Maverick Citizen


Desperate mom in Nelson Mandela Bay keeps infant alive with cooldrink powder as food crisis hits SA

Desperate mom in Nelson Mandela Bay keeps infant alive with cooldrink powder as food crisis hits SA

When a Nelson Mandela Bay mother finally found help for her starving five-month-old baby, it was almost too late for the infant, who is fighting for her life after she was kept alive with cheap cooldrink powder because the family did not have any other food.

When Julia Mbambo heard the knock on her door after 9pm on Sunday and saw the young mother who frequented her soup kitchen, she knew there was trouble.  

People know Mbambo well in Nelson Mandela Bay’s Gqeberha township. The friendly, no-nonsense woman always waves at passers-by from her black bakkie. When you ask someone about her, they will tell you: Mama Julia knows everything. 

A knock on the door at night wasn’t unusual for her. 

What she saw next shocked her. Only five months old, the child was skin and bones. Her tiny fists were clenched and she was whimpering in pain. She tried to suck Mbambo’s fingers. 

The baby’s mother said she could only afford packets of cooldrink powder and had been using that to keep the child alive. She could not access a child grant as she had no identity document, and as a result, her baby’s birth was not registered. 

Julia rushed out to borrow money from neighbours and bought baby formula at a nearby spaza shop. To her great relief, the child drank a little. 

A day later the child was hospitalised and is still being treated at Dora Nginza Hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay. 

“I said to the mom, she must let me help her with the baby. She herself was weak and getting thinner every day,” Mbambo said. “She was only eating when she came here to us. I knew she had to take her medicine so I said she must come to my house over the weekend to get something to eat.” 

Mbambo and her team of volunteers have been running a soup kitchen that is getting busier every day. 

She said they help more than 30 young mothers with small babies who need help accessing food. 

Surge in malnutrition cases

Throughout the 2020 lockdown, a number of experts, most notably Professor Glenda Gray, warned of a coming surge in malnutrition cases and, despite the governmental outrage, she was backed up by many experts who pointed out that the lockdown had exacerbated an already massive food insecurity problem in South Africa.  

On Tuesday, Gray stressed that the mothers are not to blame, adding that newborn infants are extremely vulnerable to developing malnutrition in the face of a shortage of resources.  

Three weeks ago, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers, said that in the Eastern Cape it had become normal to starve.  

According to the latest statistics for South Africa, released in Parliament in May for the financial year April 2021 to March 2022, at least 238 children died in public hospitals of moderate malnutrition and 771 of severe acute malnutrition. In the Eastern Cape, 20 died of moderate malnutrition and 127 of severe acute malnutrition. That is more than 10 deaths a month.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Fourteen babies and toddlers have starved to death in Nelson Mandela Bay in the past 15 months”

Yet the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development, as it did in June, still refuses to provide answers to questions about its strategy to fight hunger in the province. Department spokesperson Mzukisi Solani does not even acknowledge questions on how many food parcels have been distributed by the department since June. 

In June, the provincial legislature heard from former MEC Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi that despite more than 4,000 families qualifying for urgent food aid, a mere 141 food parcels had been distributed. No food had been distributed in the Buffalo City metro (East London) or the Amathole, Joe Gqabi and Sarah Baartman districts.  

Only one food parcel had been delivered in the entire Chris Hani district.  

Only three families in the sprawling OR Tambo district — around Mthatha and including Butterworth, where a number of children had died of severe acute malnutrition — each received a single food parcel. In Nelson Mandela Bay, only 32 families were given food parcels. Most of the food parcels were distributed in the Alfred Nzo district, a deep rural area, with 105 parcels distributed in the Mbizana Local Municipality. 

Before that, the department had also failed to distribute food parcels, blaming it on an inept contractor. 

Mani-Lusithi was moved to the Department of Human Settlements in August. The spokesperson for new MEC Bukiwe Fanta had promised answers to questions on the crisis soon.  

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Emergency pantries run low

Meanwhile, struggling residents of Nelson Mandela Bay are turning to non-governmental organisations for help, but even their emergency pantries are running low. 

“We have food for three weeks of the month in the soup kitchen, and the fourth week I pray,” said Glenda Brunette, who runs the organisation supporting Mbombo’s soup kitchen. “Even the children who get something at school are still hungry, so they come to Julia’s for some food again.” 

At the Missionvale Care Centre, also in Nelson Mandela Bay, Linda van Oudheusden said they usually buy in bulk, but supplies are getting low. “Our food bill will go up by 21% when we do our next big shop,” she said. “For some items like pilchards, it will be more.” The centre feeds hundreds of elderly people and children every day. 

Van Oudheusden said that donations had not increased at a similar rate, leaving them with some hard choices.  

“Our school principal is also reporting that because so many children’s parents have lost their jobs, the children are getting hungrier and hungrier and many are coming back to the kitchen in the middle of the day to ask if there isn’t a little more food for them.”  

Resources depleted

Earl Piet, who runs a feeding scheme in Nelson Mandela Bay’s Northern Areas, said their resources were completely depleted.  

“The cupboard is bare. We had many requests over the last months for assistance. It is sad for us when we can’t help.” 

Coralie Peo from the Red Cross said they had resources to feed between 50 and 80 people three times a week in Kwazakhele. 

Some organisations said they had around 100 families waiting for food as they struggled to put something together for them.  

In July, the minister of social development, Lindiwe Zulu, said in a response to a written question in Parliament that child malnutrition and hunger in South Africa had reached “crisis levels”. 

She summarised the key drivers of food insecurity and vulnerability as economic decline and unemployment, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, food price inflation, climate change and environmental impact. 

She stressed that the department was mandated by the Constitution to make provision for the right of access to appropriate social assistance to individuals who are unable to support themselves and their dependants. 

Zulu said that the short-term plan to tackle child malnutrition, hunger and death was the provision of the Child Support and the Social Relief of Distress grants and food parcels to affected families. 

She said the department had acknowledged that the value of the Child Support Grant should be increased to at least the food poverty line. She said a maternal support policy was still in draft form and not yet ready for submission to Parliament. 

In his submission to hearings held by the South African Human Rights Commission about malnutrition in the Eastern Cape earlier this year, Professor Charles Mutengwa from the University of Fort Hare said close to 900,000 people in the province were experiencing food insecurity. 

Maureen Andreka from the Algoa Bay Council for the Aged said she doesn’t know how pensioners are coping when they only receive the SA Social Security Agency grant. She said they ran a programme where people can “adopt” an elderly person, but a few months ago a number of benefactors had indicated that they could no longer help. 

Nelson Mandela Bay community steps in as crises hit embattled Dora Nginza paediatric hospital

“It was tough to tell their residents that a food parcel — valued at about R1,000 — was not coming their way any longer. How do you justify asking for a tin of coffee that is now over R100? We are dropping that from our parcels. Our rental defaults have also climbed. Residents have lost their extra income-earning ability during the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

She said the elderly were also struggling with high petrol costs.  

“We had a resident diagnosed with cancer last month but he says he can’t afford the transport cost to go to hospital for the treatments.” 

Andreka said old age homes were asking each other to share food as some were struggling to feed their residents. DM/MC

  • We have taken the decision to not publish an image of the baby at this stage. 

How you can help
Walmer Angels has started a project to provide emergency baby and infant food, porridge and formula to moms in distress in Gqeberha. Many moms would like to breastfeed but as they themselves are not eating regularly they cannot. If you can assist in any way, please get in touch with Walmer Angels’ founder, Glenda Brunette at [email protected].


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Daily Maverick, please release this well written and researched article to ‘open access’ and the EP Herald in PE plus the Daily Dispatch in East London so that residents of these areas can get info on the dire situation in their areas. I was back in my home town of EL for three days a few weeks ago and was distressed by the numbers of people searching through domestic refuse bags and standing outside shopping areas begging for food. It’s more than a crises, it’s a humanitarian disaster. Urban farms and kibbutz style rural co-op farming setups are urgently needed to feed the poor as the situation is not going to disappear quickly. These can provide food to the social service soup kitchens plus school kitchens described in this article. The general population needs to join hands to help alleviate this situation and force government departments to do their job. A mayor or councillor driving a million Rand car should hang their head in shame as the people starve.

    • Prof Bill Richards - retired Richards says:

      And this starvation is happening whilst the ANC cadres continue to milk the system – how can anyone vote for the ANC?

    • Allan Wolman Wolman says:

      Authorities need hang their heads in shame. VIP protection unit, according to reliable reports exceed R5 BILLION – and fly in private jets and sport the latest Dior outfits and a child has to die due to malnutrition. This is sickening to the core – not the first time reports of malnutrition appear in the press and still in 2022 in a country that produces enough to feed its entire population children die for lack of food. This report and other like this should be placed on the desk of the president and his entire over bloated cabinet

  • Andrew Martens says:

    Please publish a list of reputable organisations that we can support.

  • Susan Goldstein says:

    Fire Lindiwe Sisilu! Babies should NOT die from malnutrition!

  • Susan Buekes says:

    I agree with Ritchie Morris, this horrifying, and heartbreaking, example of the ultimate result of government-employed officials incapable of doing the work they are paid to do, should be spread widely by all media, complete with photos. The full debacle should be published. This is all happening while all politicians and public servants are awarded salary increases. Why can vacant land not be made available, and those without work be taught to cultivate vegetables to feed themselves? Allotments?Kibbutzim?

  • Allan Wolman Wolman says:

    In another newspaper report today:
    “Those wishing to sit next to President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s presidential gala dinner will have to fork out between R95,000 and R200,000.”
    How shameful while little children starve to death the arrogance of the ANC to ask for such outrageous sums for a dinner. Those poor women and children don’t know what a dinner is!! Humanity and decency lost on ANC leadership

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.