Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


Fourteen babies and toddlers have starved to death in Nelson Mandela Bay in the past 15 months

Fourteen babies and toddlers have starved to death in Nelson Mandela Bay in the past 15 months
(Photo: Halden Krog / Gallo Images)

Hundreds of children are receiving treatment for severe acute malnutrition as communities in Nelson Mandela Bay lose the battle against hunger, intensified by a bureaucratic bungle by the provincial Department of Social Development.

In the past 15 months, 14 children under the age of five starved to death in Nelson Mandela Bay and another 216 new cases of severe acute malnutrition were confirmed in the Eastern Cape’s biggest metro, where more than 16,000 families were left without aid because of a bureaucratic bungle by the provincial Department of Social Development. 

Another 188 children received in-patient treatment at the metro’s hospitals for severe acute malnutrition and in February 11 children were hospitalised with severe acute malnutrition. 

The impact of dire food shortages, including a shortage of nutritious food in communities, is, however, much larger. The University of Cape Town’s Child Institute estimates that 48% of child hospital deaths in South Africa are associated with moderate or severe acute malnutrition. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Hunger warning – severe acute malnutrition stalks the land

In Nelson Mandela Bay, one child died of complications from an E. coli infection and more than 30 fell ill after the municipal water was confirmed to be contaminated – but metro officials said it was more a case of the children not being able to access potable water, as the water supply was disconnected at the time that they fell ill.  

Last week, the Eastern Cape Department of Health confirmed that seven children had died of severe acute malnutrition in Butterworth during the first two months of this year. 

This comes after the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development forfeited R67-million meant to assist those worst affected by poverty in the province. 

Seven children starve to death, others fight for their lives while malnutrition ravages Eastern Cape

During a sitting of the provincial legislature last week, members of the legislature were told that the department had been unable to spend the money, which was meant for families who were unable to meet basic needs.  

“It is unfathomable and simply unacceptable that the department, under the leadership of MEC Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi, was unable to spend R67.076-million that was meant for the most vulnerable in our province. These funds are now lost forever, while the people of this province go hungry,” said Edmund van Vuuren, the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on social development. 

“In Nelson Mandela Bay alone, 16,634 beneficiaries were denied social relief of distress, in the form of food parcels, because Mani-Lusithi’s department chose to appoint service providers that did not have the capacity to deliver,” he added. 

Highlighting extreme poverty and need in the province, volunteers at nutrition programmes said on Tuesday that if they give the children gifts for Christmas or even toiletries or sanitary pads for older children, adults would take them and sell them to buy alcohol and drugs. 

“It breaks your heart,” said Madge Blignaut, whose organisation, Project Hope, runs a soup kitchen and other activities in Booysen Park, where most of the recent cases were diagnosed. 

“When lockdown was announced in 2020, we were inundated with donations and offers to help, but people have moved on with their lives,” she said. 

“Many families in that area are struggling to access help. In an informal settlement like Vastrap, many small children are not in school. There is a lot of substance abuse. Children are neglected. 

“There definitely is a huge disjoint between the Department of Social Development and the communities. 

“In our soup kitchens, the ladies use their own resources. We try to help as much as we can.” 

She said that despite their best efforts the need for food in the community remained overwhelming. 

“The shacks in Vastrap have no floors. When it rains it becomes very muddy there. There is no running water and no toilet system. People use plastic crates as chairs. Many shacks have only one room where the family must stay.  

“Most people just think of surviving. Moms in that community only think of where they can get a piece of bread for their families.  

“People really live in abject poverty and their emotional and psychological wellbeing is extremely poor. The children are not in school, because taking them is an overwhelming thought. The only daily thought is how to survive another day. 

“When we take the children to camps we buy them toothbrushes. They never had their own. Some families share one toothbrush. They can’t bring a blanket because then the family would be without.  

“Often, if we give the children something the parents would take it and sell it. So we keep toiletries for the children at the homes of volunteers. Parents would even steal their teenage daughter’s sanitary pads and go sell them.” 

She said their Sunday school class, where children receive a plate of food, was robbed by armed gunmen.  

“Our volunteers managed to keep them away from the children.” 

Blignaut said that they have continual battles with thieves who break into their premises and steal their pots and pans. 

“When we were packing food parcels in a church in Bloemendal the children came to call us. They said the gangsters were watching. We had to flee. 

“To do this work, you need to know that God has called you.” 

Glenda Brunette, the founder of an NGO called the Walmer Angel Project, said they were in a daily battle to get as much food as possible to communities. 

“A lot of people have lost their jobs. You can see how many more people are standing on the side of the road looking for casual work. Some days the line at the soup kitchen is 500 people long,” she said.   

“You can see when a child is hungry. They will come tell you. And if you give them a sandwich they can’t keep it for even a minute. It goes straight into their mouth.”  

Linda van Oudheusden, from the Missionvale Care Centre, said they had seen a definite increase in people looking for food. 

“Even at the school the children come to ask if there isn’t another bowl of food for them. We give them porridge in the morning and a sandwich in the afternoon. But some of them want a little bit extra. 

“I am very worried about what will happen as food gets more expensive. We are already on our knees.”  

She said that during a visit to a recycling project in the metro where children can bring plastics and tins in exchange for food, cleaning materials and toys she didn’t see a single child take a toy. “I only saw them asking for food and for soap.” 

According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey statistics released on Tuesday, unemployment in the province is 45% and, under the expanded definition, it is 53.2%. 

The Department of Social Development failed to answer a request for it to provide Daily Maverick with the reasons for its forfeiting the distress grant. Spokesperson Mzukisi Solani said he had to check with the department’s chief financial officer.  

The Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, said in Parliament this week that he was unable to answer a question on the extent of malnutrition and stunting in the country as the department was still working with the provinces to access the information.  

Nationally, the Child Institute, in a recent presentation to Parliament, stated that during the hard lockdown (in March and April 2020), 47% of households in South Africa ran out of money to buy food and, in April 2021, it was reported that one in seven children in the country went hungry. 

The institute warned that child hunger was expected to intensify in the coming months because of a decrease in the real value of the Child Support Grant (R460 a month or R15 a day), which has failed to keep pace with food price inflation – and continues to fall way below the food poverty line. DM/MC


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bryan Macpherson says:

    Even for an ANC government as corrupt and incompetent, this surely marks a low point in their regime. To allow children to die of hunger whilst the cadres loot and steal is inhumane.

  • Joe Irwin says:

    So this is what has become of South Africa in less than 3 decades of governing by the ANC.
    As long as they remain in charge deterioration of the country’s infrastructure and death by starvation and sickness because of malnutrition will escalate at an increasing rate.
    This simply has to stop!

  • rita smith says:

    Those in charge of this mess should be charged with crimes against humanity. They should be made to go without food themselves. Strange how we want to send money to Cuba when our kids are starving. Makes you want to weep!

  • Colette Hinton says:

    MEC Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi should be charged with culpable homicide for all these deaths. It is a disgrace, a travesty of justice. And the ANC wants to donate R50 million to Cuba for food insecurity!!!! Insanity. Can DM get names and banking details of the charities who so desperately donations?

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    This really does beggar belief. A whole bunch of fat cats with very full bellies sitting and pontificating about the crisis. Nodding their heads and then doing precisely FOKAL. There should be some charges laid for manslaughter.

  • Jason Stramrood says:

    It is inconceivable that people are dying of hunger in South Africa and we are concerned about COVID deaths and are allocating vast funds towards the prevention of this disease and maintaining lockdowns. MEC Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi is pulling a fat paycheque to be in touch with the situation on the ground and it is clear that she is not. Will she be held to account with real consequences for what amounts to gross negligence bordering on criminality or will she escape with a sharp reprimand and a new position? Time for a performance management system to be brought into government with a sizeable portion of salaries being based on performance and goals met or exceeded.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    This article, together with Mark Heywood’s “hunger warning” in the same edition is another chilling indictment on our inept and callous government. Even more so looking back at Heywood’s original article of May 2020, lest we forget, when the esteemed Professor Glenda Gray was pilloried by our previous Minister of Health, wannabe President Mkhise, his acting DG hachet man Anvan Pillay, and the “obseqious” MRC Board. Add on the unfeeling comment of Floyd Shivambu “well done for dismissing imposters.” Shame on all of them, not that they actually care. Unfortunately at the time of Heywood’s original article there could be no comment in terms of State of Disaster regulations. As medical students in the late 60s and early 70s, however, we saw the horror of kwashiorkor in the Bara paediatric wards and it was inevitable that malnutrition would again rear its ugly head soon after the onset of the pandemic. I am frankly surprised that it has taken two years for this to surface once more and wonder how much under-reporting could be implicated in or outside of established health facilities, The government is patently incompetent and it would appear that concerned individuals, NGOs and organizations such as Gift of the Givers must again take the lead.

  • Jamie WHITELAW says:

    It is clear that the ANC government is not really able to govern properly. The loss of this money seems due to crass inefficiency. When will it stop? Children should be loved and nurtured not starved and allowed to die.

  • Emily Buchanan says:

    It is too terrible that money is being forfeited through bad government management while children are literally dying of hunger. Thank you for covering the EC, Estelle, keep up the good but no doubt distressing work.

  • Anesh Govender says:

    How??? SARS blares its trumpet on how successfully it fleeces the taxpayer and yet this money can’t save lives.. How is it that corrupt activities get immediate payment and children of our country die of starvation and “no access to potable water”. Head must roll until people appointed accept the responsibility. Charge the whole department with murder.. 😰

  • Michelle Hobkirk says:

    Can these starving dying children be escalated to a national emergency ?
    It cannot be that these politicians responsible for the aid not getting to these starving communities are not brought to book immediately.
    Can Gift of the Givers not be approached for assistance ?
    Suffer the little children

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    In another current DM story you report on the fact that Prasa is trying to sort out 3000 ghost employees. Lets assume monthly salaries of R10.000 and we get R30 million a month. This is probably being done by cadres who have jobs and can feed their families.

    The inhumanity of all this is staggering.

    I am going to go full throttle non-PC and observe that the names mentioned in the article suggest that it may be the white community that is trying to help while ANC politicians and bureaucrats do nothing

  • Craig A says:

    The government has no problem spending tens of millions on sponsoring breakfasts for their corrupt mates at the New Age newspaper. They spend more millions on opening of sports fields, French champagne at the best restaurants, go big at the opening of parliament, yet children are dying of starvation? I wonder what they meant when they promised “A better life for all”?
    And the ANC cant even pay their staff and they pocket their taxes too. Just too sad for words. They should be jailed for 20 years!

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