The country’s social fibre is under strain and one cannot help but feel that something will have to give. (David Harrison/M&G)
The scene of children, seated on the grass in strict rows two metres apart, is unusual. At any other time, it would be a chaotic mess of jumping, screaming, jostling and playing.
But these children in Lavender Hill, Cape Town, appreciate the gravity of the time they’re living in.
They’re waiting to collect what could be, for most of them, their only meal of the day.
For many, their school — which is closed because of the lockdown — is their only access to at least one square meal a day by the government-subsidised National School Nutrition Programme.
The programme feeds about nine million schoolchildren a year.
Lockdown also means that for many of their parents who are not deemed essential workers, the no-work, no-pay principle applies.
These are desperate times. And it’s a scenario that is replicated in almost every corner of the country.
State organs are helping, but it’s left to community-based organisations to be in touch and gauge how much is needed at street level.
“When we heard that we were going to have a lockdown, our concerns were that the feeding programmes attached to schools would be closed. More than half of the children from our communities are dependent on the scheme,” says Lucinda Evans, director at Philisa Abafazi Bethu, a women’s and children’s rights nongovernmental organisation.
Donations have helped. Every rand and every tin of beans or corned meat is welcomed and used because every day more and more children show up to be fed.
“We need to do a ‘Jesus’ in those pots. We need to try and multiply this food to feed as many kids. I’ve been looking for pilchards all week. We need to cook a protein base and it is expensive.
“In the Overcome informal settlement, there are a few children with TB [tuberculosis]. In Rondevlei there are quite a few older persons who need help. So we need nourishing food,” Evans says.
There are, however, strict protocols as to how the food is supplied and is distributed.
That is why the children are made to sit down, with clear physical distancing space between them, in a bid to curb any possible spread of the coronavirus.
There can be no jostling. One child is fed at a time.
“We’ve asked the South African Red Cross to drive with us so that we stay within the parameters of the law. We’ve asked our co-ordinators to ensure that social distancing is an imperative; we don’t want to be closed down,” says Evans.
Providers of meals have a tough choice to make, feed the children or feed no one at all, as hungry adults also hold out for food.
So far, there have been no problems with grown-ups hampering the food distribution. But there are concerns that if the lockdown continues beyond the 21 days, there will be a scramble for food by adults.
“I’ve warned the community leaders we may have fights with adults. There are adults who are going to be selfish who are going to take food that is meant for a child. My mandate is to feed children, it’s not to feed an adult. Many parents will send the child out to get food and bring it home, but we want the child to eat there where we serve,” she says.