MEC reveals Eastern Cape’s dire food insecurity statistics
Close to half a million people in the Eastern Cape ran out of money to buy food last year, a key measurement for food security, the social development MEC, Bukiwe Fanta, has told the provincial legislature.
Between March and September 2023, at least 447,000 people in the Eastern Cape ran out of money to buy food.
This translates to more than one in four people in the province being food insecure.
This was one of the harrowing figures released recently by the province’s MEC for social development, Bukiwe Fanta, in the Eastern Cape legislature.
The OR Tambo district recorded 86,536 of these cases, the highest in the province.
The Department of Social Development has invested in nutritional centres where people can access a hot meal and food gardens, but only just over 6,000 people benefitted from these initiatives between March and September.
Fanta said the department’s budget for food parcels for the 2023/2024 financial year was R6.1-million, of which only R2.4-million had been spent in the first half of the year.
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“At a time when the need is greatest, the Department of Social Development has opted to cut back spending on food parcels,” said the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson for social development, Kobus Botha.
“The horrific conditions in Cwebeni Village in Port St Johns in the OR Tambo district are, sadly, not unique. It is found across the province, especially within rural areas.
“Parents are being tortured by the cries of their hungry children, as they resort to eating grass and sticks,” Botha said.
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A young Port St Johns mother whose 11-month-old daughter died of severe acute malnutrition (what community members call ndumbane) is due in court on Thursday after she was arrested over the death of the baby. The mother has not appeared in court yet because she was badly assaulted by upset community members.
The baby was wrapped in a black bag and placed in bushes after she died on 1 January.
Community members had tried to intervene before the baby’s death as they could see she was in a bad state.
The mother (27) came from Cwebini, but found a job in the Expanded Public Works Programme and had moved away from her community.
In 2023, there were two cases of mothers who killed their children and then committed suicide in what the police described as due to poverty and hunger.
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Disaster responder Corene Conradie from Gift of the Givers said the poverty in villages around Port St Johns, and especially Cwebini Village was devastating.
“My heart can’t handle this. It breaks a thousand times a day.”
‘They are all starving’
She said the villages had “some of the most inhumane conditions that I have ever encountered. The residents have no idea of what human rights are. They have been forgotten. Sometimes up to 16 people are living in a mudhouse that is about to collapse on them.
“Mothers are giving their children water to drink because there is just no food, but the ubuntu is strong there. They are all starving, but if one has food they will share.
“Even for parents or grandparents with a child grant, it is a real struggle. That R510 buys few meals because their transport costs are very high.”
Conradie said they were distributing high-nutrition food gels and peanut butter around Butterworth where many adults and children are too ill with malnutrition to eat other food.
In the Karoo, where the organisation also runs soup kitchens, they were trying to provide double meals for patients with HIV and TB so they could have something to take along with their medicine. “We have seen an increase in these patients asking for food because there is just no food for them at home.”
Recent interventions by the organisation in Port St Johns included attending to a dying 94-year-old who had no food and was sleeping on the floor. “I don’t know what will happen to that family, because she was the only one with a social grant.”
Conradie said residents in some Eastern Cape villages could not access their Social Relief of Distress grant because they could not afford to pay for transport to take them to the payout point.
Residents have pleaded with Premier Oscar Mabuyane and President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene in their plight.
The latest statistics for this financial year show that 21.8% of adults and 28% of children in the OR Tambo district live below the poverty line.
As the fourth most populous district in the country, with an estimated 1.5 million people, even a conservative estimate places more than 300,000 people in the district below the poverty line.
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The DA’s Botha said the Department of Social Development had distributed only 180 food parcels across the entire district eight months into the financial year and only 1,931 food parcels for the entire province.
During the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC’s) hearings into the prevalence of severe acute malnutrition, the commissioners concluded that child hunger should be declared a disaster and that disaster management laws be used to deal with it.
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Mabuyane said they “noted” this finding, but up to now no significant intervention has been made.
During the SAHRC hearings, the Eastern Cape provincial treasury provided a detailed breakdown of the Department of Social Development’s expenditure from 2019/20 to the first quarter of 2022/23, specifically concerning child nutrition, and admitted there had been underspending of millions of rands.
“Concerning the Department of Social Development, underspending was attributed to factors like late payments, non-payment for projects, conditional grant conditions, new fund dispersal approaches, governance issues, overspending on goods and services, delayed procurement processes and unsuccessful tenders.
“Underspending also occurred in programmes like ECD centres, and child and youth care centres, especially related to Covid-19 relief funds,” the report states. DM