A healthy nation is a wealthy nation, and a developing one such as ours must ensure that there are no obstacles in its growth path. It is therefore concerning that, like his predecessor Tito Mboweni, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana has not considered the reduction of stunting as a priority in the budget that he tabled in parliament this week.
Stunting, which affects as many as a quarter of children under five in South Africa, threatens to exacerbate the “triple challenge” of unemployment, poverty and inequality that the government promises to eradicate every year. This condition, that arises from chronic malnutrition in pregnancy and the early years of life, undermines our ability as a nation to “create a better life for all” by stunting children’s ability to learn, secure an income in adulthood and participate as productive members of South Africa’s economy.
A study conducted in 2021 by Grow Great, in partnership with Stellenbosch University and Embrace Movement for Mothers, found that pregnant women living in disadvantaged communities in the Western Cape were going hungry and were experiencing poor mental health and economic insecurity. Of the 2618 women surveyed, 71% were unemployed, 39% reported going hungry at least once in the previous week and 61% reported feeling “down, depressed or hopeless to some degree in the past week”.
Such challenges impact maternal and child health negatively. Without safe, diverse and healthy foods, unborn babies are deprived of the macro and micronutrients necessary for healthy growth and development. They start their lives shortchanged, burdened with ill health and a brain deprived of necessary nutrients for full cognitive development. They go on to struggle with educational attainment, are less likely to secure employment in adulthood and are more likely to be trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty, compared to their non-stunted counterparts.
Minister Godongwana, extending the child support grant into pregnancy (ie, the maternal support grant) is estimated to cost us only 1.2% of the total grant budget for 2021-22. This is a small ask considering the massive return on investment.
In your speech, Minister, you remark that you have the tough challenge of striking a balance between saving lives and livelihoods while supporting inclusive growth. Here we present you with a strategy that does both.