/ 17 October 2023

Child deaths reveal neglect of townships

Sozama Pre School
Nombulelo Gladys Mbande, 55, who is responsible for the nursery at Sozama Pre-school in KwaNobuhle township, Kariega, plays with children outside the building. The school is located opposite a dumping site where residents throw rubbish, dead-dogs and nappies.

South African townships have turned into dangerous dumping zones as a result of high levels of poverty and unemployment. Over the past few months, there has been a growing concern over the number of child deaths, with the most recent ones being of three innocent children as a result of what the public (allegedly) believes is associated with foreign national-owned spaza shops selling poisonous food to their communities. 

Multiple attempts have been made to invoke xenophobia through this incident instead of addressing the big elephant in the room which points to the country’s socio-economic issues which have contributed a great deal to the poor being unable to afford basic needs such as nutrition due to the privatisation of healthy and nutritious food, making it almost impossible to be accessible. 

Moreover, the issue gets worsened by the organisation of townships where people have no access  to land for subsistence farming. Instead of ensuring that ordinary citizens have self-reliance through land ownership, our government has opted for black South Africans to rely on massive roll-outs of social grants that do not even cover their basic needs, especially in the growing economic crisis nationally and globally. 

These social grants only trap black poverty. This leaves room for victims of poverty to be exploited through goods not safe for consumption. Secondly, no control measures are taken for goods that enter these communities for consumption which has resulted in the death of three innocent children. 

This continues to happen despite South Africa being among the countries with the most highly paid government officials and high numbers of ward councillors, yet the poorest and most overpopulated communities in the country continue to find themselves isolated and vulnerable to criminal activities in their communities. 

This time around, matters have escalated in townships as children have become a huge target to further destroy the black society.  

The outcome of the crisis of unemployment continues to reveal itself through the growing number of South Africans and foreign nationals who have resorted to the ownership of spaza shops for employment due to the economic crisis. 

Spaza shops cater to township communities and in a nutshell act as a convenient store for people who fall in the category of either not having the means to go all the way to urban grocery stores or those who cannot afford market-priced goods. 

Mamokete Matjomane (2019) in her Politics and Community-Based research based on the society in Johannesburg further enhances one’s understanding of what a spaza shop is by stating that these types of shops are usually run from a room in a house, stand-alone building, or a lightweight structure or on  the edge of a property.

Spaza shops also form part of the informal sector and have contributed a great  deal to black entrepreneurship and putting food on the table in black households for many years in the country. However, the downside of spaza shops being in the informal sector in most recent times has been the lack of regulation on the quality of goods and services that they provide to communities.  

Furthermore, this has also enabled the marketing of illegal and dangerous products, especially to minors at the cheapest price which is usually at the cost of people’s lives since some of the products are not suitable for human consumption. These are some of the effects of the horrendous socio-economic crisis which entail poverty, unemployment, and poor governance. 

Additionally, these spaza shops are run in a way that also benefits the owners in terms of supplier costs. Therefore, the cycle of “the cheaper the supply, the more profit can be made,” whilst consumers on the other hand also operate with the same mentality of “the cheaper the product, the more money they are able to ‘save’ to take care of their households” with the little money that they have (if any). 

This forms part of the cycle of survival in poor areas of the country. On the other hand, bigger and more well-known brands also form part of the problem as they, at times, are guilty of also dumping expired goods to get rid of them in poor communities. Spaza shop owners in this regard can only be blamed for this growing concern only to a certain extent. 

On that account, this calls for serious government intervention in matters pertaining to the reinstating of the quality of life in townships. Previously, the government had introduced and implemented by-laws for licensing spaza shops regardless of whether the owner was South African or non-South African. 

These by-laws have been criticised for protecting municipalities instead of empowering communities. Secondly, the government has been pushing the agenda of having stricter measures be taken on the South African border (as suggested by Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi).  

However, this becomes contradictory when analysing the government’s plans towards 2030. For example, even though the national government acknowledges the importance of the informal sector (which entails informal trade) by stating that it be given room to develop and flourish, the government’s actions however, are rather contradictory to this considering the inhumane conditions of people who reside in township areas that are most luckily to rely on informal businesses for the provision of basic food items and those who own informal businesses for survival. 

If township areas continue to remain neglected, how exactly does the government plan to execute the National Development Plan to ensure that there is indeed an improvement in the quality of life of the most vulnerable people in the country? As long as previously disadvantaged areas of the country remain neglected, the government’s plan of expecting the informal sector to create between 1.2 and 2 million new jobs by 2030, falls flat.  

Lastly, it is very concerning that the quality of life of poor South Africans over the past 30 years continues to be ignored regardless of multiple policies constantly being created only to be ignored or taken lightly by the state. Incidents such as not only the food poisoning incident but the overall worsening socio-economic conditions in townships prove just that. 

Although the government still has a long way to go to transform these previously disadvantaged communities, one of the best steps to take moving forward from this incident would be for immediate government intervention in facilitating and supporting the policies it keeps providing. 

This should also be done to ensure that regulatory policy is centred around developing not only the environment but also informal trade. It is in this regard that there is also a need for the re-evaluation of the existing by-laws in order to ensure that they have an empowering nature on society.  

Oyisa Sondlo is a Ph.D sociology candidate at the University of the Free State and an Intern at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).