficult thing to do is to see things in context so we don’t sweat the small stuff and have compassion. Like the 11 complaints we got after a huge and overwhelming trade on Youth Day. Every one of the 11 were real angels. We refunded, and some wouldn’t take refunds, just wanted acknowledgment of their inconvenience.

Mr President, listen to the cries of the millions of us who put our seats in the streets across the country last Wednesday, lift the curfew, and get UIF to staff who stayed home because you asked them to.

Lift the alcohol ban because ten thousand extra trauma beds are needed every month for alcohol-related incidents, but hundreds of thousands of restaurant employees around the country are laid off and starving. The math doesn’t add up. Restaurants can’t survive without liquor sales. Please, Mr President, hear our cry.

  • Anthony Sacks is the owner of RTG and Next Door kosher restaurants in Norwood

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