Maverick Citizen


Are children dying of hunger and malnutrition viewed as less ‘deserving’ of help?

Are children dying of hunger and malnutrition viewed as less ‘deserving’ of help?
A South African child receives food from the Masiphumelele Creative Hub feeding scheme in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa 28 May 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

Writing about hunger is soul-destroying, heartbreaking work. Anger levels soar and I am often struck by a feeling of utter hopelessness as stories of people’s desperate search for food fill notebooks and recorders.

One thing that particularly struck me though was the use of the word “deserving” by the Eastern Cape department of social development in their social media posts. Yes, them. The department who failed to appoint a service provider to deliver life-saving food to thousands of people. They are the ones who call the beneficiaries of their food parcels “deserving”. 

Or not.

One assumes (and hopes that this is the truth) that it is clumsy English and what is meant is that one has to qualify for a food parcel – as for a grant. 

Maybe what the Eastern Cape department of social development, a government department that is notoriously bad at answering questions from the media, means by “deserving” is: Deserving of a painful death to severe acute malnutrition? Deserving of the humiliation and desperation caused by untrained “screeners” and security guards turning desperate moms away from the offices of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), preventing them from applying for child grants because they are not documented? 

Maybe they mean deserving of fighting a constant battle against hunger and not having the fortitude to try again and again to get through the maze of bureaucracy to get help?

The Eastern Cape department of social development does not seem to have a handle on the hunger situation in the province. Perhaps it is too scary for the carefully couched, politically correct way they talk about those who are hungry and starving… those who “deserve” a food parcel.

They did not know about the six children in Butterworth who died of severe acute malnutrition and until today the only answer we received was that they “were checking on the situation”.

When accused of underspending millions meant for the Social Relief of Distress grant, the excuses flowed fast – they were “expanding the list of beneficiaries”, they “appointed a bad contractor”. But no mention of the mom who was found scratching through the rubbish on the municipal dump in Gqeberha for food. No mention of the little boy, around two years old, who died after his sister, 13, lost a desperate battle to find enough food every day for the two of them. 

Were they not deserving? This is the question I would like to ask the MEC for social development, Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi.

Where is the plan? Surely there is a better plan than trusting a dodgy contractor to drop off food.

On 31 March, Stats SA released a devastating new report on food security in South Africa: The number of people with a severe shortage of food had doubled. In 2019 they estimated that 7% of the population (about four million people) were struggling with severe food insecurity. Now Stats SA calculate that almost a quarter (23.6%) of South Africans were affected by moderate to severe food insecurity in 2020, and 14.9% experienced “severe” food insecurity.

According to Stats SA, the Eastern Cape had the lowest proportion of households with an employed household member (52.7%). Almost half of female-headed households did not have an employed person living in the household in 2020 and, since the lockdown, income from salaries had declined.

The study also found that in the past four years fewer than 20% of South African households produced their own food.

In the past 15 months, 14 children below the age of five starved to death in Nelson Mandela Bay and 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 food aid due to the slow contractor.

In Butterworth, another seven children died between January and February 2022. An additional 188 children received inpatient treatment at Nelson Mandela Bay metro hospitals for severe acute malnutrition and, in February, 11 children were admitted to hospital with severe acute malnutrition.

In the Sarah Baartman District in the Eastern Cape, which includes large parts of the Karoo and some of the province’s poorest communities, such as Klipplaat and Rietbron, 150 children have been diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition since 2021. Thirteen have died and 122 had to receive inpatient treatment.

In the MEC’s policy speech we saw more than R60-million allocated to address severe acute malnutrition, but that won’t be enough. She made no mention of special attention to be given to the plight of teenage moms, undocumented families being barred from access to help, or the link between the absence of clean water and malnutrition.

Also there is no word yet from premier Oscar Mabuyane. 

What would it take for the province’s political leadership to say: “Not on our watch.” 

Who will pull the many cords of an impactful fight against malnutrition together? We all wish it was Dr Imtiaz Sooliman from Gift of the Givers. The politicians won’t do it because they seem to believe that giving food to “deserving” people is enough. 

But it is not. 

The Eastern Cape, and probably other provinces, is faced with the dire, deadly consequences of systemic collapse.

Let’s also ask where is, and was, the South African Human Rights Commission? They have opened an investigation now, but it only came after many babies died.

Where is the Department of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities? 

Where is the national Department of Social Development? What happened to political oversight?

Where is the Department of Home Affairs with their promises of birth certificates and ID documents? 

Where is the Department of Health? While the provincial department was keeping stats diligently, no alarm was raised. Health Minister Joe Phaahla, when asked in Parliament, said he was still waiting for the provinces to deliver the stats.

Where are the plans the national Department of Health called for in 2020 to manage severe acute malnutrition? We don’t know. And the consequences are deadly.

I have a picture on my phone of a dead baby who starved to death without one of the precious food parcels. Looked after by a thin little 13-year-old and a mom who is digging through other people’s rubbish for a scrap of food. 


Make a plan. DM/MC

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