When you are hungry you can’t think, yet the Government didn’t feed us

A famine broke out in Holland at the end of the Second World War. It was the coldest winter in decades. A German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm towns. It is estimated that between 18 000 and 22 000 people died.

It was a difficult situation to navigate. The Allied forces did not only have to fight the war, but also provide humanitarian relief. Bread was baked from flour shipped in from Sweden. Food was airlifted by the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Air Force. Food was trucked in by road. An agreement was reached with the Germans that they would not shoot at the mercy flights and that the Allies would in turn not bomb the German positions. Some of the food was even shared with the Germans.

Eventually, some 4.5 million people were affected. And they survived because of soup kitchens.

Now is the Winter of our discontent

I am angry, as you will see in this blog post. Just as we are fighting a war against disease on the health care services front, so we are also fighting a humanitarian crisis like we have not seen in this country before. The crisis is corruption and greed. The result is people literally dying of hunger.

We are hopefully reaching the end of the war with this virus. We are not out of the woods yet. People still get sick, but not as often. People still die, but not as many. People are recovering, but that does not stop many from suffering.

Before general amnesia sets in and we pretend all is back to normal, we need to deal with the rot and decay that caused the humanitarian crisis. The need to eat and how this basic constitutional right has been impeded by elements in our Government.

We knew it was coming

South Africa was already facing a massive food crisis. A 2019 study by StatsSA told us so. Assessments by highly regarded civil society organisations told us so. The National Department of Social Development acknowledged that in 2018 just on one million households experienced ‘severely inadequate access to food’. Then add to that a further 2.5 million households whose access was ‘inadequate’. At least three million people lost their jobs. Stats show us that, on top of that, earnings by all South African workers fell by 51% in three months. This means that thousands could not put food on the table. Experts estimate that as much as half of our population needs food support.

Yet, when the President of the Medical Research Council, Glenda Gray, expressed her concern that child malnutrition was worsening under the lockdown, she was given a tongue lashing by the Minister of Health. 

The sad reality is not that the Government tried and failed. The fact is, it did not seem to try very hard at all. There is no evidence that the National Government had a plan to ensure food reached poor households. And then it tried to stop ordinary citizens who were trying to address the issue from what is in their own cupboards, businesses and back pockets.

The extent of it

1. (Not) feeding the children

South Africa has the largest school feeding scheme in Africa. The National Department of Education shut it down during lockdown. Nine million children could not eat. Every day. When asked what the children would eat, an official from the Department of Education is reported to have said that the children will eat what they always would when the schools are closed. As if this was a holiday.

The Government spend about R7 billion rand on feeding kids during the school year. Very early in lockdown, the National Treasury sent a memo around telling Provincial Governments that they could use up to 5% of the annual funding for this scheme to run emergency feeding schemes, as long as parliament approved this.

Jeremy Seekings, a professor and Director of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town states in an article on the matter (first published in GroundUp) that he was told that the National Department of Basic Education never organised such approval. 

2. (Not) feeding the vulnerable

The Department of Social Development finances a country-wide network of 235 Community Nutrition and Development Centres (CNDCs). These provide cooked meals for those with little or no resources. The Department closed most (if not all) of these during the first part of the lockdown. Under a pre-lockdown agreement, these CNDCs were transferred to provincial control on 1 April 2020. Some eventually reopened, relying on a mixed bag of funding.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) feeding schemes at ECD centres were also shut down. When Professor Seekings asked for a plan, no official could produce any evidence of such a plan.

3. (Not) providing South Africans Social Security

Under the initial lockdown regulations, the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) local offices were closed. SASSA provides a Social Relief of Distress food parcel scheme for people who find themselves in “such a dire material need that they are unable to meet their families’ most basic needs”. The numbers of people in distress grew exponentially. Though it did not close its feeding schemes, it could not expand its food parcel scheme, due to the aforementioned closures.

But what about the supposed additional cash the Government put in the pockets of grant recipients? Yes, through the expansion of social grants, the poor were to receive about R5 billion in supplements to existing grants. Some received it. Others did not. The grants, to start with, are woefully inadequate! But SASSA shines even more spectacularly in not implementing the R350 Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant as promised.

A million food parcels, we promise

Governmental efforts have so far fallen quite short of its targets of a million food parcels. A million sounds like a lot, but, if one is to rely on the Department of Social Development’s own stats, at least 2 million were needed per month just for those in abject poverty. Five times the number reportedly distributed by the 29th of May. This does not address the needs of those whose access is ‘merely’ inadequate.

It is true that accurate recording is complex. The process is convoluted: funding (and specifically brokering co-funding) has to be secured, then there are the procurement processes, the coordination and storage of bulk food items and eventually the complex tasks of assessing eligibility and distributing accordingly. What is clear is the fact that Provincial, Municipal and Civil Society spending dwarfs the modest sums the National Departments spends.

Soup kitchens versus food parcels – what is the big deal?

Food parcels are poor substitutes for feeding schemes on several levels. For one, the amount of meals one can cook from a food parcel is deceptive. Officially a food parcel should contain enough food for two meals per day for a family of four for one month – 248 meals. Numerous NGOs and activists have pointed out that these food parcels are often smaller than the standard issue and simply cannot stretch that far. There are many verified accounts where Counsellors sold these parcels or foodstuffs just ‘disappeared’.

Additional resources required

To cook food, you need:

  • something to cook the food in
  • a place to cook the food
  • utensils to open cans etc
  • access to clean water
  • access to a fuel source
  • cleaning materials

Many people do not have access to these or have to share in environments that make it impossible to do so safely and harmoniously.

Soup kitchens provide much more than just soup

Human contact

Toxic home circumstances where domestic violence thrives have proven to be worsened by boredom, lack of space, isolation from friends and family, and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco. Soup kitchens provide relief – a chance to socialise, for abuse to be picked up, for resources to be shared and encouragement to be given.

Mental health services receive only about 3% of the National Health Department’s budget. No doubt loss of income, food insecurity, the stress and trauma of losing people you know and wondering when you will contract the illness and if you will die, too, adds to the burden. Without human connection, many will lose the will to keep fighting and sink deeper into the quagmire of depression. Escape in a bottle or a drug may start to seem like a valid coping mechanism.

Social cohesion

As has become abundantly clear, the government has failed its people. It is up to individuals and communities to help each other survive. We need to make sense of this together – the traditional notions of ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ are disrupted as all are brought to a central point of mutual support and meaning-making, somewhere in the middle of the chaos.

Social movements, such as the Community Action Networks (CANs) particularly in Cape Town have proven the effectiveness of this. Suburbs have paired up together. Those in better-resourced communities provide the physical, infrastructure and financial resources that those who know their communities best need. It is organic and pragmatic and not based on ideology or political party alliance.

In the process, everybody learns. Everyone faces stereotypes and are forced to re-evaluate mental models and priorities.

When the Government wants fingers in the pot

The Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, was not happy with such a democratic free-for-all. She wanted to make sure that her Department controls all efforts to distribute food. She seemed to think that the Department of Social Development – the same Department that struggles to meet even some of its core responsibilities on a good day – will have the capacity to ‘coordinate’ thousands of relief efforts, big and small.

So she set about drawing up draft regulations and had the police implement these, even before the ink dried on the proverbial page. People were arrested for attempting to feed the desperately hungry.

Even the South African Human Rights Commission stated that these draft regulations violated the South African constitution.

So just how did she want to regulate things?

In her draft regulation, she proposed that:

  1. All organisations apply for permits before being allowed to operate
  2. They needed to state (in detail) what, when and where items were to be distributed
  3. The police should be provided with these details, before distribution
  4. Detailed personal information should be collected from every recipient and that this be reported to the National Department
  5. All parcels should be delivered to people’s houses
  6. No cooked meals were to be provided at any cost

The end-result

The Minister was taken to court by the DA and the NGO 1 000 Women. First, they were granted an emergency interdict that barred the Department from impeding food relief efforts. The ruling was in favour of the complainants, with cost to the Department. The upshot is that her department, via the tax payer’s (YOUR) pockets, has to pay an enormous amount of legal costs.

This leaves YOU with a choice

Is this the person you want to be the champion of the vulnerable in South Africa? Is this the person (and her ilk) whom you want to entrust with decisions about who eats today or not?

I believe she should be dismissed. How dare she think that her department is better equipped, more efficient and more in touch with the community than the faith-based organisations, the NGOs, the activists, the civil society groups and the individuals who are operating and living within the communities that they serve?

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