Maverick Citizen op-ed

Sona 2021 failed to hear the voices of hungry children

By Chantell Witten Julian May and Lori Lake 15 February 2021

Mpepule Primary School pupils in Limpopo queue for meals in March 2016. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

Children bore the brunt of Covid-19 in 2020, but most do not get the nourishment they need. In fact, the nutritional status of children has not improved for more than two decades. Yet, Cyril Ramaphosa’s address did not acknowledge them.

A State of the Nation Address (Sona) must present a vision for the country. It proposes ambitions such as smart cities, the revitalisation of our ports, fostering youth entrepreneurship and rebuilding our economy. However, a Sona should also keep its feet on the ground, recognising the hardships citizens have endured over the past year, the sacrifices made and the dreams that have not manifested. This is particularly so when reflecting on 2020 and proposing a way forward for 2021.

The 20212 Sona provides vision, with many strongly worded statements about what has been achieved, what could have been achieved and what is hoped for in the future. However, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech is disappointing for failing to recognise South Africa’s responsibility for meeting the needs of its children. Perhaps the voices of children are not as easy to hear as those of young people, the private sector and the public service, but children have borne the brunt of 2020. This includes the lives of family members and the jobs of parents that have been lost, the closure of schools and the limits placed on their freedom and access to essential services and facilities. Even though research has shown that parents have tried to buffer their children from hunger as food prices have risen and incomes have fallen, it has also shown that about 2,7 million additional children now go to bed hungry each night due to the impact of Covid-19. This is not acknowledged by Ramaphosa at all.

We are pleased the president noted the 2,4 million children attending early childhood development (ECD) programmes and pre-school. This is indeed an achievement and a government programme that needs to be grown. But even before Covid-19 closed down ECD programmes across the country, only 10% of young children were benefiting from nutritional support through the ECD subsidy. Most young children are not receiving the nourishment they need. Not even the bare minimum of calories and micronutrients, let alone the care and support that also nourish the body and spirit. 

Unfortunately, the South African Child Gauge, to be launched on 18 February, presents evidence that this is not happening, and the gaps between food and nutrition policy and implementation are huge. Indeed, the nutritional status of children has not improved for more than two decades, and child hunger increased in 2020. Child hunger results in a lasting nutritional assault and will leave a permanent imprint, stunting their physical health and cognitive development, and limiting their life chances as well as South Africa’s economic prospects. It is excellent news that South Africa’s poultry production has increased. But what steps have been taken to ensure the poor households caring for 11,6 million children can afford this valuable source of protein?

We welcome the president’s comments about violence against women. Woman are fundamental to the growth and development of this country – as activists who burnt the dompas and challenged apartheid; scrupulous public servants who protect the rights of our citizens; business leaders; and as mothers who nurture our children. As the president notes, the abuse of women remains a shaming feature of our country. But this is accompanied by a slow violence of poverty and malnutrition of our children. A violence that is hidden, lasting and as devastating as the bruises of gender-based violence. He has not said enough about this form of violence, and too little about what can be done to address this. 

We hope the finance minister’s Budget speech will offer more to South Africa’s children because the Sona suggests that hunger and malnutrition are not palpable enough. And that the voices of children and mothers have yet to be heard. DM/MC

Dr Chantell Witten, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State, and Nutrition Lead for the South African Civil Society for Women’s, Adolescents’ and Children’s Health; Professor Julian May, Centre of Excellence in Food Security, University of the Western Cape. Lori Lake, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town. 

Chantell Witten, Julian May and Lori Lake are editors of the South African Child Gauge 2020 which will be launched on Thursday, 18 February. This annual report on the status of South Africa’s children is published by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town in partnership with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, University of the Witwatersrand; Unicef South Africa; the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation and the DG Murray Trust.

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