Over 9 million children benefit from South Africa’s National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), a programme adopted in 1994 chiefly as a means to realising poor children’s right to basic education and to alleviate hunger.

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, schools were closed for 10 school weeks and two holiday weeks (12 weeks in all), and eligible children did not benefit from the programme over this period. The NSNP provides what for some children is the only meal of the day and so this loss was significant. It was left to parents and caregivers to provide wholly for their children’s nutritional needs – a challenge, as many of them are unemployed or impoverished.

This has been described as a ‘colossal disaster’.

At the start of the lockdown period in March, the government announced measures to alleviate anticipated growth in poverty – in particular by increasing the monthly value of the Child Support Grant per caregiver by R300 in May and by R500 from June to October, and increasing old age pensions from May to October. It also introduced the Social Relief of Distress Grant for those who were jobless and not receiving any other form of social security. Feeding schemes were implemented through the delivery of food parcels. Grants are intended to provide for basic needs, including food.

A report by Jeremy Seekings of the University of Cape Town entitled ‘Social Grants and Feeding Schemes under the COVID-19 Lockdown in South Africa’ indicates that despite government’s relief efforts, the suspension of the NSNP has been catastrophic for the distribution of food to poor learners. It concludes that the state in fact distributed less food during the lockdown than prior to it. Indeed, this is correct, according to a Ministry of Social Development Social Cluster media briefing where it was indicated that, as at 13 July, just over 6 million people had benefited from the distribution of food parcels, including those provided by partners of government. As noted above, this is considerably less than the number of children ordinarily benefiting from NSNP.  

Extremely poor

The management of the Social Relief of Distress Grant has also been poor, with Minister for Social Development Lindiwe Zulu indicating that, as at 13 July, of the 7.5 million applications for the grant, just under 4.5 million had been approved. This is against the figure provided by the Children’s Institute that an estimated 30% of South Africans are severely food insecure. Overall, therefore, the children of South Africa are in a precarious position when it comes to nutrition – sustenance they need for survival, development and learning.

From 8 June, schools were reopened using a phased-in approach, with children in grades 12 and 7 returning first. The natural solution for alleviating the plight of children qualifying for NSNP would be to reinstate the programme on the reopening of schools – not just for the phased-in children but for all of them. Schools themselves would be open, after all, and social distancing and other protocols could be observed in the preparation and distribution of meals. Indeed, this is the pathway to which Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga committed herself quite firmly. This much was stated by the National Coronavirus Command Council on 29 April; in a letter to the NGO, Equal Education, on 11 May; and in media briefings on 19 May and 26 May.

However, in a press briefing on 1 June, Motshekga said that, although the department would have wished all children to benefit, this would not be possible and only the first children to return would benefit initially.

About-turn

In response to this about-turn, Equal Education wrote to Motshekga on 2 June seeking clarity on the approach to NSNP. Her reply on 8 June indicated that, contrary to the repeated presentations and written responses about resuming the programme for all qualifying children, the NSNP would be rolled out in a phased fashion as children returned to school. This would mean that it would initially benefit grade 7 and grade 12 children only. Yet, there are no proven alternatives to NSNP.

Whether intentionally or not, Parliament was misled about this: Motshekga said in a written reply to a question from the Democratic Alliance that all qualifying children (not just grade 7s and 12s) were benefiting from the programme. Her deputy, Reginah Mhaule, gave the same response at an Education Portfolio Committee Meeting on 30 June.

Regardless of this, the phased-in approach left millions of children hungry, prompting Equal Education and other NGOs to bring an urgent application before the Gauteng Division of the High Court against Motshekga and eight of the nine provincial education MECs (the Western Cape had elected to sustain the school feeding programme) seeking an order that the NSNP be reinstituted for all qualifying children and that the national and provincial departments be compelled to devise and implement programmes to facilitate this. The NGO also sought a supervisory order to compel the departments to report to the court on progress made in the matter.

Various duties

In its judgment on 17 July, the court said the government had various duties towards poor children and that it was required to immediately enforce them. It had an obligation to provide care to children when their families were unable to do so. It found thus that the state had impaired children’s right to basic nutrition, among other rudimentary entitlements. Perhaps most importantly of all, the court found that the NSNP had not been rolled out in the way it was supposed to have been.

The court strongly disagreed with the department’s claim that the phased-in approach was appropriate and aligned to its mandate, and ordered the national and provincial education departments to resume the NSNP and submit reports on its progress. When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the further closure of schools on 23 July, he indicated that the NSNP would continue to operate for all qualifying children.

That the department had to be compelled to reinstate the scheme is indicative of a wanton disregard for South Africans’ constitutional rights. The NSNP goes beyond nutrition and its impact on education outcomes, but has far-reaching implications for the rights to dignity, equality, life, and to bodily and psychological integrity. Eating a regular meal lowers an individual’s chance of becoming a burden on the healthcare system as well as on social services and social security. For a learner to become more food-secure leads, in turn, to a family unit having more to eat. The benefits are overwhelming. It is a great pity that this was not the view of the education authorities.

Confusing pronouncements

The initial inaction, followed by confusing and contradictory pronouncements, was not only a poor reflection of political will and leadership regarding the NSNP, but had, and continues to have, a devastating impact on millions of poor children.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the measures to address it under the national state of disaster called for responsible, moral and politically sound leadership.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, a champion of the rights of children, ‘(overcoming) poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life’.

[Picture: Andrew Shiva, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24739517]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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