Political parties fail to address nutritional stunting

COMMENT

With less than two months before the general elections, all the major political parties — the ANC, the Democratic Alliance, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Congress of the People (Cope) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) — have all made big promises. Their manifestos are intended to touch the hearts of potential voters by speaking to their most basic needs, which, for half of all South Africans, are persistently high levels of poverty and inequality.

Party leaders promise jobs growth, access to free education and better healthcare, yet not one of them recognises nutritional stunting, which is the biggest risk to future prosperity.

Stunting is the impairment in physical and cognitive development as a result of chronic undernutrition. Factors associated with stunting include the mother herself being stunted, and poor sanitation and contamination of drinking water. Stunting not only affects individuals but damages our country’s economic growth. Stunted children are less likely to finish school and are more likely to be poor and unemployed as adults, perpetuating intergenerational cycles of poverty

Statistically, just under 3% of children under the age of five should fall below the cut-off line that defines shortness-for-age. These children can be regarded as “normally short”. When more than 3% of children fall below that line, the country has a stunting problem. In South Africa, more than a quarter (27%) of children under five fall below the line. That’s a big problem, far bigger than comparable countries such as Brazil (7%), Senegal (19%) and Ghana (19%).

The reason stunting doesn’t feature on the political radar is that it is difficult to see. If a politician looks across an audience, he or she won’t be able to tell the difference between those people who are normally short and those who are stunted. But an astute politician will try to understand the picture for the nation as a whole.

The governing ANC has consistently made promises to lift millions of citizens out of the “triple challenges” of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Other parties have used similar campaign messaging to woo voters. But the triple challenges won’t go away if they are not pulled up by their roots and there is nothing more fundamental than ensuring that children are well nourished.

At his party’s manifesto launch in early February, EFF leader Julius Malema made much of his party’s commitment to education for all young South Africans, should it come to power. Under an EFF government, Malema said, there would be no excuse for a child not going to school because education would be free for all. But what good is free education if a quarter of our children are not able to learn properly?

The DA titled its programme the “Manifesto for Change”. The official opposition vowed to prioritise economic growth and jobs, among other things, should it govern. The party makes some interesting proposals to encourage companies to create jobs. But job creation on its own is unlikely to drive improvements in national productivity if young people lack the physiological capital to work effectively. It should be remembered that the big gains in human productivity in countries of the North were associated with improvements in access to nutritious food. A more recent series of longitudinal studies in five developing countries found that a strong predictor of adult human capital was height at two years of age.

The last of the major parties to launch their manifestos were Cope and the IFP, and they also neglected to mention the challenge of stunting our country faces. The IFP themed their manifesto launch “Trust Us”. IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi said his party would focus on improving healthcare and education, fighting crime and reducing unemployment, among other issues. He said they could be trusted to deliver on these promises and rebuild the economy. What the country needs to know, however, is: Because stunting is at the root of all these issues, can they be trusted to tackle it head-on?

As far as nutrition is concerned, Buthelezi said his party would advocate free nutrition schemes in all public schools. Although this is commendable, it would not help much to curb stunting because proper nutrition must be introduced in the first 1 000 days of a child’s life.

Cope’s manifesto is as ambitious as those of its counterparts. Among its key goals is the pursuit of a “world-class education system and superior skills development to meet the demands of the fourth industrial revolution”. Now, as forward-thinking as that may sound, efforts to benefit from the fourth industrial revolution would be futile if so many young people are to be left behind as a consequence of stunting.

Countries that have successfully reduced stunting have done so because political leaders prioritised the issue and drove co-ordinated interventions to target women of reproductive age and children under five years of age. Take Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme, which, among other interventions, provides income support to pregnant women to enable them to access antenatal services and good nutrition during pregnancy. This programme is believed to have contributed to the sharp decline in stunting in Brazil between 1995 and 2006 as well as associated reductions in poverty and inequality.

As countries grow, so should their people. All of South Africa’s largest parties missed a golden opportunity to shine a light on what is not only one of our biggest problems, but also one of our biggest opportunities for education, economic growth and development. Stunting, as has been demonstrated in Brazil, can be beaten — and doing so would help to optimise all our other investments in basic and higher education, health and youth unemployment. By not doing so, we rob our children and our country of reaching its full potential.

To the ANC, the DA, the EFF, the IFP and Cope: if you are serious about seeking to improve the lives of South Africans, you need to face up to nutritional stunting.

Ofentse Mboweni is the communications officer for the Grow Great campaign, which seeks to mobilise South Africa towards a national commitment to zero stunting by 2030

Ofentse Mboweni
Ofentse Mboweni

Ofentse Mboweni is the online night editor at the Mail & Guardian. He has a keen interest in South African politics and history, is an avid reader and loves anything to do with good hip-hop music, literature and afrofuturism. Described as a "blerd" and postmodernist by some, he prefers being called OJ.

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