/ 18 February 2021

South African children suffer the ‘slow violence of malnutrition’

Undernourished: Children get a meal at a school in Eastern Cape
If there is just one outcome from the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa that could be considered positive, it is this: for perhaps the first time, the reality of household hunger and malnutrition has become visible to policymakers. (Madelene Cronje)

South Africa has a “double burden of malnutrition”. One in four children — 27% — under the age of five is stunted and, in stark contrast, one in eight is overweight. Severe acute malnutrition is one of the three leading causes of child deaths, and the number of stunted and overweight children is increasing.

The Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town released its South African Child Gauge 2020 review on Thursday, which highlights the severe circumstances and rights violation of children. 

Under the theme, The Slow Violence of Malnutrition, the co-writer of the annual report, Julian May, says “it slowly eats away at children’s potential, eroding their physical health and cognitive development and undermining their education and economic prospects — and it drives an intergenerational cycle of poverty, malnutrition and ill-health that comes at a huge cost for individual children, their families and the South African economy”.

Chronic undernutrition cannot be placed at the doorstep of Covid-19, because this phenomenon is not new. 

“The slow violence has been very much with us. Already in 1999 we already knew stunting was a problem affecting 25% of our children. In 20 years we have not been able to change that statistic, which now stands at 27%,” says co-writer Chantell Witten. 

State on chronic malnutrition

Children’s rights activist Robyn Wolfson Vorster argued in a Daily Maverick opinion piece that despite the country’s ratification of numerous treaties and development instruments, children don’t appear to be a national developmental priority.

Lori Lake, communication and education specialist at the Children’s Institute, says “collective action from a range of government departments, civil society and the private sector” is needed to address children’s health.

“The National Food and Nutrition Security Council first gazetted in 2014 needs to be established as a matter of urgency to provide political leadership at the highest level in the presidency with the authority to hold government departments accountable and to drive concerted and consolidated action for children across a range of sectors from health, education and social development to trade and industry,” says Lake. 

Less than 10% of children benefit from the Early Childhood Development subsidy of R15 a child a day.

And the efficacy of the National School Nutrition Programme was severely criticised when it failed to deliver food to more than nine million learners in 2020. It took a court order at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to compel the department of basic education to provide food to all learners. Witten says that should South Africa follow the global prediction, acute malnutrition will increase and the country needs to be prepared for it.