Maverick Citizen

Food Justice

REFLECTION

Finally a small food victory! A systemic response to Eastern Cape’s swollen hunger crisis

Finally a small food victory! A systemic response to Eastern Cape’s swollen hunger crisis
Many people in the Eastern cape are living in poverty. A 10 Year old boy eating food. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

I want to claim a small victory for us, the truth tellers in the province, with the final long-overdue recognition of systemic hunger in our beloved Eastern Cape. Even before the Covid pandemic, the growing hunger crisis, reported by many of us in this province, were always dismissed by the provincial government as accounts of once-off, exceptional cases. 

This year when two moms killed themselves and their children, unable to fight against their growing hunger any further, their cases were described as those of women who had mentally “snapped”. 

But for those of us reporting at the coalface, we knew these were neither once-offs, nor exceptional. Instead they were a systemic response to hunger in this province that is years – perhaps even decades – overdue.

It was a Sunday night when I first received a picture of the child. “We have trouble here,” a community leader wrote in her WhatsApp message. 

The picture broke my heart in a million pieces. I honestly thought the child, perhaps three months old, was dead. Her mom only had a few tiny sachets of powdered cooldrink bought at a spaza shop, and was feeding this to a small infant to keep her alive. We have never published this picture. It is just too heartbreakingly sad. 

Despair at getting this recognised as a systemic problem that needs a response almost overtook me earlier this year, when Taslin Lucas, only eight, was murdered while out at night looking for something to eat.

Nursed by some of the best grannies and moms around, they pulled her through to the next day when the ambulance came to fetch her. 

As a testimony to our exceptional doctors in the public sector, not only did they manage to make her better, but today she is a thriving, bouncy baby that has been placed in foster care.

On that day I was once again reminded of how personal the voices of those who are hungry are to me. 

Children at the funeral of Taslin Lucas, 8, murdered when she went out to find something to eat. (Photo: Donna van der Watt)

Personal voices of the hungry:

It started seven years ago when a school principal recounted how they teach the children to hide their “overnight” bread from their parents equally desperate for food. On that day she pointed to two children, hiding under a bush. “You see those two?” she asked me. “They are hiding their sandwiches there.” 

Others would tell of people begging for work and only wanting payment in bread or even “half a bread”.

Next, a grandmother showed me how she would walk 11km to the nearest soup kitchen for a small bowl of soup every day. Through notorious gang territory. That was terrible, but it was even worse to see how she would drink only water, decant the soup into a plastic bowl, take two bites and then keep the rest for her grandchildren. 

Another would boil water until the children fell asleep just so that they would think that food was coming. 

A teacher would tell how children fainted at school, as they had only sugar water for two days.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Children are dying of hunger in the Eastern Cape – declare a disaster, urges Human Rights Commission

Despair at getting this recognised as a systemic problem that needs a response almost overtook me earlier this year, when Taslin Lucas, only eight, was murdered while out at night looking for something to eat. It was at her funeral that I realised there were no overweight children around. One asked if he could keep the tissue box because he had nothing to call his own.

It was never a once-off, single, exceptional case. Even the statistics, only kept for exceptionally bad cases, showed us that the worst of the problems were bad and getting worse. 

This should have been addressed at least seven years ago when the Committee on the Rights of the Child called for the child support grant to be increased. Still there has been no significant increase. It was evident even then that we were heading for trouble. 

To their credit, the provincial police commissioner also saw the pattern and commented on it. As did Dr Imtiaz Sooliman from Gift of the Givers. “It has become normal to starve in the Eastern Cape,” he said at a public lecture in 2022. Nobody even batted an eyelid. Child activist Petros Majola called for help in establishing food gardens at every opportunity that he could. 

Gift of the Givers coordinator Corene Conradie with a resident of Butterworth after the organisation launched a food distribution program there. (Photo: Supplied)

Excuses were plenty, accountability zero

When the Eastern Cape Department of Social Development (ECDSD) did not spend R67-million on emergency food relief, the excuses were plenty, but accountability was zero. The political head of the department stayed on and was only later moved. But never explicitly for not doing her job when people were starving, and never once was the food crisis allowed to detract from what Premier Oscar Mabuyane so fondly calls his “good story to tell”.

Our baby’s mom, like thousands of others in the province, was caught in a bureaucratic hell-loop of not having an ID document. Raised by her grandmother when her own mom had passed away from Aids-related disease at her birth (before the availability of ARVs in South Africa), the child was never documented. And when she had her own baby, this child too remained without a birth certificate. When her grandmother was hospitalised for TB, there was nobody to collect her grant. The mother and her baby came close to starvation.

She and many other moms could no longer breastfeed because they too were starving. 

To them it was personal. I don’t think anybody has been firing officials from Home Affairs or SASSA for this. It’s not as if these women were not looking for help.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Child malnutrition in the Eastern Cape ‘qualifies as a disaster’

These moms were helped only after MEC Bukiwe Fanta intervened and got Home Affairs and SASSA out to help them. But there are thousands of similar cases throughout this province for whom the struggle continues. 

Astonishingly, in the Eastern Cape Provincial Government and the national government, there was nobody moving with any urgency to solve this. 

We never once heard the Premier ask for help, or saw the national government offering. We never saw the President offering to send in the army with food.

It is not that they didn’t know what was happening. It just wasn’t personal. 

But now it is. I’m grateful to the South African Human Rights Commission for making this everyone’s problem. These are all our children. It is good that their voices were heard. And it is better that the truth finally won. We will certainly be watching to make sure that something is done. DM

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  • Estelle, thanks for telling the story and for making the point that this story has been years in the making. You’ll remember I shared with me my own insights having been part of a government intervention which was a half hearted and poorly coordinated attempt at addressing the challenge of malnutrition related deaths. In my testimony before the SAHRC I called it a silent genocide as government is cooking the statistics and have also attempted to keep a lid on the issue. Well done and please keep your pencil sharp to continue shine a light on the health challenges in the E Cape so government has no excuse to say they did not know!

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