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The challenges of hunger and education for South Africa’s children (Part One)


Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting who opted out of corporate life ten years ago to work as a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy and the needs of vulnerable children. Runner up in the 2021 Isu Elihle competition for child-focused journalism, and winner of the Mandy Rossouw award for government accountability, she uses her many words to give children a voice, educate around issues affecting them, and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at For the Voiceless.

Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown designed to curb infections has magnified existing societal problems. For children in South Africa, the top three are hunger, education and safety. Add to that the psychological impact of the current crisis, and it’s no wonder that our children aren’t okay.

Estimates from April were that 2.6 billion people (one third of the world’s population) were in lockdown or quarantine and that 1.5 billion children were out of school

Social commentators have highlighted the way that Covid-19 has uncovered and exacerbated some of the worst problems in countries across the world, including poverty, inequality, racism, xenophobia and ineffectual government. 

Despite everything that South Africa has done right in managing the crisis, and although heroes have emerged in the Presidency and the health department, not all areas have been as well covered. The pandemic has highlighted both the country’s lack of strategic focus on children, and their vulnerability. Critical errors, like the omission of children sector representatives on the original command centre committee and stakeholder talks, and a seemingly reactive response from the two departments primarily tasked with their care, Social Development and Basic Education, may leave children even more exposed.  

On 14 April, six global children’s rights organisations that formed the “Joining Forces” alliance put out a statement urging “authorities to recognise that the pandemic is deeply affecting the environment in which children grow and develop, from early childhood to adolescence”. Joining Forces called on governments to: “put concrete steps in place to protect children during the COVID-19 crisis. These measures need to ensure access to nutritious food, appropriate supervision, healthcare, protection from violence, alternative education at home and reliable information on the crisis to help them cope with the psychological impact of the disease and the confinement measures adopted to contain it.”  

In South Africa, which has 19.7 million children under 18 years, making up 34% of the population, these are not easily attainable goals. Three of the biggest challenges that they face are malnourishment, education and our seeming inability to protect them from harm. Now, during lockdown, the extent of these problems has been amplified. 


The biggest issues affecting increasing numbers of starving and malnourished children are the impact of the lockdown on the informal sector, unemployment, the increased cost of food, the closure of school and ECD feeding programmes …


In this, the first of a two-part series on how our children are doing during lockdown and beyond, we focus on hunger and education.

Child hunger is not a problem specific to South Africa. A Spotlight article exposing the shocking problem of child hunger in KwaZulu-Natal cited a landmark report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and The Lancet medical journal stating that “even in rich countries, many children go hungry or live in conditions of absolute poverty”. South African figures are nonetheless shocking. In a position paper motivating a temporary increase in the child support grant to combat hunger, Katharine Hall from the Children’s Institute cited the following statistics: 

“Nearly 60% of children (11.6 million) live in households below the Stats SA poverty line (R1,277 per person per month in 2019). A third of children (6.4 million) live below the food poverty line of R561. A quarter of children under five years are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition. Malnutrition, an enormous and persistent challenge in South Africa, underlies around 60% of all child deaths that occur in hospitals”.

According to the institute’s 2019 Child Gauge, in KwaZulu-Natal alone, children in around 753,000 households went hungry in 2018. This accounts for over a third of child hunger in South Africa and is two to four times higher than in any other province. In the article on child hunger in the province, a worrying trend emerged, where numerous community-based projects feeding orphaned and vulnerable children and child-headed households, as well as those affected by HIV and those attending early childhood development (ECD) centres either had to stop their feeding programmes or find their own funding because government ceased to subsidise them. 

Given the proliferation of child hunger prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the measures to prevent the disease’s spread were calamitous. The biggest issues affecting increasing numbers of starving and malnourished children are the impact of the lockdown on the informal sector, unemployment, the increased cost of food, the closure of school and ECD feeding programmes, problems with the Department of Social Development’s food parcel schemes (including administrative issues, bureaucracy, corruption and patronage) and now a change to the Sassa payment date for social grants.

According to Katharine Hall, a team of experts commissioned to work with the presidency on an economic response to Covid-19 modelled the possible effects of the lockdown on the informal sector, and the spin-off effects for poverty levels after the initial three-weeks. Even before lockdown, almost one in three children (5.9 million) lived in households where no adult was working. Now, experts estimate that “for households that rely on income from the informal labour market, food poverty rates could more than double”. The extension of lockdown, which was not included in these models, will certainly make these figures even worse. 

She continues that “child poverty rates are high, and they will be directly affected by rising unemployment and loss of earnings… losses in adult wages and informal sector earnings will have an immediate effect on children’s survival and well-being. Conversely the financial shock of job loss and reduced income will be amplified for adults who also need to support dependent children.”

In addition, food costs have increased during the crisis. According to a Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity media statement: “the cost of the food basket increased by 7%, or R220 during the month of March. This increase alone is equivalent to half the value of the monthly child support grant.”

The fragility of our plans for fighting child hunger have been exposed now that children aren’t able to attend school. When schools closed early on 18 March, experts expressed immediate apprehension about South Africa’s nine million school children, and 2.5 million three- to five-year-olds attending some kind of ECD facility, who were receiving a meal at their schools every weekday. 

But, by contrast, the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, appeared unconcerned. At the time, she responded to a question about the children who rely on school feeding programmes: “There’s no way we can take care of 12 million kids outside of the education system infrastructure. We are not going to run special programmes… we are not going to run feeding schemes. We have accessed our capacity and we will not be able to do it… so parents must take that responsibility and communities must assist.” 

In reaction, Equal Education, the Equal Education Law Centre, SECTION27, the Centre for Child Law, and the Children’s Institute sent a joint letter to the minister making suggestions about how these vulnerable children could continue to access the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). The organisations acknowledged that “the Food and Nutrition Security Co-ordination Committee is leading efforts to co-ordinate an inter-departmental response to a child hunger mitigation strategy with R1.4-billion funding from the disaster relief fund and the social relief fund”, interventions that include food parcels, distributed through local and provincial centres through implementing agents. 

“But these may not be adequately accessible to those in need, particularly in rural areas.” They also voiced concerns about the safety of children, overcrowding and long queues at these centres, arguing that the use of schools is a better option. 

Pointing out that for many children, the free school meal was the only meal of the day, the organisations say that to date, the minister’s response to this urgent issue had been “disappointing”.

Nor was the Department of Social Development’s first response comforting. In a Daily Maverick article on the prevalence of hunger, Rebecca Davies highlighted the lack of existing infrastructure and capacity within the department to feed the growing numbers of families in need. Initial attempts to provide food focused on those families already eligible for food parcels (according to the department, among others, those people waiting for a child’s grant to be processed, if a disaster had occurred, or if the family breadwinner had died). Others in need (specifically the unemployed and those who have a combined family income of less than R3,600 a month) were invited to apply. But the process for approval in provinces like Gauteng was so cumbersome and difficult to access, including requiring a home visit from a social worker, many of whom were not working, that few qualified. Requests became so frequent that the DSD put out a circular on 13 April stating that there had been a huge demand for food parcels by community members and that the department had been “unable to verify individuals that qualify”. 

In the DSD’s defence, feeding the hungry through feeding schemes was never going to be easy, especially given its notorious lack of agility and under-resourcing. But it also seems to have massively underestimated the extent and exponential growth of the need. South African Food Sovereignty Campaign co-founder Vishwas Satgar said their estimates were that the number of “food-stressed people” had doubled from last year to 30 million. This includes four million people in the informal sector who cannot work and 18 million people on social grants who do not qualify for food parcels but who do not earn enough to buy increasingly expensive food. 

Three weeks into lockdown, even Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu acknowledged that there were insufficient funds to meet the growing needs: “We have 235 community development centres and we have 40,841 food parcels that have been distributed to date from 3-10 April. The Solidarity Fund put R23-million and we added R20-million. However, the money I am calculating from the Solidarity Fund and the money we have is not enough.” 

It’s not surprising that the need has been paralysing. 

But, to quote Professor Jonathan Jansen: “Why on earth does government want to co-ordinate the delivery of food to the poor? The department cannot even deliver services efficiently without a pandemic.” 

And truthfully, the department has at times been its own worst enemy. Feeding programmes have been hampered by corruption, bureaucracy and patronage. 

“Leaders from the president downwards have decried politicians using food to score political points following allegations made by opposition parties that people were not being fed because of their political affiliations. Gauteng Premier David Makura even used the problem of patronage to reinforce the importance of community involvement in feeding. But despite government’s urgent need for NGO help in food distribution, a pastor in Gauteng was arrested for feeding hungry families in Zandspruit because his local government, ward and police approval was considered insufficient by the DSD. And, as level 4 of lockdown began, and allegations of food parcel corruption increased, the DSD in Gauteng issued a directive discouraging soup kitchens and requesting community feeding initiatives to hand over their food parcels to the department’s central food bank, for it to do all food dissemination  Although the department has intimated that its aim was safety, and not control, the instruction has led to panic in Gauteng’s NGO sector.”

Other NGOs have been left stranded because the department didn’t pay subsidies before it “closed” for lockdown (NGOs were told that they shouldn’t be reliant on government subsidies to function). In addition, in KwaZulu-Natal, the department was accused of spending R22-million to purchase 48,000 blankets for homeless people. Each blanket cost R600. 

Moreover, hunger will be exacerbated by the DSD’s decision to push back the payment date of children’s social grants to the 6th of each month. The move will undoubtedly help prevent infection, but given that the last payment was on 1 April, April was a very long month for many families.  

Equally concerning is an Africa Check study showing that even where parcels are being successfully delivered, they contain only half the calorie requirements for a family of four for a month (less so if the family has more than four members).


Reasons for stress abound in lockdown: there is risk of infection, fear of becoming sick or of losing loved ones, as well as the prospect of financial hardship. In South Africa, many children come from food stressed families and many others have felt threatened by authorities during lockdown.


“The Children’s Institute also expressed concern about how families of the approximately 20,000 babies born every week in lockdown (100,000 over the five weeks of level 5 alone) will access grants.  The Department of Home Affairs didn’t issue any birth certificates during level 5 lockdown, so while poor families may still be able to obtain grants if they have a proof of birth from a hospital and a Road to Health card, this is a notoriously difficult system to access which also doesn’t accommodate home births, or children born in hospitals without stock of the documents.  As a result, the 100 000 lockdown babies will probably only get their Child Support Grants (CSG) after they receive their child’s birth certificate, meaning that mothers will have missed out on up to 4 months of payments when they need it most.”

The second key challenge is education. It’s been four short years since the horrifying global Grade 4 literacy study which placed South Africa last out of 50 countries, with a functional illiteracy rate of 78%. A separate study shows that as recently as last year, 31,000 children failed Grade 1 in Gauteng alone. These fundamental problems in the system are now likely to be worsened by the long-term closure of schools and ECD centres.

In the “Joining Forces” letter, child protection agencies raised concerns that many of the 1.5 billion children worldwide out of school during the pandemic “will never return to their education, damaging their prospects for a lifetime”. 

Again, the DBE’s response has been dismaying. In South Africa there are 19.7 million children out of school, 81% of whom, according to the 2018 National Education Infrastructure Management Systems Report, do not have access to tablets, internet or video classrooms. Most of these children have not been able to access meaningful learning during lockdown. That’s 16 million children who have nothing to keep their minds active.  The DBE has made attempts to reach them using 123 radio stations and six television shows to broadcast lessons to try to address this problem. But even so, it seems doubtful about how effective measures have been. Many children haven’t been able to access even the most basic utilities in lockdown, and some that did, failed to learn from them because they needed teacher interaction to grasp new concepts or cement existing ones. 

The DBE also seems to have missed a golden opportunity to pair its 12 million learner strong feeding programmes with the distribution of printed learning materials (which the minister also vetoed). This could have had multiple benefits: assisting children without access to the internet to keep learning, ensuring that children are fed, and checking their health (many NGOs have used similar approaches, taking children’s temperatures and weighing them to check on weight loss and malnourishment when distributing food). Even now, reinstituting the feeding schemes could help to keep children healthy and learning

The “back to school” plan is another cause for concern. Speaking in week four of lockdown, the spokesperson for the DBE assured South Africa that the 2020 school year can be rescued, and that the department has experience in coping with unexpected interruptions to schooling. This is partly true, the DBE does have experience dealing with children who have lost months of school due to protracted disputes. But, those situations were localised and involved relatively small numbers of children. Planning to make up for lost learning experienced by almost 20 million children in new stringently hygienic environments is a different prospect. 

And although the department’s plan to rescue the 2020 school year acknowledges the psychological impact of the virus and the prolonged lockdown on children, and includes detail about how to provide teachers and learners with counselling and support, it seems to focus on more work, in a shorter time period. Its strategy, which could, according to the spokesperson, include lengthening the school days, working on weekends and removing almost all holidays, doesn’t provide space for children’s trauma, or the fear which will likely accompany them and their teachers back to school.

Reasons for stress abound in lockdown: there is risk of infection, fear of becoming sick or of losing loved ones, as well as the prospect of financial hardship. In South Africa, many children come from food stressed families and many others have felt threatened by authorities during lockdown.  In addition, a wide-ranging study found that people who were quarantined were likely to develop a myriad of symptoms of psychological stress, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms. 

Troublingly, the study predicted that following the pandemic, children, along with healthcare workers who are on the frontline, young people under 30, the elderly and those in precarious situations, like those struggling with poverty, were the highest at-risk groups for long-term mental health issues. Given that many South African learners fall into more than one of those categories, it would be wrong for authorities to underestimate how badly this could affect them.

Professor Jonathan Jansen has raised huge concerns that children may not automatically “switch on” when they go back to school and doubts about the efficacy of trying to cram what has been lost into the time remaining in the year. He believes that it will continue to be a scary time and that both children and teachers will need adequate emotional and psychological support when they go back to school. He therefore recommended the department consider an automatic pass for all learners (an approach applied during wars), and measures to ensure that those moving on to high school or tertiary institutions have time to catch up before beginning new work.  

While this option has been vilified across government, it may be more realistic than the DBE’s assumption that with precautions and, for most grades, an abridged curriculum, “business as usual” is possible after lockdown (an approach which also seems to have left them blindsided when teacher unions pushed back against their plans to reopen schools as early as 6  May).

The school year may be hard to recover for some learners, especially those in Grades R-3, the crucial foundation years, who, according to the initial “Back to School Strategy” would not return to school before July (or more likely, according to the minister, as late as September), at which point, the majority of those children will have been without access to learning for 4-6 months. And while the plan includes detail about how to manage Grade 12, and specifications about everything from sanitisation in schoolrooms and transport and mask-wearing, to provision of water, to the cancellation of sports, choral events and eisteddfods, there is no mention of how younger children will keep learning until they return to school. 

Likewise, the impact of the lockdown on Early Childhood Development is particularly concerning. A report issued by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, South African Congress for Early Childhood Development, National ECD Alliance, Ilifa Labantwana, BRIDGE, and SmartStart highlighted research conducted on 8,500 ECD practitioners which found that 99% said that caregivers have been unwilling or unable to pay fees, 83% of operators have not been able to pay full staff salaries, 96% reported that their income was not enough to cover their operating costs and 68% worry they will not be able to reopen after the lockdown. 

“Without intervention, 30,000 ECD operators serving the poorest communities run the risk of closure. Up to 175,000 people will be left unemployed and 1.5 million children would be left without early learning services and a safe place of daycare.” But, despite ECD being DSD’s flagship initiative, it does not seem to have funding to keep these centres afloat.

To compound the sector’s concerns, no national plan has been outlined for how or if ECD centres will reopen post-lockdown. When asked about ECD during her April 30 press conference Motshekga (who seemed to think of it more as childcare than education) said the question had “come out repeatedly”. But that they had “not given it full consideration.” ECD experts have, however, suggested that since Grade Rs are the logical “Grade 12/7s” of ECD, they will probably only return after Grade Rs go back to school. It is now of critical importance for the government to announce a formal plan and its strategy to care for and protect affected children until ECD centres reopen (if they reopen), and it will help save those in financial distress. 

Unless the DBE and DSD acknowledge the real and lasting impact of the pandemic and lockdown on its learners and vulnerable children, it will further entrench the divide between rich and poor children. Many poor children will not catch up and regardless of the catch-up plan, children who were already disadvantaged will be left behind. DM


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