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Sona 21: Malnutrition, Mr President, should be a ‘foremost, overriding priority’

The 2021 State of the Nation address followed a year of great loss in South Africa. As Covid-19 swept through the country, countless families lost not only their loved ones, but also their means of survival. 

And, as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the economy, the country and its people will continue to feel its influence in the coming years if the government does not act quickly to mitigate its effects on lives and livelihoods.

Research suggests that 15% of children go to bed hungry and that almost half of households run out of money for food during the course of a month. How then are malnutrition and food security not among President Cyril Ramaphosa and the country’s “foremost, overriding priorities of 2021”?

Even before Covid-19, the nutritional status of a large proportion of South African families was very fragile. A quarter of the country’s children younger than five years old suffer from stunting because of chronic malnutrition. This has detrimental long-term consequences for children’s health, education and economic prospects throughout the course of their lives. One-third of pregnant women live in households that run out of money for food, and more than 60% of mothers of young children live below the upper-bound poverty line. 

Interventions such as the child support grant have helped to keep severe malnutrition at bay, but the 2020 National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey suggests that Covid-19 has made a very bad situation a whole lot worse, threatening to reverse the gains made in child hunger over the past decade.

As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on our health system, as well as on our economy, the effects of the high levels of food insecurity experienced during this time will be felt for years to come. Not only will the increased level of stunting stunt the health and wellbeing of our country’s children, it will also harm their education and employment prospects and, inevitably, our country’s economy.

It is simply not enough to have big plans for the nation while our people have grown even more desperate over the past year. Families are going hungry as we speak: they cannot wait for the economy to turn around. For our country to recover, our government must address our high levels of malnutrition; doing so should be one of our “foremost, overriding priorities of 2021”.

The special Covid-19 social relief of distress grants played an important role in alleviating the shock that many people experienced during the hard lockdown. However, we are not out of the woods yet — not even close. We cannot take our foot off the pedal in ensuring that the lives of current and future generations of children are protected from chronic malnutrition: a three-month extension of the R350 grant alone is not sufficient to change the stunting levels in our country.

What we need now is action: not just to restore what has been lost, but to lay a path to success for future generations. Implementing the long-term provision of income support to poor and vulnerable pregnant women through an extension of the child support grant would be a good place to start. 

Mr President, that new foundation you speak of, will not hold if you do not address our country’s high (and likely rising) levels of chronic malnutrition. 

You quoted Nelson Mandela saying: “To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive.” What generations to come will not forgive is us short-changing their futures by failing to ensure we do our best to eradicate chronic malnutrition. 

You missed yesterday’s opportunity, but you can and must still act.

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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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