The desperate hunger of children should be the barometer of a failing government

Government is failing its hungry children spectacularly, writes Mandy Wiener. 

I don’t know what it feels like to be hungry – true, gnawing, hollow hunger.

But what I do know is that it is a feeling I would never want myself or my children to experience. In fact, it is an almost debilitating fear that that could ever happen.

But the stark truth for many of those who thought that awful possibility could never become a reality is now becoming their own lived experiences.

The data shows this to be the case. But more disturbingly, anecdotally we now know it is happening.

A report from Groundup last week left me reeling – that children are eating wild plants to survive as hunger explodes. 

It quoted Gift of the Givers project manager Ali Sablay as saying that when the organisation’s food truck arrived in Peddie in the Eastern Cape earlier this month, they learnt that some people were feeding their children wild plants to deal with their gnawing hunger pangs.

If any organisation has experience of absolute devastation it is Gift of the Givers. This NGO goes into disaster areas responding to tragedies as a matter of course. Now that trauma is happening right here in their own backyard.

Requests for food

The organisation says it has been overwhelmed with requests for food, people are crying on the phone, flooding their inboxes, desperate for food parcels.

The data paints an alarming picture of the economic impact of the lockdown and the crisis it has created. This is from various credible sources.

Take a read through the scary NIDS-CRAM survey, compiled by 30 social scientists from five different universities across the country.

It found that half of households (47%) ran out of money to buy food in April. One in two respondents indicated that their household had run out of money to buy food in the month of April. One in five (22%) said that someone in the household went hungry in the past week, and one in seven respondents said that a child went hungry in the past week. 7% of adults and 4% of children were perpetually hungry (hunger “every day” or almost every day).

Sacrificing food 

What these numbers also show is that in most of the households affected, parents are “shielding” their children from hunger. In other words, they are sacrificing their own food so that their kids can eat. As a mother, that scenario is utterly heartbreaking.

These figures are a confirmation of research done by Statistics South Africa, the Human Sciences Research Council and the University of Johannesburg in the past couple of months which all indicate that hunger is getting much, much worse.

There is only so much that civil society, NGOs like Gift of the Givers and the man in the street can do. Benevolent suburban South Africans are trying to help by creating soup packets, make sandwiches, establish feeding schemes and soup kitchens. It is encouraging and appreciated but it is nowhere near enough.

Government has to step in at this point, which is why the proposition of a Basic Income Grant (BIG) is now on the table. With that comes the risk of over dependency on the state that smacks of socialism which worries critics. The special Covid-19 grant of R350 doesn’t appear to be touching sides while payouts for the Temporary Employer Relief Scheme (Ters) have now dried up. Government says it paid over R8 billion to around 150 000 employers on behalf of over two million employees.

But again as we have seen so often in South Africa’s recent history, civil society has indeed stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum created by a failing government. Time and time again we have seen civic organisations turn to the courts to force elected leaders into leading.

This time, it was Equal Education. Together with School Governing Bodies from two Limpopo schools, they went to the High Court seeking to force the Minister of Basic Education and MECS of Education in eight provinces (excluding the Western Cape) seeking declaratory orders to ensure that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) be implemented.

The programme ensures that almost half of the 20 million children in the country are fed. It supplements nutrition for nine million children. Judge Sulet Potterill, in a scathing judgment, ordered the Minister and the MECs had failed in their constitutional obligation by freezing the feeding scheme.

Hunger not an issue of charity

“A more undignified scenario than starvation of a child is unimaginable. The morality of a society is gauged by how it treats its children. Interpreting the Bill of Rights promoting human dignity, equality and freedom can never allow for the hunger of a child…” said Judge Potterill.

“Hunger is not an issue of charity, but one of justice,” she went on.

The Director-General of Education himself described the enormous impact of the feeding scheme on children who benefitted saying that when they were provided with nutritious meals, there was improved punctuality, concentration, attendance and general well-being.

It is indisputable. Hungry children cannot learn, they cannot advance and the repercussions are ongoing and long term. We cannot be having a conversation around whether or not the schools will be shut because of the Covid-19 peak without discussing how children are being neglected at the same time and the associated knock-on effects.

Hungry children should be the ultimate barometer by which we measure our government and our leadership by. Looking at the numbers, the statistics, the surveys, the court judgments and the personal experiences of those who are feeding their children plants to sustain them, government has failed spectacularly. 

  • Mandy Wiener is a journalist, author and host of the Midday Report on 702
  • This article first appeared on on 21 July 2020.