World Food Day – South Africa’s runaway hunger problem
The data is there, the case for the alleviation of hunger has been made, the proposals from activists and civil society are there. All that remains is for those who preside over the levers of power to stop turning a blind eye and act within the best interests of the country.
Imagine being a mother of three and not knowing what to feed your children or yourself because you are unemployed and have no means to provide for your family. Desperate, you turn to killing your children and yourself to stop the gnawing and dehumanising hunger. This is the tragedy that befell the Buso family in rural Eastern Cape, in August this year, prompting the leader of humanitarian relief organisation Gift of the Givers, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, to say: “Hunger is an insidious psychological, emotional and physical pain consuming parents as they lose hope and watch in anguish how their children and families waste away.”
One in 10 South Africans goes hungry every day, which means in our population of 62 million about 12 million are hungry. What is even more worrying is that hunger is disproportionately affecting children – they make up eight million of this number. Hunger is linked to many societal challenges, chief among them poverty and unemployment. With South Africa’s unemployment at 32.9% and 55% of the population living in poverty, it is unsurprising that so many people go to bed hungry.
Yet, section 27 (1) (b) of the Constitution says: “Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water…” and Section 28 (1) (c) gives an unqualified right to food for children when it notes: “Every child has the right to basic nutrition…” South Africa is also a signatory to regional and global human rights agreements guaranteeing the right to food. Litigation against the state to realise this right, specifically for children, was successfully engaged in by civil society organisations Equal Education and SECTION27 regarding the continuation of the much-needed National School Nutrition Programme.
In 2021, Unicef published a disturbing article, The slow violence of malnutrition in South Africa, which pointed out that despite South Africa being considered to be an upper-middle-class country, the stunting rate, a result of malnutrition, among children was 27%, which is double the global rate. Now, it cannot be said enough that the effects of stunting can be rather dire as they impede both physical and cognitive development which limit a child’s future as a fully functional and productive member of society. Since this mostly occurs in poor communities it often has the direct effect of trapping these children in a generational cycle of poverty.
Living in such desperate conditions has also, unsurprisingly, been found to have enduring mental health impacts on people. In a Daily Maverick article, Dr Luke Metelerkamp from ICLEI Africa explains that “a growing number of community activists are trying to raise the alarm about the links between chronic hunger and the mental health crisis in South Africa. This includes depression, suicide and gender-based violence.” Showing the multilayered impact that going without food has on people, making them physically and mentally unhealthy.
Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s triple burden of disease — hunger and its hidden links to our mental health crisis
While the well-being of all who live in South Africa is mandated to the South African government, the inaccessibility of food to so many people has almost been normalised. In the acceptance that it is the fate of millions to go hungry, lies a loss of humanity and compassion. This issue is not new yet it stubbornly clings to our country’s agenda.
So what is the answer?
Activists have devised many proposals and plans to curb this issue, but is anybody listening? Among them is the DG Murray Trust which in June this year unveiled a proposal and campaign to “close the food gap” by calling on retailers, the government and manufacturers to lower the prices of 10 essential nutritional food items so that low- to no-income households can afford them. The items are eggs, dried beans and lentils, tinned fish, fortified maize meal, peanut butter, rice, amasi, soya mince, 4-in-1 soup mix and powdered full-cream milk. If the proposal is accepted and implemented it will make these items 30% cheaper, a significant reduction and an inroad towards curbing hunger.
If we are to forge a healthy and well-adjusted society we cannot afford to lose more time and, most importantly, people to the avoidable issue of hunger in the country. The data is there, the case for the alleviation of hunger has been made, the proposals from activists and civil society are there. All that remains is for those who preside over the levers of power to stop turning a blind eye and act within the best interests of the country. Hopefully then, in the near future World Food Day will be commemorated as a triumphant marker over the scourge of hunger. DM