Maverick Citizen


Probe into Eastern Cape school nutrition scheme funding delays that left more than a million learners hungry

Probe into Eastern Cape school nutrition scheme funding delays that left more than a million learners hungry
School children receive a meal on 7 May 2018 in Ndevana, a rural village in Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. (Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images)

Following reports that administrative delays in the Eastern Cape’s school nutrition programme caused hundreds of thousands of learners to be deprived of meals last month, the Eastern Cape Department of Education promised to deliver payment to schools by 9 May. Now, human rights groups are investigating to ensure that schools have received their funding, as well as to determine what led to the delay.

The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) failed to provide more than a million Eastern Cape learners with a daily meal from 12 April due to an “administrative delay”. The Eastern Cape Education Department subsequently promised funding would be given to schools by 9 May.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eastern Cape learners ‘crying from hunger’ after school nutrition scheme fails to deliver meals

Human rights groups like the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Equal Education are trying to find out whether schools have received their payments as promised, as well as determine what caused the delay. 

SAHRC investigating what went wrong

Dr Eileen Carter, the provincial manager for the Eastern Cape office of the SAHRC, said the commission’s preliminary spot checks indicated that, as of last week, most Eastern Cape schools had received funding for the  National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP).

Now, she said, the SAHRC was in the early fact-finding stages of its investigation to determine what caused the administrative delay that led so many Eastern Cape learners to go hungry last month.

“It’s important just to contextualise that the basic nutrition programme forms part of the government’s poverty alleviation strategy,” Carter said.

“Now if you fail on that, knowing that we have such high malnutrition rates within the province and country, in general, we’re literally taking the food off the tables of children…

“So it’s a big picture problem, and we need to get to the bottom of this and make sure that we don’t fail right at the start of the lives of these vulnerable kids.”

She said the SAHRC aims to both support the Department of Education as well as hold it accountable if the investigation finds that the department committed some form of human rights violation. But for now, she said, it’s too early to say what issues led to the delay.

School nutrition is a basic human right

Itumeleng Mothlabane, an organiser with Equal Education in the Eastern Cape, said the funding delay exacerbated inequality for learners from poorer backgrounds. She said in the past month, many Eastern Cape schools had to close early since learners could not continue with classes on an empty stomach, and many parents could not afford to pack lunches for their children.

Mothlabane said the funding issue was an indication that the department was not taking its constitutional duties seriously. In 2020, Equal Education, alongside SECTION27, litigated and won a case against the Minister of Basic Education, arguing that the department had a constitutional duty to provide daily NSNP meals to learners.

“One of the most important things that came out of that court case was that school nutrition is a fundamental enabler to teaching and learning, and therefore should not be interrupted by any situation, and that, at the time, included Covid.

“So if things as serious as Covid could not disrupt a school nutrition programme, according to the court, how much more for just the programming of the department and the payment processes?”

Mothlabane said Equal Education is in the early stages of investigating what caused the funding delay and what needed to be done to avoid similar delays in the future.

Malibongwe Mtima, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Education Department, said the delay occurred because the department had been working to determine how much funding to allocate to different schools based on how many learners they had. However, the department did not know why this delay led to learners going hungry, because schools should have had surplus funds to use.

He said the department was conducting an investigation to determine what went wrong.

“We feel it is necessary for us to subject [schools] to a financial management course, so that in the future, we do not get issues of this nature,” Mtima said.

Concerns over broader issues

SECTION27 attorney Demichelle Petherbridge said issues in the Eastern Cape came in the wake of reports of inadequate food supply at some schools in KwaZulu-Natal last month. 

These reports, she said, came after the province changed its procurement method for the NSNP, switching from many individual service providers to one large service provider that failed to adequately deliver supplies. Although not identical, she said the issues in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape pointed to broader problems with the funding and administration of the NSNP.

“What happened in KZN, and then to just have that happen almost immediately afterwards with the Eastern Cape, does kind of signal that there are systemic issues,” she said. DM/MC


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