At least 50 000 children in KwaZulu-Natal on Monday did not receive a meal they had expected, as a new system for school feeding in that province remained in chaos.
School principals across the province reported that the companies supposedly appointed to feed their pupils simply did not arrive on Monday, and they still had no idea why.
“Nobody has told us anything; we’re just hearing rumours that there is trouble,” said the principal of a primary school where more than 90% of children are fed at school.
In a small number of cases principals reported that providers had contacted them to say there would be no food on Monday — but none could adequately explain why.
“I kept asking questions, but he just said ‘no mamma, maybe I will see you tomorrow’,” said the principal of an intermediary school in the Pinetown area.
A total of 1 848 new providers were due to start delivering meals on Monday, when the school term resumed, food that represents the only substantial meal of the day for many children. Some of the companies do not exist, others did not last week know they had won tender bids. All have been appointed for a three-year period.
Many of the companies involved last week said they had not received letters of appointment and so could not start feeding on Monday. This remained the case, despite unequivocal assurances from the KZN education department last week.
“When we go to them they said that other people were still challenging the tenders so they could not give us our letters,” one tender winner said on Monday. While she was sorry for the children she was supposed to be feeding “we can’t just do things without the papers,” she said.
A group of companies that previously provided food at schools on short-term contracts last week tried — but failed —to interdict the provincial education department from going ahead with the long-term tender replacing them. Another group of former providers have lodged internal complaints with the department about the tender. All allege that the new tender is irregular and unlawful.
Among the new food providers reached on Monday several claimed to have served meals at schools ]. In one case the principal of a school in question said that bags of mealie-meal had been delivered, but not prepared when the provider realised there were no stoves at the rural school. Several other principals flatly contradicted the providers who claimed to have provided food at their schools. One provider could not remember the name of the school where he said he had provided food, or the number of pupils involved, or what had been on the menu.
Last week, the KZN education department told the Mail & Guardian that there had been no irregularities in the tender process, that legal challenges would not interrupt feeding, and that not a single school would go hungry.
“We are going to see to it that all schools are feeding,” department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said. He also described the new school feeding tender as an example of radical transformation and said it represented a new era of stability and certainty.
Told on Monday there at least 50 schools had received no food (with an average of around 1 000 pupils each), Mahlambi said via SMS: “We are surprised that [you] have [reduced] the number so drastically because on Friday you wrote than 1 848 schools will go hungry on Monday.”
The M&G had, in fact, reported that tens of thousands of children children were at risk of going hungry.
After publication of this article, KZN department of education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said via SMS that the department knew what it was doing when it promised that no school would go hungry “because we run and manage the department with all her systems.”
Mahlambi said the department was “very happy that we started very well on the first day” of the new system, and that it had received no reports at all of schools going hungry.
Asked if the department disputed the reports by its own principals and service providers, and whether the department had made any efforts to monitor food provision on Monday, Mahlambi said such questions had been “covered by” a previous SMS.
They had not.